A heart-stopping rollercoaster ride through the haunting streets of Vienna, in one of the greatest films ever made
Anyone who loves electrifying entertainment (and who doesn’t?!) will find “The Third Man”, a colossal treat. Enveloped by a legendary musical score, this dazzling film is flooded with iconic scenes, suspense, colorful characters, and a visual style all its own. Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, the British Film Institute (BFI) named it the Greatest British Film of All-Time, and Time Out magazine placed it at #2. It was nominated for two British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards (winning Best British Film), earned three Academy Award nominations (winning Best Cinematography), and won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix. Also vouching for it's greatness, it is one of only a handful of films my father requested my sister and I watch with him as a young kid (and my sister and I both loved it). If any film could be called perfection, “The Third Man” is the one.
It’s difficult to talk about this suspenseful movie without revealing spoilers, but I’ll do my best. If you haven’t seen the film and would prefer to know nothing before you see it, I recommend not reading past the next two paragraphs until after you’ve watched the film. That said, I’ll do my best to disclose as few of the film’s twists and turns as possible, leaving major spoilers for the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section.
“The Third Man” centers around “Holly Martins”, a broke, out-of-work writer of pulp fiction Westerns. The film opens as he arrives in post WWII Vienna, Austria, summoned there with the promise of a job by his childhood best friend “Harry Lime”. ”Holly” arrives only to find that “Harry” was struck and killed by a car minutes earlier. He ventures to the graveside funeral, spots a beautiful woman (who later turns out to have been“Harry’s” lover “Anna”), and by chance ends up having drinks with "Major Calloway" of the British Royal Military Police. “Calloway” is overjoyed by “Harry’s” death, calling him “about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city”. Not believing “Calloway”, “Holly” proceeds to prove “Harry” innocent. While investigating “Harry’s” death, things aren’t quite adding up. A witness tells him there were three men present at “Harry’s” death but only two were reported to the police, so he proceeds to search for the third man. What follows is a noir thriller filled with black comedy and matters of trust, betrayal, love, and loyalty. Perhaps at the heart of the film is a moral dilemma, but that’s hardly the takeaway. Instead, from its opening with a dead body floating in a river to its famous final shot, this film is pure first-class entertainment.
“The Third Man” is very much a collaborative effort, and the work of the behind-the-scenes craftsmen (its producer, director, screenwriter, composer, cinematographer, and editor) are vital as to why it is a masterpiece. Their artistry stands front and center, turning the city of Vienna into a character as important and mysterious as any played by actors. Set in war-torn Vienna and filmed amid its actual rubble, the film takes on an eerily ominous ambiance. Filled with shady characters, looming shadows, and desolate streets, there is a constant feeling the city is alive, and that someone is lurking just around a corner, behind a window or door, or in the shadows.
(THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS) “The Third Man” came about because of three people – producer Alexander Korda, novelist Graham Greene, and film director Carol Reed. The three had worked together on the critical and financially successful British classic, "The Fallen Idol" in 1948, for which Green and Reed each received Oscar nominations. Korda had been wanting to produce a comedy-thriller about the aftermath of World War II in Europe, particularly in the city of Vienna where he had money tied up to use towards the film. Korda mentioned his idea to Greene and Reed over dinner, and Greene mentioned an undeveloped idea he had about a man running into a friend whose funeral he just attended. To combine the ideas, Greene set off to Vienna to do research and come up with a story. At the time, Vienna was an occupied city split into four sectors (British, American, French, and Russian), with the center of the city run by all four. While there, Greene learned about the occupation, black market, a penicillin racket, the little nightlife that existed, and the city’s complex sewer system. He wrote a treatment and then a screenplay based on these things which he kept discussing with Reed as he proceeded. A journalist, writer of short stories, plays and novels, and a two-time winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, English-born Grahame Greene was one of the leading writers of the 20th century. Though he wrote nearly 100 stories and adapted screenplays for film and TV, "The Third Man" remains his only fully worked, original screenplay, and its smart dialogue crackles with suspense, humor, and insight.
