An out of work pulp fiction novelist, Holly Martins, arrives in a post war Vienna divided into sectors by the victorious allies, and where a shortage of supplies has lead to a flourishing black market. He arrives at the invitation of an ex-school friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job, only to discover that Lime has recently died in a peculiar traffic accident. From talking to Lime's friends and associates Martins soon notices that some of the stories are inconsistent, and determines to discover what really happened to Harry Lime.
Joseph Cotten ... Holly Martins
Alida Valli ... Anna Schmidt (as Valli)
Orson Welles ... Harry Lime
Trevor Howard ... Major Calloway
Bernard Lee ... Sergeant Paine
Paul Hörbiger ... Harry's Porter (as Paul Hoerbiger)
Ernst Deutsch ... 'Baron' Kurtz
Siegfried Breuer ... Popescu
Erich Ponto ... Dr. Winkel
Wilfrid Hyde-White ... Crabbin
Hedwig Bleibtreu ... Anna's Old Landlady
The Third Man is a movie that looks and feels not like a movie of the 40s, but like a neo-noir of the late 60s/early 70s. This wonderful example of classic noir is one of the all time greatest films. It combines amazing visuals, sounds, dialogue, and acting to tell a thrilling story and comment about the atmosphere after WWII.
Of all the movies durring the studio era (pre-1960ish), there are three movies with cinematography that always stick out in my mind: Gregg Toland's work in Citizen Kane, Russel Mety's work in Touch of Evil, and Robert Krasker's work in The Third Man (all starring Orson Welles funny enough). I just recently saw a restored 35mm version of The Third Man. The crisp black and white visuals of a bombed out Vienna are so breath-taking. Shadows are everywhere. The unique way Krasker tilts the camera in some shots adding to the disorientation of the plot. And who can forget the first close-up of Welles with the light from an apartment room above splashing onto his face; one of the great entrances in movie history (Lime gives his old friend a smile that only Welles could give).
The cinematography is backed by strong performances by Welles, Cotten, and italian actress Vali. The writing of Greene is wonderful; you can see the plot twisting around Cotten tightly. But what makes The Third Man so great is its historical commentary (well not really historical since it was commenting on its own time, but to us it is historical). On one level The Third Man is a story of betrayal and corruption in a post-war, occupied Vienna. On the other hand, its giving the audience a glimpse of the mood of Europe after the great war. The uncertainty that the Cold War was bringing is evident through out the film; Cotten is constantly trying to figure out who to trust. Vienna is on the frontier of the new communist bloc (we even see the communists infiltrating Vienna trying to bring Vali back to her native Czechoslavakia). The zither music score combined with the stark images of bombed out Vienna are reminiscent of the frontier towns of American Westerns. So The Third Man is not only a wonderful film noir, but a unique look at the brief time between WWII and the height of the Cold War.
What IS it makes THE THIRD MAN the classic most everyone agrees it is? (And lets face it, voted no 35 in the top all-time films gives it MORE than just some passing credibility!) Is it Orson Welles' menace? The whiff of corruption in occupied post-war Vienna? the cuckoo-clock speech atop the big wheel? even Anton Karras' zither? Perhaps ALL these things? If however, you had to nominate just a single influence within the whole production that elevates it to greatness I suggest that would be Robert Krasker's cinematography.
The finished product innovatively, was years ahead of its birthright. Time and time again the viewer is bailed up by stunning camera angles and back-lighting. The eerie shadows around the deserted streets and of course the unforgettable first glimpse of Harry Lime (Welles) himself as he skulks like the rat he is, in the corner of the building, lit in close-up suddenly from the light in an adjacent apartment. Offhand I cannot think of a character's more dramatic entrance to a film.
Welles in fact has minimal screen time, though his dark presence and influence infiltrate proceedings like an insidious disease. Yet somehow his ultimate demise in the sewers brings into play an incredible sadness and compassion that has absolutely no right being there. It remains for me one of my top five film favorites. I have always given it a "10" personally but hey, to be voted an "8.6" universally is a pretty fair vindication of my words here.
