The Third Man
The Third Man is a 1949 British film noir directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene, and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. The film is set in post–World War II Vienna. It centres on Holly Martins, an American who is given a job in Vienna by his friend Harry Lime, but when Holly arrives in Vienna he gets the news that Lime is dead. Martins then meets with Lime's acquaintances in an attempt to investigate what he considers a suspicious death.
|The Third Man|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Carol Reed|
|Screenplay by||Graham Greene|
|Music by||Anton Karas|
|Edited by||Oswald Hafenrichter|
|Box office||£277,549 (UK)|
The atmospheric use of black-and-white expressionist cinematography by Robert Krasker, with harsh lighting and distorted "Dutch angle" camera technique, is a major feature of The Third Man. Combined with the iconic theme music, seedy locations and acclaimed performances from the cast, the style evokes the atmosphere of an exhausted, cynical post-war Vienna at the start of the Cold War.
Greene wrote the novella of the same name as preparation for the screenplay. Anton Karas wrote and performed the score, which featured only the zither. The title music "The Third Man Theme" topped the international music charts in 1950, bringing the previously unknown performer international fame; the theme would also inspire Nino Rota's principal melody in La Dolce Vita (1960). The Third Man is considered one of the greatest films of all time, celebrated for its acting, musical score and atmospheric cinematography.
In 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Third Man the greatest British film of all time. In 2011 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it ranked the second best British film ever.
The American pulp Western writer Holly Martins arrives in post–Second World War Vienna seeking his childhood friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job. Martins is told that Lime was killed by a car while crossing the street. At Lime's funeral, Martins meets two British Royal Military Police: Sergeant Paine, a fan of Martins's books, and his superior, Major Calloway. Afterwards Martins is asked to give a lecture to a book club a few days later. He then meets a friend of Lime's, "Baron" Kurtz, who tells Martins that he and another friend, Popescu, carried Lime to the side of the street after the accident and, before he died, Lime asked them to take care of Martins and Lime's actress girlfriend, Anna Schmidt.
Martins goes to see Anna and becomes suspicious that Lime's death was not an accident. The porter at Lime's apartment building says that Lime was killed immediately and that three men carried the body, not two. Martins and Anna discover that the police are searching her flat; the police confiscate a forged passport and detain her. The next evening Martins visits Lime's "medical adviser", Dr. Winkel, who says that he arrived at the accident after Lime was dead, and only two men were there.
The porter offers to give Martins more information, but someone kills him before Martins can see him. When Martins arrives, the crowd believes that he is involved and becomes hostile. Escaping from them, Martins returns to the hotel, and a cab immediately takes him to the book club, where he makes a poor speech. When Popescu enters, he asks about Martins's next book. Martins says that it will be called The Third Man, "a murder story" inspired by facts. Popescu tells Martins that he should stick to fiction. Martins sees two thugs advancing towards him and flees.
Calloway again advises Martins to leave Vienna, but Martins refuses and demands that Lime's death be investigated. Calloway reveals that Lime's racket was stealing penicillin from military hospitals, diluting it, and selling it on the black market, leading to many deaths. Martins, convinced, agrees to leave.
Martins learns that Anna too has been told about Lime's crimes and is about to be sent to the Soviet sector. Leaving her apartment, Martins notices someone watching from a dark doorway. A shaft of light reveals the person to be Lime, who flees, ignoring Martins's calls, and vanishes. Martins summons Calloway, who deduces that Lime has escaped through the sewers. The British police exhume Lime's coffin and discover that the body is that of the orderly who stole the penicillin for Lime.
The next day, Martins meets with Lime, and they ride Vienna's Ferris wheel, the Wiener Riesenrad. Lime obliquely threatens Martins, reveals the full extent of his ruthlessness, and then reiterates his job offer before leaving quickly. Calloway then asks Martins to help capture Lime, and Martins agrees, asking for Anna's safe conduct out of Vienna in exchange. However, when Anna learns this, she refuses to leave. Exasperated, Martins decides to leave, but on the way to the airport, Calloway stops at a hospital to show Martins children dying of meningitis that had been treated using Lime's diluted penicillin.
