top of page
A natural screen partnership: between takes at Shepperton studios, Orson Welles makes straight man Joseph Cotten laugh. 
Screenshot 2020-10-26 at 08.55.53.png
Screenshot 2020-10-27 at 16.21.27.png

The Third Man: Mixing Fact with Fiction

Essay for StudioCanal 4K Restoration, 2015


Set in a very precise time and place - Vienna under the post-war Occupation of the Four Powers - The Third Man captured the Zeitgeist of a world about to embark on a Cold War that would last more than a generation, yet also achieved a universality that put it beyond time.  Harry Lime’s charismatic evil, Anna’s implacable loyalty, Holly’s Everyman decency - these elemental qualities have rarely been so perfectly stated in the cinema.


It was British film mogul Alexander Korda who in January 1948 suggested that novelist Graham Greene should write an original story with contemporary Vienna as its setting. Korda was looking for a follow-up to The Fallen Idol, on which Greene had recently enjoyed a very successful collaboration with the director Carol Reed. When Greene visited Vienna in February 1948, it was still a malnourished, war-ravaged city.  The story he wrote during the following weeks of racketeer Harry Lime dealing in adulterated penicillin, faking his own death, and slipping between the different occupied zones of the city had many real-life parallels that the newspapers of the time often reported. And there was a strange, continuing relationship between fact and fiction, as the story went on to become a script, which in turn became a film that held up a mirror to its time but also its own making.


In May 1948, Korda agreed a four-picture co-production deal with the Hollywood producer of Gone with the Wind, David Selznick, which stipulated that the first film to be made would be The Third Man. While Korda agreed to provide writer Graham Greene, director Carol Reed and the production team, Selznick’s side of the bargain was to make available his contract stars Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, as well as a large part of the budget. It’s worth stressing the novelty of this arrangement. There had been British pictures with  Hollywood stars before, and Hollywood pictures with British ones, but rarely before had there been a picture that was both British and Hollywood at the same time.


An important incentive for Selznick was the fact that he had wanted to work with the film’s director Carol Reed ever since seeing his Hitchcock-style thriller Night Train to Munich back in 1940. Indeed, he had even offered Reed a Hollywood contract, which Reed turned down, because he had  wanted to stay in Britain to make films that contributed to the war effort.


After the war Reed signed up not for Selznick but for Korda’s relaunched London Film Productions. If the co-production deal still gave Selznick an opportunity at last to participate in a long-sought-after collaboration, it turned out to be a difficult partnership that involved a collision of opposing viewpoints that could never be completely reconciled. With London Films contractually obliged to secure Selznick’s approval of the script, Greene and Reed took part in an exhaustive story conference with Selznick in Hollywood in August 1948, but their assurances that they would listen to Selznick’s ideas were not enough to prevent the atmosphere between the two sides from becoming one of mutual suspicion.  


‘Commencing to worry that Reed may have been yessing me but with no intention of changing [script] to meet my criticisms,’ commented Selznick at the beginning of October, two weeks before shooting was due to start. He felt that the central character of Holly Martins was ‘dull’ and needed to be strengthened.  He objected to a depiction of the Four Power Occupation in which the chief authority seemed to be British. ‘It would be little short of disgraceful on our part as Americans if we tolerated this nonsensical handling of the Four Power Occupation of Vienna,’ he complained. ‘We would be paying a huge sum of money, and supplying our stars, to foist a piece of British propaganda upon the entire world.’ He wanted the American role in the Occupation to feature more prominently, and he insisted that the dialogue of  the American characters be re-written to be more convincingly American.  He worried too about Reed’s intention that Valli should appear in the kind of drab clothes that women actually wore in ration-stricken Vienna, undermining  her glamour as a star. It required Korda’s intervention to reassure him: ‘We do not feel that silks and frills make a woman more attractive than simple clothes especially if the atmosphere demands nothing else. We are convinced that Valli in a macintosh and beret can be as attractive and charming as many stars wearing fashion creations.’ 


