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Private Screenings: Robert Osborne
Remind Me

The Third Man

The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed's classic tale of post-war friendship and comeuppance, is so uniquely stylized, it would seem that Reed was in complete control of the picture from beginning to end. But dealing with producer David O. Selznick was something of a wrestling match for Reed. And Orson Welles, who eventually stole the show and entered yet another realm of movie history as a memorably suave villain, purposefully turned the casting process into a cheeky game of cross-country cat and mouse.

Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, a two-bit American novelist who travels to Vienna, where his old friend, Harry Lime (Welles), has offered him a job. Holly arrives to find that Harry has died in a car accident. At the funeral, Holly meets Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), a military officer who informs him that Lime was actually a thief and murderer who had done brisk business selling tainted, often deadly penicillin on the black market.

Eventually, Holly will unexpectedly discover that Harry isn't really dead, and that he suffers no guilt at all for having killed innocent people in the name of money. This forces Holly to make a choice between protecting his old friend and helping the police take him down for his vile crimes.

The Third Man's legendary finale, a nail-biting chase through Vienna's massive sewer system, is one of the great sequences in film history, and absolutely shouldn't be missed. But Welles' performance is also a mini-marvel, Graham Greene's sly dialogue crackles, Anton Karas' strangely incongruous (and equally effective) zither music casts a mesmerizing spell, and Reed's final shot is an audacious jaw-dropper. You could argue that this immensely entertaining, if occasionally too self-conscious, picture is the best British film of the 1940s.

Still, the movie's beginnings were simple enough. Reed and Greene, who had recently enjoyed great success with a picture called The Fallen Idol (1948), were contemplating another project when they had dinner with producer Alexander Korda. During dinner, Greene showed Korda a brief paragraph he had written that began, "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand." On that intriguing concept alone, Korda hired Greene to write another screenplay for Reed. Greene then left for Vienna, and scripted The Third Man in about eight weeks.

Korda insisted that the story take place in Vienna, where four political powers ­ America, Russia, England, and France ­ were then overseeing a rather corrupt post-war environment. He felt that this location would draw big-name American movie stars, which would give the British production a leg-up in finding a U.S. audience. Korda's game plan obviously worked, as the film became a major hit all over the world.

While searching for inspiration in Vienna, Greene had a fortuitous conversation with a friend who described a literal "underground police" department that patrolled the city's sewers, looking for shady types who were trying to pass from one Allied checkpoint to another without the proper papers. This tidbit triggered Greene's imagination, and led to Lime's final bid for freedom beneath the cobblestone streets.

In Greene's initial treatment for the script, Lime was described with a degree of detail that all but cried out "Orson Welles." "The picture I have of him on my files is an excellent one," he wrote. "He is caught by a street photographer with his stocky legs apart, big shoulders a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, on his face a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world's day."

Unfortunately, Selznick, the film's American co-producer, had been driving Reed and Greene crazy with inappropriate suggestions, and offered what he considered to be a brilliant casting choice for Lime - none other than Noel Coward! How Selznick came to the conclusion that the delicate, angular playwright (who rarely acted) was their man is anyone's guess, but Reed wisely held out until Welles was approved.

Welles, however, knew that he was perfect for the role, and gleefully grabbed the chance to exact some revenge on Korda, who had repeatedly offered financing for Welles' beloved film projects, only to withdraw it at the last minute. For instance, in 1948 Welles was already building sets and carrying around a makeup case full of false noses when Korda pulled the plug on their planned Cyrano de Bergerac collaboration. "My whole time with Alex was things like that," Welles once said. "I kept doing projects for him which I did not abandon, but which he did."

So Welles gave Korda the run-around...literally. At the time, Welles was in Europe shooting a few scenes for his long-time-coming adaptation of Othello (1952). Korda sent his brother, Vincent, to Rome to try to find him and get him to sign a contract. Over the course of the next week, Welles stayed one step ahead of the Korda boys, picking up and moving to a new locale each time he was almost in their grasp. Vincent ended up traveling to Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, and Capri before his quarry finally allowed himself to be captured in Nice. "I knew I was going to do it," Welles later said, "but I was going to make it just as unpleasant as possible."

On the way back to London via a privately chartered plane, Welles played one final, brilliant prank on Alexander Korda. Vincent asked him to hold a basket of fruit that he had gathered for his brother during the pursuit. This was post-war Europe, so fresh fruit was an exceedingly rare item. "It was going to be offered as a great present," Welles said. "He'd gone and picked each piece of fruit. It was too good to be true! I knew Alex wouldn't touch any of it if it had been bitten into." So, when Vincent was asleep, Welles carefully took a bite out of each piece.

Director: Carol Reed
Producers: David O. Selznick, Alexander Korda, and Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter
Music Composer: Anton Karas
Production Design: Joseph Bato, John Hawkesworth, and Vincent Korda
Set Design: John Hawkesworth
Principal Cast: Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Maj. Calloway), Paul Hoerbiger (Porter), Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine), Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel).
BW-105m. Closed captioning.

by Paul Tatara


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