Lime arrives to rendezvous with Martins, but Anna warns him. He tries once again to escape using the sewer tunnels, but the police are there in force. Lime shoots and kills Paine, but Calloway shoots and wounds Lime. Badly injured, Lime drags himself up a ladder to a street grating, but he cannot lift it. Martins then kills him using Paine's revolver. Later, Martins attends Lime's second funeral. At the risk of missing his flight out of Vienna, he waits to speak to Anna, but she ignores him and walks past.
- Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins
- Alida Valli (credited as Valli) as Anna Schmidt
- Orson Welles as Harry Lime
- Trevor Howard as Major Calloway
- Paul Hörbiger as Karl, Lime's porter (credited as Paul Hoerbiger)
- Ernst Deutsch as "Baron" Kurtz
- Erich Ponto as Dr. Winkel
- Siegfried Breuer as Popescu
- Hedwig Bleibtreu as Anna's old landlady
- Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine
- Wilfrid Hyde-White as Crabbin
- Annie Rosar as the porter's wife
- Alexis Chesnakov as Brodsky, Russian official
- Herbert Halbik as Little Hansel - Boy with Ball
- Robert Brown as British Military Policeman in Sewer Chase
- Paul Hardtmuth as the hall porter at Hotel Sacher
- Geoffrey Keen as British Military Policeman
- Eric Pohlmann as waiter at Smolka's
- Reed De Rouen as American Military Policeman at Railroad Station
- Brother Theodore as Man on Street
- Nelly Arno as Kurtz's mother
- Karel Štěpánek as actor at Josefstadt Theatre
- Joseph Cotten as the narrator (pre-1999 US version)
- Carol Reed as the narrator (pre-1999 UK, and all post-'99 versions)
- Charles Winchester as the Thug (Post-1999 UK, and all post-'99 versions)
Before writing the screenplay, Graham Greene worked out the atmosphere, characterisation and mood of the story by writing a novella. He wrote it as a source text for the screenplay and never intended it to be read by the general public, although it was later published under the same name as the film. In 1948 he met Elizabeth Montagu in Vienna. She gave him tours of the city, its sewers and some of its less reputable night-clubs. She also introduced Greene to Peter Smolka, the central European correspondent for The Times. Smolka gave Greene the stories about the black market in Vienna.
The narrator in the novella is Major Calloway, which gives the book a slightly different emphasis from that of the screenplay. A small portion of his narration appears in a modified form at the film's beginning in Reed's voice-over: "I never knew the old Vienna". Other differences include both Martins' and Lime's nationalities; they are English in the book. Martins' given name is Rollo rather than Holly. Popescu's character is an American called Cooler. Crabbin was a single character in the novella. The screenplay's original draft replaced him with two characters, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, but ultimately in the film, as in the novella, Crabbin remains a single character.
There is also a difference of ending. The novella's implies that Anna and Martins are about to begin a new life together, in stark contrast to the unmistakable snub by Anna that closes the film. In the book, Anna does walk away from Lime's grave, but the text continues:
I watched him striding off on his overgrown legs after the girl. He caught her up and they walked side by side. I don't think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm—which is how a story usually begins. He was a very bad shot and a very bad judge of character, but he had a way with Westerns (a trick of tension) and with girls (I wouldn't know what).
During the shooting of the film, the final scene was the subject of a dispute between Greene, who wanted the happy ending of the novella, and Reed and David O. Selznick, who stubbornly refused to end the film on what they felt was an artificially happy note. Greene later wrote: "One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right."
David O. Selznick's contribution, according to himself, was mainly to have provided his actors Cotten and Welles and to have produced the US-version, less to the co-writing of the script with Reed and Greene.
