9: THE THIRD MAN : 1949. Director: Carol Reed. UK.
Crime thriller. Orson Welles. Trevor Howard. Joseph Cotten.
Alida Valli. Wilfred Hyde-White.
Adapted from an original Graham Greene idea with extensive contributions by Carol Reed, this has to be the best example of British film noir ever – ironically not set in Britain, but in late-1940s, post-war Vienna, still divided and under Allied and Russian occupation. Once again we have the happy harmony of director, script, camerawork, musical score, and the perfect cast, together with the added authenticity of much of it actually being filmed on location, making it a perfect time-capsule of what was a bleak and rather terrible time and place. It belongs to those movies that should forever exist in black and white – like The Maltese Falcon, or Kiss Me Deadly, or Psycho. Even better, this is a movie set in post-war Europe where the Austrians speak German and the Russians speak Russian, giving it that extra grain of truth. Reputedly, when Carol Reed and Graham Greene were asked by producer Alexander Korda to come up with a story, Greene remembered a single introductory sentence he had written years before of a man named as ‘Harry’, seeming come back from the dead. It was to be the basis of the story of Harry Lime, in the movie, the mysterious ‘third man’ after a supposed fatal traffic accident in Vienna. The rest is history. Greene wrote the draft, although Carol Reed (supported by studio boss David O. Selznick) insisted on the more downbeat ending, rather than a happy ‘Anna and Holly’ one. There were other changes along the way – all for the betterment of the final movie – the original narrator was to be Major Calloway; Harry Lime was to be English; Martins first name was Rollo rather than Holly. Movie legend attributed more influence to Orson Welles, who was initially rather reluctant at the comparative small physical presence he had, but while he apparently did add the famous speech comparing Borgia Italy with Switzerland, many years later, when asked by Peter Bogdanovich, he conceded his input was “minimal”, and “it was Carol’s picture.” Probably the best movies – like the best books or stories in general – are big on small things. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca operate as a snapshot of ordinary, otherwise quite insignificant, people whose personal stories we view briefly within a greater setting or events. They have no influence or control over this bigger world, whether it be 1940s San Francisco, a Vichy enclave in World War II North Africa, or the ruined, military zones of 1949 Vienna. At the end of the story this greater world is the same as it was at the beginning. No wrongs have been righted, no tyrants toppled, no earth-shattering events written into the history books. They, like us, are the little people. This is their story.
All of the key dramatis personae were played by actors at the top of their game. Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) played Holly Martins, the somewhat naïve American “writer of hack westerns”, and Harry Lime’s friend. In real life he had been Orson Welles’ friend since 1934, and appeared in several of Welles’ classics, Citizen Kane (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Journey into Fear (1943). He was another Hollywood star who had cut his acting teeth on Broadway, moving from theatre to modelling (when work dried up), to radio work, to a movie career from 1930 to 1981. Welles apparently rated him as a great comic actor. Here he plays a simple, decent man increasingly out of his safety zone. English actor Trevor Howard (1913-1988, born Trevor Wallace Howard-Smith), was best known for his leading role in another British classic, the 1945 David Lean movie Brief Encounter, but he is perfect in the role of British Army military policeman Major Calloway. Another actor originally from a theatrical background, his overall film list is impressive, many of which are in military roles. Howard’s own military service, with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War, was less outstanding, however. Contrary to his, and the studio PR accounts, he was discharged in 1943 for “mental instability” and having a “psychopathic personality”. Never mind, his Major Calloway is intelligent, shrewd, determined and professional.
Refugee Anna Schmidt, with her forged passport, hopelessly in love with Harry Lime, was played by Italian actress and singer Alida Valli, aka the Baroness Alida Maria Altenburger von Marchenstein-Frauenberg (1921-2006), a quiet, but dignified role. At least one critic, reviewing her overall career from 1936 to 2002, said she was the only actress to equal Dietrich or Garbo. Quite an accolade. Finally we have Orson Welles himself (1915-1985), actor, director, screenwriter, producer, equally brilliant in radio, theatre or film, something of a multi-talented genius, larger than life, a true 20th century ‘Renaissance man’, but with a fascination for the darker side of humanity also. This proved ideal for him to play the outwardly charming, but utterly immoral, Harry Lime character. Later the Swiss got upset about his ‘cuckoo-clock’ story, pointing out cuckoo-clocks were made in Bavaria, not Switzerland. Whether it was ab-lib or scripted, Welles’ speech of Harry Lime justifying his indifference to suffering and contempt of the little people, inevitably became the memorable pivotal piece of the story’s character.
British character actor, Wilfred Hyde-White (1903-1991) had the small bit part of Crabbin, who seemingly ‘kidnaps’ Holly to give a speech at their book club. His filmography from 1934 to 1983 is impressive, but he perhaps best known for his role in My Fair Lady (1964).
