"I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm.
Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough - mmm - had the money to pay"
Introducing The Third Man
It's hard to pin down exactly how the story for The Third Man came together. In various memoirs, the author of the story,
Graham Greene, gives conflicting accounts, but what is known is that in the last days of 1947, Carol Reed, who
had previously worked with Greene on The Fallen Idol, approached Greene to write a comedy thriller.
At this time, Greene probably had the seeds of the eventual story, from an idea he had jotted down
several years previously, in which a man, called Harry, naturally, attends a friend's funeral, only to then witness the
cadaver strolling merrily down the Strand. He also had written in great excitement to his lover,
Catherine Walston, not long before his meeting with Reed, saying he had the beginning, middle, and end for
a new story.
But how did these ideas and sections become a treatment, a full story, a screenplay, and an unqualified success for all involved?
Writing The Third Man
The Third Man began to come together when Sir Alexander Korda of London Film Productions officially commissioned
Greene to write a treatment, sending him to Vienna and Rome for research purposes. Korda had offices in
both cities, and Greene's remit was to write a story based in either or both locations.
It was in Vienna that Greene found the inspiration for his eventual story, touring the city, visiting
some of its more seedy bars, and meeting British Military officials and journalists, before delivering his treatment for
the story to Korda in April 1948.
The story that Greene presented was the essence of the eventual screenplay, but was by no means finished. In the preface
to the published version of the story, Greene claims, almost certainly falsely that:
"The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these
changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author"¹
Korda struck a production and distribution deal with David Selznick, whose credits included the small matter of "Gone
With The Wind", and who had brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood in the late 1930s, and Greene returned to Vienna,
this time with Reed, to produce the first draft of the script. Between that first draft, and the finished
product, changes were certainly made, but it's not always clear who should take the credit for the
rewrites. Take the film's closing scene for instance: Carol Reed noted that it was Selznick who suggested
a change from the original story, (to avoid creating a spoiler here, I'll only say that one is the opposite of the other) but
Greene's recollection is that
Selznick had preferred the original ending, and that it was Reed who came up with the revised version.
Not all Selznick's ideas (assuming we trust Reed's account over Greene's, and given Greene's penchant
for editing his past and present) were as good. An American among the English, Selznick's disagreements
with Reed over the script were often a result of his concerns over domestic box office success, and the story's treatment of
its American protagonists. Worried
that Martins and Anna Schmidt didn't seem to get out much, he suggested they go ski-ing, and preferred a
glamorised Schmidt, dressed expensively - after all, surtely Lime would have wanted his girl to look good. On this score, the
decision was that Anna's tenuous citizenship would have been too compromised had she been the Hollywood glamour girl
Selznick had in mind. Selznick also wanted Schmidt's job changed so she would be working in a club or a circus rather
than as an actress, as she appears in the film. He felt that for
continuity Lime's entrance should be explained by adding some clunky dialogue to the
Prater Wheel scene between Martins and Lime.
Reed, Korda, and Greene resisted, often fiercely, often slyly, most of Selznick's requests, and, with
contributions to the American characters' dialogue from New York playwright Jerome Chodorov, a finished
script was produced on 20 September. There were still concerns, and transatlantic disagreements. Selznick's
operative in London, Jenia Reissar had let him know that Joseph Cotten was not happy with Chodorov's
rewrites (although one suggestion from Cotten that was readily accepted was to change the name of his character from Rollo Martins).
As Chodorov had been Reed's choice, and not Selznick's, this did not meet well with
Selznick, who was by now becoming severely mistrustful of his British colleagues, and their handling of
the leading American characters.
This trouble had, in part, arisen from the casting decisions being made for the film, which had
necessitated turning the English characters in Greene's story into Americans. Not only that, but Selznick
was concerned with the portrayal, or non-portrayal of the American presence in Vienna. He suggested
adding a scene in which Martins visits the embassy in the US controlled part of Vienna, the entire
purpose of which seems to have been to establish that there was an American force in Vienna, lest we forget, even if its
presence was entirely extraneous to the plot. He was unhappy that British characters seemed to dominate the Viennese
landscape, and was determined to rectify this oversight.
With Alida Valli cast as Anna Schmidt and due to travel to Vienna (and finally with a script of sorts to
read), he instructed her to travel to New York by train and to wait there until he authorised her to
travel on to Austria. In the meantime, he summoned Korda to sort out the American problem. With his customary ease, Korda
persuaded Selznick that while they perhaps did not have a perfect script, he trusted in
Carol Reed's brilliance enough to ensure that any necessary changes would be made. Selznick conceded, and
filming could begin.