Through the years there was occasional speculation that Welles, rather than Reed, was the de facto director of The Third Man. In film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum's 2007 book Discovering Orson Welles, Rosenbaum calls it a "popular misconception", although Rosenbaum did note that the film "began to echo the Wellesian theme of betrayed male friendship and certain related ideas from Citizen Kane." In the final analysis, Rosenbaum writes, "[Welles] didn't direct anything in the picture; the basics of his shooting and editing style, its music and meaning, are plainly absent. Yet old myths die hard, and some viewers persist in believing otherwise." Welles himself fuelled this theory in a 1958 interview, in which he said that he had had an important role in making The Third Man, but that it was a "delicate matter, because [he] wasn't the producer". However, in a 1967 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles said that his involvement was minimal: "It was Carol's picture". However, Welles did contribute some of the film's best-known dialogue. Bogdanovich also stated in the introduction to the DVD:
However, I think it's important to note that the look of The Third Man—and, in fact, the whole film—would be unthinkable without Citizen Kane, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, all of which Orson made in the '40s, and all of which preceded The Third Man. Carol Reed, I think, was definitely influenced by Orson Welles, the director, from the films he had made.
Six weeks of principal photography was shot on location in Vienna, ending on 11 December 1948. Some use was made of the Sievering Studios facilities in the city. Production then moved to the Worton Hall Studios in Isleworth and Shepperton Studios near London and was completed in March 1949.
The scenes of Harry Lime in the sewer were shot on location or on sets built at Shepperton; most of the location shots used doubles for Welles. However, Reed claimed that, despite initial reluctance, Welles quickly became enthusiastic, and stayed in Vienna to finish the film. The crew sprayed water on the cobbled streets to make them reflect light at night.
According to the recollection of assistant director Guy Hamilton, interviewed in 2015, Greene and Reed worked very well together, but Orson Welles "generally annoyed everyone on the set". His temporary absence forced Hamilton to step in as body double for him. Apparently, the filming of the sewer scenes was moved to studios in the UK as a result of Welles' complaints about shooting in the actual sewers.
"Swiss cuckoo clock" speech
In a famous scene, Lime meets with Martins on the Wiener Riesenrad, the large Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park. Looking down on the people below from his vantage point, Lime compares them to dots, and says that it would be insignificant if one of them or a few of them "stopped moving, forever". Back on the ground, he notes:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Welles added this remark – in the published script, it is in a footnote. Greene wrote in a letter, "What happened was that during the shooting of The Third Man it was found necessary for the timing to insert another sentence." Welles apparently said the lines came from "an old Hungarian play"—in any event the idea is not original to Welles, acknowledged by the phrase "what the fellow said".
The likeliest source is the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In a lecture on art from 1885 (published in Mr Whistler's "Ten O'Clock" ), he said, "The Swiss in their mountains ... What more worthy people! ... yet, the perverse and scornful [goddess, Art] will have none of it, and the sons of patriots are left with the clock that turns the mill, and the sudden cuckoo, with difficulty restrained in its box! For this was Tell a hero! For this did Gessler die!" In a 1916 reminiscence, American painter Theodore Wores said that he "tried to get an acknowledgment from Whistler that San Francisco would some day become a great art center on account of our climatic, scenic and other advantages. 'But environment does not lead to a production of art,' Whistler retorted. 'Consider Switzerland. There the people have everything in the form of natural advantages – mountains, valleys and blue sky. And what have they produced? The cuckoo clock!"
Or it may be that Welles was influenced by Geoffrey Household, who wrote, in 1939, in his novel Rogue Male: "...Swiss. A people, my dear fellow, of quite extraordinary stupidity and immorality. A combination which only a long experience of democratic government could have produced."
This Is Orson Welles (1993) quotes Welles: "When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they've never made any cuckoo clocks," as the clocks are native to the German Black Forest. Writer John McPhee pointed out that when the Borgias flourished in Italy, Switzerland had "the most powerful and feared military force in Europe" and was not the peacefully neutral country it would later become.
The picture demanded music appropriate to post-World War II Vienna, but director Reed had made up his mind to avoid schmaltzy, heavily orchestrated waltzes. In Vienna one night Reed listened to a wine-garden zitherist named Anton Karas, [and] was fascinated by the jangling melancholy of his music.
According to Guy Hamilton, Reed met Karas by coincidence at a party in Vienna, where he was playing the zither. Reed brought Karas to London, where the musician worked with Reed on the score for six weeks. Karas stayed at Reed's house during that time. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed's The Third Man?"