Up to the very last moment Selznick continued to bombard Reed with  demands for  script changes. While Reed accommodated them as far as he felt able, his determination, with Korda’s support, ultimately to remain true to a vision that resisted Hollywood’s clear-cut certainties led to an inevitable showdown. Just before he set off for Vienna, Reed met Selznick’s London representative, Jenia Reissar, who gave this account of their conversation: ‘Carol was very nice but he told me that he was getting disheartened and disillusioned; that he had never been so harassed over a script; that he always improved scripts as he went along, although he always started with one that satisfied him… [He] said that he would sooner get right out of the whole thing than have endless trouble on the script. He said he felt now that he would rather make a picture with English artists and be left to his own devices, than have American stars and lose his interest in the film.’


The veiled threat to walk off the picture did not stem the flow of Selznick’s endless memoranda, but it created just enough space for Reed to able to make the film in the way he wanted. 


It is easy to poke fun at Selznick’s heavy-handedness, but it was natural that he should wish to protect his investment. The whole basis of his agreement with Korda was that they would make films that were right for the American market. He was determined that The Third Man should not suffer from the ‘lack of showmanship and entertainment merit’ which he believed accounted for the commercial failure of English pictures in America. 


He underlined the point in one of his internal memoranda to his staff: ‘I do not intend to wind up with characteristically English pictures, even if they are of good quality from a critical and/or English standpoint.’ Only two years before, he pointed out, Carol Reed had made Odd Man Out, which was hailed by critics as one of the greatest films ever made, but at the US box-office barely covered the costs of its distribution.


To a significant degree Selznick served as the grit in the oyster. While Reed was able to fend off the more absurd suggestions, the need to anticipate Selznick’s criticisms focused him on maintaining a narrative drive and clarity that are among the strengths of the film. Perhaps too -  albeit unintentionally - Selznick helped Reed to sharpen a satirical edge: The Third Man is the story of an American who comes to Europe thinking he can find certainty in a place where there are no simple answers. What better model for such a story than a Hollywood mogul, embarking on his first European co-production deal?


A symbiotic relationship between fact and fiction was certainly evident in the roles that the stars played. Joseph Cotten somehow worked all the better as the second-rate writer of Westerns, Holly Martins, because he had been second-best casting. When Korda and Selznick had first agreed the deal, both of them had wanted Cary Grant to play the lead role, but Grant did not like the script. Of possible alternative stars who were discussed, Reed would have preferred James Stewart but settled for Cotten because he was one of Selznick’s contract players. 


There was enough in Cotten’s recent past that made it easy for him him inhabit a character who does not quite make the mark. He had wanted to be the male lead in Notorious, but the part went to Cary Grant instead; likewise, he had wanted to play the leading role in Spellbound that in the end Selznick gave to Gregory Peck. When Cotten’s agents complained about the handling of his career, Selznick produced the figures to show that the only reason why Cotten was a star at all was because he, Selznick, had made him one: ‘Cotten has consistently risen as a star, under our management, from zero all the way up to 39 points in the Gallup poll … From a man regarded by all Hollywood including his own agent as a rather grotesque-looking character man, by my insistence, he has become a romantic idol.’


In Vienna, Martins is constantly at odds and out of step, never able to forget that he is in an alien place where everything seems upside-down. This wasn’t too far away from how Cotten felt himself when he was making the movie. The star complained of an endlessly shifting schedule that he was afraid was going to keep him in Vienna far longer than the two weeks that he had anticipated: ‘This method of making a picture,’ he complained to Selznick executive, Daniel O’Shea, didn’t make him ‘feel at home in a location so far away, so cold and dirty and so uncomfortably occupied by such a variety of peoples.’  


Things were little better when the production finished location shooting in Vienna and moved to Shepperton Studios in England. Although Cotten had a suite at the Savoy Hotel, he found a city still in the grip of post-war austerity that struggled to meet his culinary expectations. ‘The food is here but the cooks are somewhere else!’ As for the progress of the film itself, he was more baffled than encouraged. ‘I can’t tell any more about The Third Man than I can any enterprise that has me so exhausted and interested in the middle. Personally, I feel pretty much of a straight man to a lot of colourful characters, but if the picture is good, and a straight man can hold it together, I’ll be almost completely happy.’ The only thing that Cotten felt certain about was Carol Reed. He called him: ‘one of the really great directors I have observed. He is brilliant and slow, tolerant and stubborn, and working with him is always stimulating and almost always pleasant’.


Of all the colourful characters to whom Cotten provided a ‘straight man’,  the most colourful was Orson Welles. They were a natural screen partnership. They had been close friends since they worked together during the 1930s in Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company, and their on-screen roles as Jed Leland and Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane created an intertextuality from which The Third Man benefited hugely, with its story of Martins attempting to clear his old friend’s name.  


