Posted: 08/19/1999


The Third Man


by John Kessler

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“I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February 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.”

This single sentence was the initial inspiration for one of the greatest film noirs:
The Third Man.

This was the idea that Graham Greene shared with friend Alexander Korda in 1948. Greene, Korda and Carol Reed had just finished a film called The Fallen Idol (the friends would collaborate a third and final time on Our Man in Havana) and hoped to work together again. Greene went to Vienna for a couple of weeks and researched the elements that would become the screenplay.

The first time I saw The Third Man I must have been about sixteen years old. It impressed me then as nothing I had ever seen. That same feeling came over me again the other night at the Castro Theatre.

The fiftieth anniversary restored edition, or “directors cut,” is a beautiful, crisp black and white print fully restored to the original British release. Set in Vienna of 1949, it is a stylish and nightmarish vision of post-war Europe. Robert Kasker’s Oscar winning photography perfectly conveys a bleak, weary and, in this case, corrupt city. Most of the film is shot at night in still-bombed out sections of the city with every cathedral, alley and pile of rubble bottom, side or backlit in true noir fashion. Kasker uses wide-angle lenses and deep focus for distortion and furthers the effect by setting up many of his shots on odd angles. This serves to add to the sense that something is not quite right. These combined techniques are visually stunning.

Anton Karas composed the music for the film playing a solo zither. The film’s director, Carol Reed, had decided not to use any Viennese waltzes, fearing they would not lend the desired effect. He heard Karas playing in a cafe one night and asked him to score the film. The Third Man Theme is a catchy piece that adds to the sense of intrigue. It also became one of the most popular songs of 1950 in Europe and America.

The film was jointly produced by Alexander Korda, Carol Reed and David O. Selznick. For his part, Selnick needed only to loan a couple of actors, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, to secure American distribution. However, when the film debuted in America, Selznick had made edits that seemed insignificant until now.

Oddly enough, in the restored version Carol Reed provides the opening narration; Selznick’s version has Cotten, as Holly Martins, narrating.

Holly Martins is, in his own words, a hack that drinks too much. A writer of pulp westerns, he is the typical innocent abroad. Martins comes to Vienna at the invitation of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), whom he has known for twenty years, only to find that he is too late: Harry is dead. Martins suspects foul play in Harry’s death, and after meeting Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a sad beauty that Harry was kind to, Martins, like one of his fictional western heroes, decides to find out exactly what happened to his friend. It is his foolish and amateurish attempt at this endeavor that keeps the story moving.

Martins meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British military officer who was about to arrest Harry at the time of his death. Calloway informs Martins that Harry was a black marketeer who is responsible for many deaths and suffering as a result of Harry’s selling diluted penicillin. Even though the evidence against Harry piles up, Martins refuses to believe.

It isn’t until about a third of the way through the film that Harry makes his entrance. Possibly the most famed entrance in film. After leaving Anna’s apartment one night, Martins spies a shadowy figure in an apartment doorway. Thinking he is being tailed by one of Calloway’s men Martins challenges the shadowy man to step out. It is then that an apartment light from across the street is cast down onto Harry Lime. Harry smiles a boyish smile at Martins as if to say “Caught me!” Welles was made for the part.

The next day Martins tries to set up a meeting with Harry. It is in this, the Ferris wheel scene, that Selznick made one of his more noticeable cuts. Seven seconds were cut of Harry walking jauntily toward his friend. In the restored version you get a better sense of how carefree Harry is before he talks to Martins and how desperate he becomes after. After they board the Ferris wheel Martins informs Harry that he has told Major Calloway that Harry is alive. It is here that Harry becomes menacing and justifies his behavior with one of the most famous speeches in film: “You know what the fellow said: in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—and they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

The rest of the film focuses on Calloway’s attempts to track Harry down. Once it is discovered that Harry has been using the city’s sewer system to travel to different districts, a trap is set. Some of the best shots in the film occur while Harry is being chased (like the rat that he is) through these sewers. Selznick thought the chase was too long for American audiences and trimmed one minute and nine seconds from it. In the restored version the chase has more impact. The audience is given more time to feel the conditions of the scene and realize Harry’s fear. These are the film’s best scenes. Harry running through the tunnels desperate for a way out, hearing voices and footsteps closing in from all directions—not knowing which way to turn. When he does find a way out it is to late. He has been shot and is not strong enough to lift the sewer grate. Shot from the surface at street level, you see Harry’s fingers come through the grate, the wind blowing debris. Martins arrives on the scene, Harry looks at him, weakly nods his head, and Martins kills him.

The last scene is also restored to original. After leaving Harry’s funeral, Martins and Calloway drive by Anna, walking alone. Martins tells Calloway to go on and waits for Anna. By now you know that he is in love with her. Selznick had thirty-five seconds trimmed from this scene. Again, the restored scene had more impact. It is all about time and timing. The restored scene allows the viewer to become as uncomfortable as Holly Martins. His weariness and desperation are allowed to blossom. Will she stop? Will they walk happily into the sunset? Martins lights a cigarette and waits as Anna walks toward the camera.

Selznick had the good sense to do his edits by trimming frames from different scenes, not by cutting entire scenes. These types of edits may not be as noticeable but the restored version does have a different feel. It feels more European. Americans are always selling something. Europeans have always been more interested in the process of creating. Were Americans so busy in 1949 that over a minute needed to be edited from the chase scene? Would Selznick be a producer at MTV today?

I strongly recommend seeing the restored version of The Third Man on the big screen. If you can’t do that, rent it. The American version is still one of the greatest films of all time. In fact, the American Film Institute ranks it at #57 (though claiming it as an American film is tenuous, since both its director and screenwriter were British).

The Third Man scores well on our noir-o-meter. It revolutionized the use of distinctive, expressionistic camera angles; it had exaggerated shadowy lighting; it had good girl, bad guy, good guy; it even had a chase scene up a spiral staircase. What more could you ask for?

To learn more about the restoration and some interesting background into the film, check out Film Forum’s web page.

John Kessler lurks in the back alleys and spiral staircases of San Francisco, searching for a black bird and the woman who done him wrong.

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