Differences between releases
As the original British release begins, the voice of director Carol Reed (uncredited) describes post-war Vienna from a racketeer's point of view. The version shown in American cinemas cut 11 minutes of footage and replaced Reed's voice-over with narration by Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins. David O. Selznick instituted the replacement because he did not think American audiences would relate to the seedy tone of the original. Today, Reed's original version appears on American DVDs, in showings on Turner Classic Movies, and in US cinema releases, with the eleven minutes of footage restored, including a shot of a near topless dancer in a bar that would have violated the U.S. Code in 1948. Both the Criterion Collection and Studio Canal DVD releases include a comparison of the two opening monologues.
In the United Kingdom, The Third Man was the most popular film at the British box office for 1949. In Austria, "local critics were underwhelmed", and the film ran for only a few weeks. Still, the Viennese Arbeiter-Zeitung, although critical of a "not-too-logical plot", praised the film's "masterful" depiction of a "time out of joint" and the city's atmosphere of "insecurity, poverty and post-war immorality". William Cook, after his 2006 visit to an eight-room museum in Vienna dedicated to the film, wrote "In Britain it's a thriller about friendship and betrayal. In Vienna it's a tragedy about Austria's troubled relationship with its past."
Some critics at the time criticised the film's unusual camera angles. C. A. Lejeune in The Observer described Reed's "habit of printing his scenes askew, with floors sloping at a diagonal and close-ups deliriously tilted" as "most distracting". American director William Wyler, Reed's close friend, sent him a spirit level, with a note saying, "Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?"
Upon its release in Britain and America, the film received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Time magazine wrote that the film was "crammed with cinematic plums that would do the early Hitchcock proud—ingenious twists and turns of plot, subtle detail, full-bodied bit characters, atmospheric backgrounds that become an intrinsic part of the story, a deft commingling of the sinister with the ludicrous, the casual with the bizarre." The New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, after a prefatory qualification that the film was "designed [only] to excite and entertain", wrote that Reed "brilliantly packaged the whole bag of his cinematic tricks, his whole range of inventive genius for making the camera expound. His eminent gifts for compressing a wealth of suggestion in single shots, for building up agonized tension and popping surprises are fully exercised. His devilishly mischievous humor also runs lightly through the film, touching the darker depressions with little glints of the gay or macabre." One very rare exception was the British communist paper Daily Worker (later the Morning Star), which complained that "no effort is spared to make the Soviet authorities as sinister and unsympathetic as possible."
Critics subsequently hailed the film as a masterpiece. Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies" list and wrote, "Of all the movies that I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies." In a special episode of Siskel & Ebert in 1994 discussing film villains, Ebert named Lime as his favorite film villain. Gene Siskel remarked that it was an "exemplary piece of moviemaking, highlighting the ruins of World War II and juxtaposing it with the characters' own damaged histories".
The film has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 77 reviews, with an average rating of 9.3/10 and the following consensus: "This atmospheric thriller is one of the undisputed masterpieces of cinema, and boasts iconic performances from Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles."
"The Third Man Theme" was released as a single in 1949/50 (Decca in the UK, London Records in the US). It became a best-seller; by November 1949, 300,000 records had been sold in Britain, with the teen-aged Princess Margaret a reported fan. Following its release in the US in 1950 (see 1950 in music), "The Third Man Theme" spent 11 weeks at number one on Billboard's US Best Sellers in Stores chart, from 29 April to 8 July. The exposure made Anton Karas an international star, and the trailer for the film stated that "the famous musical score by Anton Karas" would have the audience "in a dither with his zither".
Awards and honours
- Best Director (Carol Reed) - Nominated
- Best Cinematography - Black and White (Robert Krasker) - Won
- Best Film Editing (Oswald Hafenrichter) - Nominated
- Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (Carol Reed) - Won
- Outstanding Directing - Feature Film (Carol Reed) - Nominated
- Top Ten Films - Won
Besides its top ranking in the BFI Top 100 British films list, in 2004 the magazine Total Film ranked it the fourth greatest British film of all time. In 2005, viewers of BBC Television's Newsnight Review voted the film their fourth favourite of all time, the only film in the top five made before 1970.