But Welles possessed enough of his own charisma not really to need any foil at all. He had the subversive charm of a genius who paid little regard to other people's rules. One reason for the ‘shifting schedule’ that Cotten complained of was that no one knew for certain whether Welles was going to turn up in Vienna to appear in the film and when he eventually did, he arrived several days late. 


Hollywood’s most famous maverick inhabited Lime perfectly but never ceased to be himself. In real life an accomplished magician with a taste for disappearing tricks, he vanishes into thin air in The Third Man no sooner than he has appeared – only to return in time to steal the limelight with a virtuoso performance, topping all with the famous cuckoo clock speech, which was itself a theft from the painter James Whistler. 


There's a production still from The Third Man that brings out well the double nature of Welles the showman, who did not so much lose himself in a character as take the character over with his larger-than-life personality. Look at the picture once and you see Harry Lime hiding behind a wall in the Viennese sewers, holding a pistol in his hand. Look at it again more closely and you see Orson Welles, brandishing not a pistol but a Havana cigar.


If in the hundredth anniversary of Welles’s birth we cannot doubt that he will be remembered in yet another hundred years’ time, an important part of his celluloid immortality lies in the iconic power of that smile in the doorway dispelling the darkness. The idea of defying death was of course in the very nature of Harry Lime’s return from the dead in The Third Man. Welles liked the idea so much that, even although Lime is sent back to his grave again by the end of the picture, he resurrected him for a successful 1950s radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime. At the beginning of every episode, Welles’s sonorous, intrigue-filled voice announced, ‘That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. How do I know? Because I am Harry Lime!’


Alida Valli’s wartime past in Italy was an excellent preparation for her part of Anna Schmidt, the actress who lives in Vienna on a forged passport provided by her lover Harry. In 1948 it was hardly something that Valli would have wanted to advertise, but it was not the first time that she had had trouble with her papers. Two years before, when she was about to leave Italy to begin her contract with Selznick in Hollywood,  the American consul in Rome refused to give her a visa because of allegations that she had collaborated with the Fascists during the war. There were stories that she had been associated with a well-known gangster who had risen to power during the Nazi occupation, even that she had had an affair with Mussolini. Selznick believed that the charges were malicious rumours and, greatly to his credit, worked hard to establish the truth of accounts that showed how, actually, she had helped the Italian resistance. With all the determination of Holly Martins seeking to clear the name of his old friend, he even hired the former head of American intelligence during the war, General Bill Donovan, to investigate the case on his behalf. 


After many months Valli was eventually granted the visa, but the rumours continued after her arrival in Hollywood. ‘IL DUCE EX-MISTRESS SOUGHT IN LOS ANGELES,’ read a headline in the Los Angeles Examiner on 30 January 1948: ’In Los Angeles or near by tonight a beautiful Italian woman, said to be a former mistress of Benito Mussolini, will be served with a subpoena to tell Congress how she got into the United States. She is said to be connected with motion pictures.’


In Selznick’s archives a cutting of the article was filed away among the correspondence on Valli’s visa difficulties without further comment. The truth of what really happened may be impossible to determine, but The Third Man offers its own comment on the moral confusion that exists in any struggle for survival. ‘I tell you I’ve done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war,’ says Baron Kurtz when Martins tells him of the police’s ‘crazy notion’ that Harry Lime is mixed up in some sort of racket. 


If nearly seventy years on, the film still seems to matter to us, I think that the credit belongs above all to Carol Reed, whom Graham Greene singled out for his ‘warmth of human sympathy’ and ‘extraordinary feeling for the right face for the right part’. When Reed arrived on location in Vienna, he had the skill and confidence not to impose preconceived notions on the town, whether they came from the script or even Selznick’s lengthy memoranda, but instead – receptive to the reality of a place – to allow the town to tell its own story.  


The discovery of the zither music of Anton Karas was an example. The original plan had been for The Third Man to have the usual orchestral score but Reed had only to hear Karas play at a party while he was in Vienna to insist that he contribute to the film. Karas was brought over to London when the film was being edited and, under Reed’s close guidance, composed the music that, almost a character itself, provides a unique, sardonic commentary on the action.


