The Third Man: Classic for the Ages
By Bill Hare
When reviewers began observing The Third Man a point was made regarding some unique side angles that director Carol Reed had cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot. “Why were some of these shots crooked!”
Innovator Reed had an answer:
“I wanted to convey the impression that crooked things were happening.”
Reed’s unique angles coupled with the dark, black and white haunting images of the film’s characters made The Third Man an enduring classic that became indelibly linked to Eastern European intrigue in the post-World War Two Cold War period with its Vienna, cobblestone street setting and British Army officers such as Trevor Howard and sidekick Bernard Leeseeking to establish law and order in a city divided into sections with the British, Americans and Russians in charge.
A Hack Western Writer Arrives, The Story of an Innocent Abroad
Joseph Cotten, who played a depraved killer of rich widows with superb finesse in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt(1943), is cast in a vastly different role in The Third Man as an innocent abroad, a man without moorings who is in Vienna to handle writing assignments for his old friend Orson Welles. He learns on arrival from the porter of the apartment building where his friend resided that Welles has recently died.
Cotten, who learns that Welles lost his life by being hit by an oncoming vehicle, has just enough time to reach the cemetery where his boyhood friend is slated to be buried, becoming part of the end of the service. A stunned Cotten then touches base with British Army Captain Calloway, played by Trevor Howard.
When Howard takes Cotten to a bar after the ceremony he hears that Welles was anything but the man his friend thought him to be, and was a leader of a ruthless band of black market racketeers. When Cotten in his rapidly developing state of drunkenness protests that Howard is making his friend out to be some kind of “killer” the response is that “you could say” that murder was part of his business.
The more that Cotten drinks on the largesse of the British Army Captain’s account, the nastier things get. Eventually a thoroughly inebriated Cotten tries to punch Howard, and is thwarted by a punch from his assisting sergeant, Bernard Lee.
In the manner of great storytelling, conflict emerges in an early scene that sends the appropriate red flags, informing the shape and character conflicts that will emerge.
In the case of The Third Man and the creative vision of its screenwriter Graham Greene, the sole element that endured from story concept to fade out was that of a man who was thought to be dead but was very much alive as a well calculated trick was played by the presumed deceased to create that effect.
When I interviewed the film’s assistant director Guy Hamilton, who would go on to directing fame in the James Bond movie series with Goldfinger (1964) a particularly notable effort, he explained that Greene’s original idea involved a man walking down the street in London’s busy Strand and becoming shocked upon seeing a man whose funeral he had attended.
Hamilton further explained that at that point the film’s London-based co-producer, Alexander Korda, suggested that the project that would eventually become The Third Man could be developed within a framework of foreign intrigue in Vienna.
Austria borders Korda’s native Hungary and the then British producer recognized that, with Vienna becoming such a subject of intrigue with its geographical position in the East but lying near Europe’s heartland, would be an ideal choice. The world was, as earlier noted, in the midst of the Cold War.
Was Cotten’s Character Really an Attack on America?
In addition to Korda, Britain’s most prestigious producer, The Third Man was co-produced by a formidable American figure, David O. Selznick, who remained at home at his Hollywood studios, but, as with every film in which he participated, maintained a strong presence.
Korda and the London group were relieved that Selznick was not on the scene, given his propensity for creative intervention. Nonetheless the famous “Selznick memos” made their way with consistent frequency across the Atlantic.
Alfred Hitchcock clashed frequently with Selznick when they worked together on Rebecca (1940), a film that netted Selznick the only back to back Academy Award triumph in the “Best Film” category, being directly preceded by Gone with the Wind (1939).
Hitchcock, noted for his acerbic wit, delivered one of his most frequently quoted gems when he declared in 1951, more than a decade after the release of Rebecca that he had just finished reading one Selznick memo that could be filmed with the title “The Longest Story Every Told.”
The brash New Yorker who stunned the film world by securing successive Oscars before he was forty became concerned about Joseph Cotten’s character Holly Martins as a man ensnarled in a web of ruthless Vienna racketeers.
“Go home, Martins, before you get yourself killed!” Trevor Howard implores at one dramatic point in the film as the American’s activities are being discussed.
While Selznick’s observation of hack western novel writer Holly Martins as an American innocent abroad is accurate, the tightly woven story reveals circumstances that would place any victim caught in such a vise in a confused innocent’s role, even someone of high intelligence.
Initially there is the case of what in the sports world is referred to as home field advantage. Here is Joseph Cotten recently arrived in a foreign city that is vastly different than the U.S. Before he has any opportunity to fight off travel lag he learns that his best friend has died in what he concludes are mysterious circumstances.
When Holly Martins seeks to solve the mystery surrounding his friend’s death, he falls into a web of black marketers who control their own terrain so brutally that murder is a familiar part of their agenda. A foreigner caught up in this tight web of intrigue could be expected to bungle, and might well lose one’s life.
Romance also Beckons
Hurled into the aforementioned mix is the element of romance. As poets and psychologists have written for centuries, nothing can turn a man into helplessness faster than falling in love.
In the case of Cotten, his situation is further complicated in that the exotic, dark-haired actress beauty he becomes enamored with, played by Alida Valli, is not only the ex-girlfriend of his presumably deceased friend, but carries a gigantic torch for him.
“Haven’t got a chance,” Cotten declares somberly at one point, receiving silence from Valli, indicating the accuracy of his statement.
Enter Harry Lime
After the story mechanics have been skillfully developed and Cotten has fallen mightily for the glamorous Valli, the surprise twist suggested at the beginning of the project by scenarist Greene to producer Korda is unveiled as viewers learn that Holly Martins’ friend Harry Lime is very much alive.
A meeting between the boyhood friends in the Vienna woods Ferris wheel reveals that Harry Lime cares nothing for Anna, the woman who deeply loves him. In fact, after the arranged death of a hospital orderly and clever substitution of Lime as the accident victim, it is learned that the ruthless black marketer has bargained with Russian authorities by providing them with her name, insuring her forced repatriation back to her native Czechoslovakia and giving him a place to live without pursuit.
Orson Welles, a controversial choice at the time he was cast, played the role of Harry Lime with a stamp of ruthless bravado, the reckless air of a sociopath. His words hiss contempt for what he terms “the suckers” meaning humanity.
In that Martins is coldly rebuffed by a disgusted Anna after he has agreed to cooperate with Major Calloway (Howard) to assist her, director Carol Reed was proven justified in changing Greene’s ending.
Rather than have Cotten and Valli walk away together in the Vienna woods after he makes one final effort to meet her, one of the most unique scenes in movie history occurs when the leading man stands helplessly, smoking a cigarette, as the woman he loves, presumably enraged by the American’s involvement in the capture and ultimate death of Orson Welles, walks past him. She looks straight ahead, not even acknowledging Cotten’s presence.
Another element that makes the closing scene so fascinating, and other scenes as well, is the haunting sound of Anton Karas’ zither.
The inclusion of the zither, which helps stamp The Third Man with such authentic uniqueness, rather than the more typical insertion of a score played by an orchestra, was yet another indication of the stylish innovation of director Carol Reed.
Posted 19th September 2008