Again the story is that Carol Reed heard Anton Karas playing the zither in a Viennese wine-garden and was immediately taken by the “jangling melancholy”, which eventually became the memorable sound-track. The zither, from the Greek cithara, is played by plucking or strumming the strings, and is a popular musical instrument found throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia. In consequence of the movie, Karas (1906-1985) found global fame, playing before European royalty, touring North America in 1951, and Japan in 1962, 1969 and 1972, although he had supposedly retired in 1966. He was an unassuming man, who disliked touring and preferred to be home in his native Vienna. Despite his apparent fame, The Third Man theme was a one-hit wonder. Additional music for the movie was by Australian-born composer Hubert Clifford (1904-1959), under the pseudonym Michael Sarsfield. The movie was 108 minutes long, and (according to the-numbers.com) worldwide box office takings was $1,485,311.
There were several adaptions or pre-sequels, Lux Radio Theatre in 1951 (featuring Joseph Cotten) and 1954 (with Ray Milland in the Holly Martins role), and a British radio serial in 1951-52, The Adventures of Harry Lime, by Harry Alan Towers, apparently in collaboration with Graham Greene. Is the USA it was retitled The Lives of Harry Lime. They were a pre-sequel, in a lighter tone than the movie version of Lime, and there would appear to have been 52 episodes, featuring Orson Welles, who claimed (perhaps falsely) to have written at least six episodes – or was it really scripted by a ghost-writer? There was also a television spin-off, 77 episodes from 1959 to 1965, starring Michael Rennie, which may account for my vague childhood memory of the zither theme tune.
The English writer and journalist Graham Greene (1904-1991, born Henry Graham Greene) had already had his novel The Power and the Glory filmed as The Fugitive in 1947, and would go on to see many of his novels adapted into movies, some more than once – Brighton Rock (1947 and 2011); The End of the Affair (1955 and 1999); The Quiet American (1958 and 2002); The Comedians (1967); The Honorary Consul (1983). Having converted from atheism to Catholicism in 1926, the motif running through many of his novels were ambivalent moral and political issues. In his later life he called himself a Catholic agnostic. His writing revolved around travel, thrillers and espionage. He was recruited into MI6 in 1941, and actually personally knew Kim Philby, the Soviet ‘mole’. He resigned in 1944, but travelled extensively, using his experiences as background to his fiction – Serra Leona, Liberia, Mexico, Haiti, the Congo Basin of Africa, Cuba (where he became a friend of Fidel Castro), before moving to the South of France, and finally Switzerland, where he was friends with Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps crucial to his involvement with The Third Man, he was a friend of Michael Korda, brother of Alexander Korda. In 1948 Elizabeth Montague had given him a tour of Vienna, and he had met, and shared stories with, The Times correspondent there, Peter Smolke.
Several years earlier, in August and September 1945, the American-born photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977), in her role as US designated war correspondent for British Vogue magazine, had visited Vienna. Already mentally scarred by her experiences on the frontline, and having witnessed first-hand the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau death-camps, she found Vienna “a city suffering the psychic depression of the conquered and starving…[but still as] Gemütlich as ever [the Viennese] are drunk on music, light frothy music for empty stomachs.” Several of her photographs from this time show rubble-filled streets, and a huge Lenin poster in the Soviet zone, in the Kärntner Strasse. But, on another occasion, she visited a hospital, staffed by nuns, where children were dying for lack of drugs. She wrote: “For an hour I watched a baby die. He was a skinny gladiator. He gasped and fought and struggled for life, and a doctor and a nun and I just stood there and watched…This tiny baby fought for his only possession, life, as if it might be worth anything.” One has to wonder if Graham Greene had read Miller’s article when it was published in Vogue, and if that influence the hospital scene between Calloway and Holly.
My 1988 critical comments were less than favourable, but with subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant combination of acting, story-line (especially Carol Reed’s more downbeat ending, which even Graham Greene agreed was superior), and the authenticity and originality of this little classic. Below, then, are my earlier comments as written 24/02/1988:
I cannot remembering seeing The Third Man (director Carol Reed, 1949) before, but I vaguely recollect a television series and the distinctive theme music. That said, I did not know the story, or that Orson Welles played Harry Lime, or Graham Greene wrote the story. So I watched what is regarded as a classic. Disappointed? Just a little. The setting, the photography, is good, being immediately post-war Vienna. Germans speak German, which adds realism (how I hate it when they all speak perfect ‘Oxford’ English), showing it to be a British film – Hollywood would never have done that, or very few directors. A Graham Greene story should have warned me. I expected the twist; things not to be what they seem. Instead, apart from Lime’s faked death (how come the police never looked at the corpse?) everything is what it seemed. The American ‘Western writer who drinks too much’ is just that. The Czech-German Anna is a Czech-German girl in love with Lime, the crooks are crooks and Lime is the biggest crook of them all, ignoble, callous, ruthless and unlovable, despite the fact we have two people apparently infatuated with him.
Bred on a diet of Len Deighton, I really expected Lime to emerge as a goodie, perhaps masquerading as a crook to flush out the real villains; instead a series of shady, shifty, unlovable characters: the hack writer, the British military policeman, the smooth-talking Russian NKVD colonel, Lime himself. Perhaps the girl Anna was a sad case, forced to see the man she thought she loved die twice. Rates two stars, but predictable and the plot flawed. A good period piece though, but Len Deighton would have made it sing. Thought: did the Greene story influence Deighton’s work? The cast of characters reappear in several of his books, notably in Funeral in Berlin, Game, Set and Match, and even An Expensive Place to Die.