The film also placed 57th on the American Film Institute's list of top American films in 1998, though the film's only American connections were its executive co-producer David O. Selznick and its actors Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. The other two executive co-producers, Sir Alexander Korda and Carol Reed, were Hungarian and British, respectively. In June 2008, the American Film Institute (AFI) revealed its 10 Top 10—the best 10 films in 10 "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. The Third Man was acknowledged as the fifth best film in the mystery genre. The film also placed 75th on AFI's list of 100 Years...100 Thrills and Harry Lime was listed as 37th villain in 100 Heroes and Villains.
In the United Kingdom, films of this vintage are copyright protected as dramatic works until 70 years after the end of the year in which that last "principal author" died. The principal authors are generally the writer/s, director/s or composer/s of original work, and since in the case of The Third Man Graham Greene died in 1991, the film is protected until the end of 2061.
This film lapsed into public domain in the United States when the copyright was not renewed after David Selznick's death. In 1996, the Uruguay Round Agreements Act restored the film's US copyright protection to StudioCanal Image UK Ltd. The Criterion Collection released a digitally restored DVD of the original British print of the film. In 2008, Criterion released a Blu-ray edition, and in September 2010, Lions Gate reissued the film on Blu-ray.
On 18 January 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled in Golan v. Holder that the copyright clause of the American Constitution does not prevent the US from meeting its treaty obligations towards copyright protection for foreign works. Following the ruling, notable films such as The Third Man and The 39 Steps were taken back out of the public domain and became fully protected under American copyright law. Under current US copyright law, The Third Man remains under copyright until 1 January 2045.
Cotten reprised his role as Holly Martins in the one-hour Theatre Guild on the Air radio adaptation of The Third Man on 7 January 1951. The Third Man was also adapted as a one-hour radio play on two broadcasts of Lux Radio Theatre: on 9 April 1951 with Joseph Cotten reprising his role and on 8 February 1954 with Ray Milland as Martins.
A British radio drama series, The Adventures of Harry Lime (broadcast in the US as The Lives of Harry Lime), created as a "prequel" to the film, centres on Lime's adventures prior to his "death in Vienna", and Welles reprises his role as a Lime somewhat less nefarious adventurer anti-hero than the sociopathic opportunist depicted in the film's incarnation. Fifty-two episodes aired in 1951 and 1952, several of which Welles wrote, including "Ticket to Tangiers", which is included on the Criterion Collection and Studio Canal releases of The Third Man. Recordings of the 1952 episodes "Man of Mystery", "Murder on the Riviera", and "Blackmail Is a Nasty Word" are also included on the Criterion Collection DVD The Complete Mr. Arkadin.
A television spin-off starring Michael Rennie as Harry Lime ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1965. Seventy-seven episodes were filmed; directors included Paul Henreid (10 episodes) and Arthur Hiller (six episodes). Jonathan Harris played sidekick Bradford Webster for 72 episodes, and Roger Moore guest-starred in the instalment "The Angry Young Man", which Hiller directed.
In the Law & Order episode "Fluency", Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Watterson) uses the ferris wheel scene as part of his line of questioning against defendant Elliot Peters (played by Robert Sedgwick). Peters, like Lime, is accused of selling saline as a flu vaccine in the black market, resulting in at least 16 deaths in New York City. Peters is found guilty on multiple counts of homicide.
The final scene is described in the short story "All The Trees Are Naked" by Sam Shepard, published in the book Great Dream of Heaven. The narrator mistakenly refers to the actress as Ingrid Bergman.
In the Pinky and the Brain parody "The Third Mouse" the Brain (voiced by Maurice Lamarche doing an impersonation of Welles) inverts the cuckoo clock speech and praises the Swiss, in justification for his (temporary) abandonment of pursuing world domination.
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- "The Third Man was a huge box-office success both in Europe and America, a success that reflected great critical acclamation ... The legendary French critic André Bazin was echoing widespread views when, in October 1949, he wrote of The Third Man's director: "Carol Reed ... definitively proves himself to be the most brilliant of English directors and one of the foremost in the world." The positive critical reaction extended to all parts of the press, from popular daily newspapers to specialist film magazines, from niche consumer publications to the broadsheet establishment papers ... Dissenting voices were very rare, but there were some. White, Rob. "The Third Man – Critical Reception". Screenonline.org.
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- The Third Man, an essay by Michael Wilmington at the Criterion Collection