For what would otherwise be a film primarily for the British market, Korda partnered with independent Hollywood producer David O. Selznick to give the film international appeal. Selznick also brought a bit of the film’s financing and two actors who were under contract to him (Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli). Though Selznick sent many memos with requests for changes in story, tone, and even the title, Korda and Reed largely disregarded them. Selznick reedited the film for American audiences, trimming eleven minutes and replacing the film’s narration (which was voiced by Reed) with the voice of Cotten. Luckily, Reed’s original version is the one shown worldwide today on DVD’s, TV, and streaming services.
Carol Reed is the man behind what became “The Third Man”. He took Greene’s fantastic script, hired exceptionally talented artists and let them shine, and steered everyone’s work towards his vision of tone, style, and his desire to capture the climate of a wounded, bombed-out city bursting with corruption and peril. Reed chose to tilt the camera frame, conjuring a continuous feeling that things are a bit off kilter. The film is filled with tiny details one often discovers upon a second or third viewing, such as “Holly” walking under a ladder on his way to see “Harry” at the film’s start, or having a policeman walk between “Holly” and the “Baron”, shrewdly signifying that these two men are on opposite sides of the law. With the help of his editor, Oswald Hafenrichter (who was nominated for a Best Editing Academy Award), Reed keeps things moving at a compellingly exciting pace. He directed three teams (day, night, and one in the sewers) who filmed in shifts twenty-four hours a day for seven weeks (and Reed evidently stayed awake on Benzedrine). For his daring work, Reed was nomination for a Best Director Academy Award.
One of Britain's major directors in his day, London-born Carol Reed started as a theater actor, then became a stage manager, and in 1930 began working as an assistant director in films. He made his film directing debut with "Midshipman Easy” in 1935. Though he directed many types and genres of films, they were often about displaced people or outsiders trying to cope with their surroundings. Reed became a respected director starting with "Bank Holiday" in 1938, and continued to make solid films. His career took off when he signed with Korda's London Films company, and Korda introduced him to Greene. Together, the three made the "The Fallen Idol" and "The Third Man", both of which earned Reed Best Director Oscar nominations. He finally won a Best Director Academy Award with his third and final nomination for the 1968 Best Picture Oscar winning musical, "Oliver!". Though there were some high points, his career didn't sustain the heights he hit in the late 1940s. Some of his other films include, "Odd Man Out", "Our Man in Havana", "Night Train to Munich", "Trapeze", "The Agony and the Ecstasy", and his final film, "Follow Me!" in 1972. He was married twice, to actresses Diana Wynyard and Penelope Dudley-Ward. Carol Reed died in 1976 at the age of 69.
Cinematographer Robert Krasker’s contribution to “The Third Man” is immeasurable. He filled Reed's tilted frames with daring compositions, exciting emotion, and unexpected beauty. His famous high contrast nighttime shots of empty streets and ominous shadows have become iconic, and are generally what come to mind when one thinks of “The Third Man”. Because the production was filmed on location in poverty-stricken, occupied Vienna, supplies were hard to come by and movie lights were extremely limited. To amplify the few lights he had, Krasker wet cobblestone streets, making them reflect the lights more intensely while creating a shimmering, eerie atmosphere. For his work, Krasker took home the film's only Academy Award (for Best Black and White Cinematography).
Egyptian-born (though his birth was registered in Australia) Robert Krasker went to Germany in his teens to study photography. In 1932 he moved to London and soon became a camera operator for Korda's London Film Productions, beginning in with the Korda directed 1934 film "The Rise of Catherine the Great". Over a dozen films later, he became director of photography, beginning with 1941's "The Saint Meets the Tiger". He quickly gained a reputation for being a top cinematographer, photographing such films as "Brief Encounter", "Henry V", "Caesar and Cleopatra", "El Cid", "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "Alexander the Great", "The Quiet American”, "Senso", and his final film "The Trap" in 1966. He worked with many of cinema's greatest directors including John Ford, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Luchino Visconti, William Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, David Lean, and shot a total of four films with Reed. Because of health issues and a distaste with shifting styles in cinema (in particular the French New Wave), Krasker retired in 1965, shooting only two short films and a commercial in the 1970s and 80s. There’s very little written about his personal life and no record of him marrying, though according to assistant director Guy Hamilton on "The Third Man's" DVD commentary, Krasker dated men. Robert Krasker died in 1981 at the age of 68.