Casting The Third Man
"Now the city, it's divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power, the American, the British,
the Russian, and the French. But the centre of the city, that's international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers."
Watching The Third Man, it's hard to imagine a different cast playing the same
roles. Cotten, Welles, Valli, Howard, all are intricately interwoven with their characters. Welles IS
Lime, Cotten IS Martins. Howard looks born into his uniform. At times it hardly even seems like acting.
But surely never has a film been made that didn't get cast with alternative protagonists, and sure
enough The Third Man is no exception. The first name out of the hat was Cary Grant, through a contract between
Korda and 20th Century Fox. Grant was interested, but wouldn't commit to choosing between Lime and
Martins until he could see a final script. Patience ran out, and Joseph Cotten was brought in to play
Martins, even though earlier thoughts were that either a combination of James Stewart and Orson Welles or Noel Coward
and Cary Grant would do for Lime and Martins respectively.
But Cotten it was who got the nod, despite Reed's own protestations, who preferred Stewart for the role. Selznick, it
turns out, wouldn't
have minded Coward, but was against Cotten altogether, and at various times, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck,
and even David Niven were suggested as co-stars for Cotten.
Orson Welles was by no means a certain to play Lime. Seen as a box office risk by Selznick (his
Macbeth wasn't looking too hot at the time) compared to any number of alternatives (but can you really
imagine Robert Mitchum as Lime?), he nonetheless got the role as Reed's choice.
To complete the male leads, Trevor Howard was cast as Major Calloway. Although less well-known in the US than other candidates for the role, the success of Brief Encounter meant that he was not only a fine actor, albeit mainly as a romantic lead, but he was also now known to moviegoers.
Filming The Third Man
"Wonderful. What a hope they had, all strangers to the place, and none of them could speak the same language, except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows, on the whole. Did their best, you know. Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a
A tight winter schedule was set for the Vienna shooting. Fortunately, the weather wouldn't be able to
affect any of the scenes to be shot in the city's sewers, and a little rain would only add atmosphere to
the night-lit outside scenes.
As it turned out, the elements proved more accommodating than the cast. Cotten was mostly miserable,
trying to hold his marriage together, Howard was mostly drunk, living up to a peerless reputation as a
heavy drinker, and Welles was mostly AWOL, playing cat and mouse games, hiding out in Rome, and living up
to his reputation as a better signer of contracts than he was a fulfiller of their clauses. In his
absence, Reed's assistant Guy Hamilton donned a coat and a hat, and made a splendid job of casting shadows
against Viennese walls. Even when he deigned to turn up in Vienna, Welles failed to contribute much,
refusing outright to risk his health leaping about in the dirty sewers. once again, a stand-in was used for
many of those scenes. As Hamilton recalled, Welles:
"had one day's shot walking to the Prater Wheel, and walking away from the Prater
wheel...and I think I'm right in saying that was the sum total of Orson's Viennese
When the location shooting was complete, Reed and the cast retired to Shepperton to complete the
filming. Welles did a bit of running around, stood in a doorway for a bit, and rattled through his
lines in his one major acting scene, in a car of the Prater Wheel with Cotten, hardly letting his co-star even start let
finish his lines before interrupting them with his own. And, of course, he added the famous, oft-quoted, cuckoo-clock
No doubt most viewers assume that the film was shot entirely in Vienna, or at least that the external shots were filmed on
location. In fact, this is merely a tribute to the stunningly accurate and atmospheric sets created at Shepperton for The Third
Man, and the excellent work of both the first and second units. More Viennese scenes were shot in the studio than you could
think possible, from graveside shots, to doorway shots and sewer shots. The various shots and scenes are so skillfully set together, however, that you can't pick this up just idly watching the film. Nor would you realise that even in the scenes shot on location, two shots from two different angles in the same scene were even occasionally filmed in two separate locations.
Cotten, meanwhile, was still unhappy, but then wouldn't you be if you had to stay in the Savoy because
Claridges was fully booked?
Recording The Third Man
"Dear Carol, saw The Third Man last night. Love it. I think you've got a big success there. But please
take off the Banjo."4
From the mid-30s onwards in America, and from a few years later in Britain, film scores started to
flourish. If you made a big film, you had to have a big score, from a big name, played by a well-known,
well-reputed orchestra, such as the Royal Philharmonic, as London Films customarily did.