The zither was such a sensation that Karas became known as ‘The Fourth Man’. An unknown Viennese street musician was transformed into the post-war record industry’s first super-star. No one had thought to make any record of the music at all until the film was released,  but within six months of the film’s premiere, at the Plaza Cinema in London on 2 September 1949, there were seventeen different cover versions of the Harry Lime theme tune. Reed arranged for Karas to go to the United States to promote the American release. He gave him instructions upon arrival to hand the following note to David Selznick: ‘Here is Tony Karas. He speaks no English. You will get to know him best by making a sign you would like to hear him play at once. Listen for a moment and you will know each other.’


The Third Man received near unanimous praise. Two weeks after its opening in London, it appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the first ever overall Grand Prix. The newspaper France-Soir, which devoted a special issue to its victory, commented that ‘on both the artistic and technical level, it is a perfect film’. 


Selznick called it  ‘the biggest picture since Gone with the Wind’, but his efforts to repeat its European success in the United States suffered a massive setback when, at the end of October 1949, he fell out with his co-producer Alexander Korda,  who only weeks before the film’s US opening refused to deliver the negative and demanded a participation in the US  gross of the film.  


The only surprise was that the quarrel hadn’t happened sooner. Selznick’s abrasive, hard-bargaining style, in which every point of an agreement was  pursued in relentless detail, was at odds with Korda’s much more flexible concept of business, which allowed contractual understandings to evolve with changing circumstances far beyond the way in which they might originally have been fixed on paper.  The last straw had been when Selznick refused to include Korda’s name in the advertising for the American release of the film. Selznick might have had the contractual right to do this, but it took no account of the fact that Korda had just played a significant part in creating a jewel that was beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. It was this lack of grace that finally exhausted Korda’s patience.


Carol Reed, drawing on all his considerable skill of handling temperamental artists, did his best to encourage a reconciliation between the two moguls, but to little avail.  He wrote to Selznick: ‘Whatever difficulties you may have I pray that the picture will appear in America under the best possible conditions and I assure you that Korda has the success of the picture just as much at heart as you or me. My only hope is that you two will settle your differences as I cannot believe that either you or Korda are one hundred per cent right against each other.’ But it really wasn’t in Selznick's nature to look for the middle ground. He answered: ‘I can understand your feeling that there must be two sides to any dispute but please take my word for it that in the case of Third Man by Korda’s own admissions there is only one side and that is ours.’


The lengthy litigation that followed forced Selznick to  delay the American release of the film.  His original plan had been to release it in Los Angeles on 23 November 1949 so that it would qualify among the best films of 1949 in time for the Academy Awards ceremony of March 1950. Instead, the dispute pushed back the US opening to February 1950, so that the film missed the Academy deadline for 1949, and by the time the next award ceremony was held, in March 1951, most people had lost sight of The Third Man as a 1950 picture. The result was that a film that had seemed a strong favourite for an Academy award for Best Director and Best Picture wasn’t even nominated in these categories, winning only one Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography.


Carol Reed would win a Best Director Oscar for Oliver! nearly twenty years later. But it was nowhere near comparable to the achievement of The Third Man, which unquestionably marked the height of his long career.  After the death in 1956 of Alexander Korda, who had seemed best able to guide him, Reed was increasingly out of step with contemporary tastes.  His direction in 1959 of Our Man in Havana marked a successful renewal of his partnership with Graham Greene, but it seemed a very old-fashioned film in the year that Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups helped to launch the French New Wave upon the world.


Ironically, things might have been different had Reed listened to David Selznick, with whom he had remained on friendly terms. Only a year before, in 1958, Selznick had suggested that Reed and Greene consider working together on the screenplay of a new spy novel. With the hindsight of what we know now, there is a poignancy to Reed’s answer, offering an example of a film-maker missing the Zeitgeist as spectacularly as he had once captured it:


I had already read FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, but after your cable made sure of reading it again. I suppose there is a movie in this sort of story, but in my opinion only a very cheap one and I don’t think that a creative writer of the category of Graham Greene could be bothered with it. The novel has had some sort of success here, particularly with teenagers and I do believe it is now about to be serialised in a popular daily paper in comic strips … I am probably wrong about all this but I cannot get sufficiently excited to write enthusiastically.

© Studiocanal, 2015.

bottom of page