Another unseen star of “The Third Man” is Anton Karas, the composer of the film’s indelible score. His music sets the film’s mood with a mix of happy, poignant, intense, and hopeful sounds. The entire score was played solely on a zither, and its exotic flavor and emotion are an essential part of the film (a close-up of zither strings is even seen during the opening credits). One night at a party, Reed was mesmerized by a man sitting in the corner playing music. After the party he had the man tracked down and it turned out to be Karas, a local musician hired to play by the caterer. Reed had Karas come to his hotel where he recorded hours of him playing his zither. The editor used sections of his music during the film’s rough cut, and seeing what magic his music added, Reed decided to have Karas score the entire film. His music feels immediate, as if it’s being created and played as the film rolls. Shortly after the film’s release, “The Harry Lime Theme” became a phenomenon, selling an unprecedented half a million copies, becoming a #1 hit in England, spending eleven weeks at #1 on Billboard's US Best Sellers in Stores chart, and instigating a rise in zither sales. This previously unknown Austrian zither player became world-famous overnight, playing for the British Royal Family, the Pope, and touring the world. Not desiring or planning on fame, Karas wanted to return to the simple life and in 1962 he and his wife opened a guest house in Austria, and he went back to playing his zither in local wine cellars. He was married once for almost fifty years, until his death. Anton Karas died in 1985 at the age of 78.
Joseph Cotten stars as “Holly Martins”, writer of cheap Western novels who insists on proving that “Harry” was murdered and innocent of racketeering. Cotten is completely believable as the confused, determined man stuck in a foreign place trying to piece together a puzzle. In his usual manner, Cotten’s performance is truthful with delicately shown emotions, such as when he lovingly looks at “Anna” for a second while rehearsing her lines with her, or cleverly spewing double entendres while bantering with “Popescu" over writing a fictitious book called “The Third Man”, and “Holly Martins” is definitely among his best performances. After rising to fame under contract to Orson Welles, in 1943 Joseph Cotten left Welles and signed with Selznick. Thus began the height of his career as a leading man. Prior to “The Third Man”, Cotten scored hits in such films as "Shadow of a Doubt", "Gaslight", "Since You Went Away", "Duel in the Sun", and most recently, "Portrait of Jennie” (for which he won an International Best Actor prize at the Venice International Film Festival). His movie star status was big enough to attract US and international audiences. I wrote more about Joseph Cotten in my entry on “Gaslight”. Click on that film’s title to read more about his life and career.
Alida Valli (billed as Valli) plays “Anna Schmidt”, a beautiful actress and “Harry’s” former girlfriend. As a woman distraught over losing the man she loved, Valli expertly handles the role, keeping “Anna” appropriately sullen without ever overdoing it. I especially love her work in the scene when the International Police come to her apartment. With very little dialogue and some close-ups, she genuinely conveys the emotions of someone with forged papers about to be investigated, grieving the loss of her lover, and trying to comfort the landlady all at the same time. It is a beautiful opportunity to see Valli’s sizable talent in full swing. Commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world, Selznick had recently put her under contract in the hopes of making her the next Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergman. This was Valli’s third film under contract to Selznick, and one of the changes he wanted to make to “The Third Man” was to glamorize “Anna”. Reed opted for realism, and as a result, “Anna” wears mostly simple clothes, primarily a long raincoat.