You certainly didn't go around hiring random zither players you heard at receptions while on location.
You didn't hunt high and low through the city to track down their names and whereabouts, and you didn't agree to meet them in
on your day off. You didn't then fly them over to England, get them to play that one entrancing,
captivating piece, record it, and use it as a sonic backdrop to one character's every appearance. You just didn't.
Unless you were Carol Reed. In which case you did all that, and helped a poor Viennese, called Anton Karas,
who couldn't read music, become a sensation after 28 years as a hired performer in wine gardens and at private receptions.
Hardly had The Third Man hit British screens than suddenly everyone was releasing versions of "Harry's Theme", Karas'
memorable focal composition for the film.
Karas toured Britain and the US, as well as playing for the Pope in the Vatican, and shopped in London to
furnish his home in Vienna, before investing his earnings in a bar in Vienna.
After The Third Man, Karas was even able to have a custom zither made for him. The Karas Zither differs from a standard
zither in its amplification of the accompaniment and bass strings, sometimes at the expense of the main melody.
Showing The Third Man
"Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way to visit a friend of his. The
name was Lime. Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke, and Lime had offered him some sort, I don't know, some sort of a job.
Anyway, there he was poor chap, happy as a lark, and without a cent."
Despite opening nationally in the same week (on 3 October 1949) as Laurence Olivier's Oscar winning Hamlet, The Third
Man did brisk box office business, as a first-run, and then as cinemas continued to rebook for second and third runs. Public
acclaim was, somewhat unusually, matched by critical plaudits. In short, everyone loved The Third Man.
At the postponed American opening the following February, the success in Britain was repeated. With the exception of some
occasional zither-related fatigue (Harry's Theme had crossed the Atlantic before the film reels), every aspect of the film
was praised, in particular Reed's direction.
Not that Reed himself would have enjoyed the American release as much as the British version. A souring of the
relationship between Selznick and Korda over the former's desire to market the film in America as a Selznick production had
led to a transatlantic rift, the upshot of which was that Selznick was left with enough control to make such changes as he
saw fit for the American market. So it was, then, that Carol Reed's narration to the opening scenes was replaced by a more
continuity-friendly but less eliptical first-person voiceover from Joseph Cotten, lines were cut, scenes were shortened,
11 minutes lost from the running time, and a few moments of magic lost.
Despite it's success in cinemas and with reviewers, The Third Man was mostly overlooked at the 1951 Academy Awards.
Robert Krasker picked up the award for best Black and White Photography, but nominations for best directing and best
editing both led to nothing.
Watching The Third Man
I first watched The Third Man at school, when my housemaster insisted on enlightening his charges. I didn't particularly know who Orson Welles was, I knew Graham Greene was the fellow who wrote Brighton Rock, I'd studied that once, and film noir? Well, I didn't know much about that, but I knew right away that I liked it.
I fell in love with Reed's direction, and Greene's writing immediately. Those trememdously skewed angles, the atmosphere in the stark black, white, and shadows, THAT scene, with its exaggerated, ludicrous, but entrancing lighting. The wonderful dialogue, the exchanges between the calm but never overtly hostile Calloway and the "hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls", and the forlorn Martins, drunk and impotent.
And don't believe what people say about Welles turning up in the final reel and stealing the whole film. It just doesn't happen that way. OK, maybe he does the first time you see it, but then Lime's few on-screen moments are all as big as the man
himself, leaving the rest of the characters to cover the dirty work, establishing the plot, and setting up his arrival. Watch a few more times, however, and you should find yourself starting to revel in the other performances. Once you know what Welles is going to do and the where and when of it, his performance becomes just one of the many wonderful elements that go together to make The Third Man such a great movie.
1: Regardless of who suggested changes, some vast improvements were made from Greene's novel text. In particular, the opening narration (excerpts from which appear throughout this write-up) has been brilliantly distilled from the book's opening chapter, which, although only a couple of pages long, now seems like hard work in comparison.
2: In interview with Charles Drazin, 15 October 1997
3: Welles' idea of his contributions were to swell as the years went by. If you believe the great man, he not only wrote his own part, but also gave Reed some solid creative ideas for direction.
4: Sir Arthur Jarrat, Chairman of British-Lion
In Search of The Third Man, Charles Drazin, Methuen, 1999 (ISBN 0-413-75070-1) (I recommend this insightful book to any fans of the film.)
The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, Graham Greene, Vintage, 2001 (ISBN 0-099-28623-8)