Born in Istria, Italy (now Croatia), Alida Valli began studying acting in Rome. She first appeared in small parts in Italian "white phone" comedies beginning in 1935, and by 1937 was playing leads. She had a breakthrough role in "Piccolo mondo antico” in 1940, winning a special Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival. In 1946 she signed with Selznick and began to work in Hollywood billed as “Valli” (which Selznick though made her sound more exotic). Her first Hollywood role was in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case”, followed by "The Miracle of the Bells", and then "The Third Man". She worked again opposite Cotten in 1950's "Walk Softly, Stranger”. Valli was now internationally famous. Disliking Selznick's control over her career and not happy with its direction, she left him in 1951 soon returning to Europe, appearing primarily in French and Italian films. She amassed over 130 film and TV credits while working with many top directors. Her other notable films include Visconti's “Senso" (which won her another Venice Film Festival Best Actress Award), Georges Franju’s "Eyes Without a Face", Pier Paolo Pasolini's “Edipo re”, Michelangelo Antonioni's “Il Grido”, Bernardo Bertolucci's “1900”, Dario Argento's “Suspiria”, "The Cassandra Crossing”, "A Month by the Lake”, and her final film, "Semana santa" in 2001. She also appeared on the Italian stage. She married twice (to painter and composer Oscar de Mejo, and to writer/director Giancarlo Zagni). Among her two children is actor Carlo De Mejo. Alida Valli died in 2006 at the age of 84.
Trevor Howard is outstanding as “Major Calloway” of the British Royal Military Police. Believing “Harry” an atrocious criminal and that “the only important thing is that he’s dead”, he has no time for “Holly’s” search for the “real” criminal. Instead, “Calloway” continues his own investigation to get hard evidence of “Harry’s” racketeering and find his accomplices. Howard keeps “Calloway” tough and morally steady while giving him kindness and humanity, whether through his penetrating looks sizing-up “Holly” while having drinks after “Harry’s” funeral, or quietly displaying compassion for “Anna” and her forged papers. He inhabits the role, and watching his performance makes it clear why Howard was often lauded as one of the finest actors of his day. He liked his alcohol and famously headed to his favorite bar in Vienna each day as soon as filming finished. On one occasion he went in his Army costume and was detained by the Military Police for impersonating a British officer. After apologizing, everything turned out okay.
English-born Trevor Howard studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and made his professional stage debut in 1934. His film debut was an uncredited role in 1944's "The Way Ahead" (directed by Reed), followed by another supporting part in "Johnny in the Clouds". For Howard’s third film, director David Lean took a chance and cast him as the lead in the classic, "Brief Encounter". The film quickly became recognized as one of the greatest ever made (Krasker was also the cinematographer), and it catapulted Howard to international fame. Leading parts followed, often playing sophisticated types and officers. "The Third Man" reinforced his international appeal, and in 1954 he starred opposite Richard Widmark in his first Hollywood film, "Run for the Sun". That same year Howard received the first of five BAFTA nominations, for "The Heart of the Matter”, winning the award for the 1958 film “The Key”. He continued to work in both the UK and US, and was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the 1960 film, “Sons and Lovers” (his only Oscar nomination). He was also nominated for three Emmy Awards, winning one as Best Actor for the 1963 TV Movie, "Invincible Mr. Disraeli”. In 1982 he was to be given the CBE honor (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) but declined. Other classics from his 118 film and TV credits include "Gandhi", "Ryan's Daughter", "Superman", "Mutiny on the Bounty", "Von Ryan's Express", "Ludwig", "Around the World in 80 Days", and "Father Goose”. His only marriage was to actress Helen Cherry for over forty years, until his death. Trevor Howard died in 1988 at the age of 74.
I’ll mention one more major cast member in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section, since what I write will contain spoilers. Be sure to read it after you’ve watched the film.
Because Reed wanted realism, many of the film’s bit players were locals he found on the street, such as the old man selling balloons who was an actual balloon seller. In addition, many Austrian actors were used, most notably Paul Hörbiger who plays “Harry’s” porter “Karl”, and Hedwig Bleibtreu who plays “Anna’s” landlady – both of whom were very famous in Austria. Paul Hörbiger appeared in over 250 films and TV shows, and was one of cinema's most popular German-speaking film actors. Crew on "The Third Man” have stated that in order to get help from locals they would mention Cotten, Orson Welles, Valli, or Howard to no avail, but one mention that Paul Hörbige was in the film and people were eagerly excited to help. Hörbiger spoke no English and learned his lines phonetically. Paul Hörbiger died in 1981 at the age of 86. Hedwig Bleibtreu, the landlady wrapped in a blanket, was one of the most respected grandames of the Austrian stage from the late 1890s through the mid 1950s. She appeared in forty films, most famously in "The Third Man" and 1935's “Pygmalion". She improvised her lines in “The Third Man”. Hedwig Bleibtreu died in 1958 at the age of 89.
A truly remarkable work of art, this week’s film is as entertaining and satisfying as a film can get. Whether you’ve never seen it or seen it ten times, this is a film that never grows old and only gets richer with subsequent viewings. Enjoy one of my favorites, “The Third Man”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM HERE:
OTHER PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM:
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and any and all money will go towards the fees for this blog. Thanks!!
TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Central to “The Third Man” is the character of “Harry Lime”. We hear about “Harry”, feel his presence all through the film, and learn about the other characters through their relationships with him. In one of the film’s most surprising twists, the thought-to-be-dead “Harry” appears just over one hour into the film magnificently portrayed by Orson Welles, whose presence and talent make the payoff of finally seeing “Harry” wholly satisfying. He appears in three scenes, each of which has become iconic.
The first of these iconic scenes is his extraordinary entrance – appearing in a darkened doorway in a flash of light, dramatically emphasizing “Harry’s” enigmatic nature. In those few seconds, we also get a glimpse of “Harry’s” devilish charm. Not unlike “Harry”, Welles had an aura of theatricality, knowhow, arrogance and mystery. Most of his appearances (including his face in this scene) were shot in a studio in England as opposed to on location in Vienna.
The second time we see “Harry” is with “Holly” on The Riesenrad, or Ferris wheel. This sensational scene is the only time the we truly get to know “Harry” firsthand. Through frightening, fleeting glares at “Holly” and a nonchalance about killing, Welles conveys a dangerous evil unpredictability while retaining a hypnotizing charisma, making it understandable how "Holly could befriend and “Anna” could fall for this sinister character. As the two leave The Riesenrad, “Harry” delivers his famous speech about the “cuckoo clock”, which was written by Welles on the spot. Welles' brief appearance in this film was enough to have AFI vote “Harry Lime” the 37th Greatest Movie Villain of All-Time.
The Riesenrad (located at the Prater amusement park) was luckily not destroyed during the war, and the scenes in front of it were filmed on location in Vienna. The shots of Welles and Cotten inside the gondola were filmed on a set in England. One of the world's tallest Ferris wheels, The Riesenrad still stands today. When I was in Vienna a while back, I made a point to go there and take a ride, and couldn't help but feel the presence of "The Third Man”.
“Harry’s” third and final scene is the film’s famous chase in the Viennese sewers. Claustrophobia, entrapment, disorientation, shadows, chiaroscuro lighting, and striking visuals drive this scene, making it one of the most iconic in cinema history. An entire team spent three weeks filming in the sewers, which evidently didn’t smell as bad as one would think a sewer would smell. However, when Welles showed up to shoot his scenes there, he apparently went off on a tirade about the dirty water and smell, saying he wouldn't work under those conditions, and walked out. Reed convinced him to come back and film a couple of shots standing away from pipes, walls, and water, but by and large, any shots in the sewers with Welles were filmed in England on a studio replicated sewer set.
Orson Welles was not the first choice to play "Harry Lime". Korda wanted Noël Coward and Selznick wanted Robert Mitchum, but Reed fought for Welles, and his instincts were on the money. He told Welles he would not have a lot to do but would steal the show. Reed was right, for in his five minutes of screen time, Welles has as much impact as any other element of the film. He is more remembered for "The Third Man" than Reed these days, and it has become one of Welles’ most iconic roles. A major force in cinema, I’ll write more about actor/director/writer/producer Orson Welles in an upcoming post.
One more of "The Third Man's" many famous scenes is its final shot. As opposed to Greene and Selznick (who wanted a standard happy Hollywood ending where the guy gets the girl), Reed wanted to keep with the film’s feeling of real life. In a gutsy shot lasting about one minute and ten seconds, Reed leaves the fates of "Holly" and "Anna" up to the viewer. Karas’ music plays, providing a bevy of emotions from which a viewer can choose their own ideal ending as "Anna" walks past "Holly". A visually poetic finale to a cinematic masterpiece.