American author Holly Martins arrives in Vienna to meet old friend Harry Lime. On arrival he finds Harry was just killed in an accident and attends his funeral. The police are happy that his death was an accident and are also closing crimes by attributing them to him. Martins begins to investigate the accident and finds out things that lead him to a shocking discovery that will eventually challenge his values and friendship.
This is a classic bit of British cinema that owes a lot to the source material (Graham Green) and the slanted, moody cinematography throughout. The story is quite straight forward and can be perceived more complicated than it is. The best bits of the story come early, with Martins investigating the accident against a backdrop of secrecy and cover-ups, and later when he confronts Lime briefly on a Ferris wheel. The story is mainly a story of friendship and morals packed into a mystery setting. The final shot of the film is really good and gives a realistic (if not happy) end to the story.
Joseph Cotton was always good around this period and seemed to be on a roll when he teamed up with Wells. Here he is good as Martin, even if his character is not as interesting as Harry Lime is. Orson Wells is excellent, casting a huge shadow (literally!) over the film despite having a very short time onscreen compare to Cotton. The director and the writer fought the producer to cast Wells in order to make the film more sellable to the American audience (the producer wanted Noël Coward) and the film is much better for their choice. His character hugely lacks morals and, despite being a small hustler, is almost a demonic figure - most notably in his speech on the Ferris wheel where he defends his actions to Martin.
The film is given a great mood of shadows throughout. The city itself is shown as both beautiful and in ruins and is constantly slanted and shadowy. The final confrontation in the sewers of Vienna is excellent. The score is also good - at first it doesn't seem to fit, as it seems out of step with the mood, but it does work well with the culture that exists in the city at the time - I can't really explain it better than that but it does work.
Overall this is a classic. The story may not be enough to support repeat viewings but the moody, the cinematography and a towering performance by Wells all make this essentially viewing for film fans.
This is a rare film that is flawless in every respect. It combines great acting and memorable characters with a fascinating story, taking place in an interesting setting and adding a creative musical score. "The Third Man" is remembered for many things - for Orson Welles' wonderful performance in his appearances as Harry Lime, for its wonderfully appropriate musical score, and for its nicely conceived plot surprises. Adding to these is Joseph Cotten's fine portrayal of Holly Martins, which holds the rest of it together - it is his character who initiates most of the action, and also through whom we view everything and everyone else.
The story starts, after a nicely done prologue, with Martins arriving in Vienna, and finding out that his friend Harry is not only dead but is accused of running a particularly destructive black market racket. Martins sets out at once to prove his friend's innocence, getting into an immediate scuffle with the police, and it seems at first to set up a conventional plot about clearing the name of a friend - but the actual story that follows is much deeper and much better. It is just right that Martins is an innocent who writes cheap novels for a living, and he gets a pretty memorable lesson in fiction vs. reality. There are some great scenes (the Ferris-wheel confrontation being as good a scene as there is in classic cinema) leading up to a memorable climactic sequence, and a good supporting cast, with Alida Valli as Anna being very good in complementing Lime and Martins. The setting in crumbling post-war Vienna and the distinctive zither score go very nicely with the story.
This is a fine, flawless classic, and while obviously belonging to an earlier era, it deserves a look from anyone who appreciates good movies.
* Once he finally arrived in Vienna, Orson Welles refused to film various scenes in the sewers. Due to his protests, various sets replicating the Vienna sewers had to be constructed by Alexander Korda on sound-stages back in England.
* Orson Welles evaded production assistants and assistant director Guy Hamilton while traveling in Europe when he was supposed to be on location filming in Vienna. During Welles' unexpected absence, Carol Reed had to film around him, getting numerous spectacular shots in the sewers seen in the finished film. Numerous body doubles for Welles were used, included Hamilton, who was made to wear an over-sized hat and padded coat to approximate Welles's larger size. Reed himself doubled for Welles's hands when they reach through the sewer grade. When Welles finally arrived, he was 2 weeks late.
* This was meant to be the first of a series of collaborations between mega-producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda. However, as the production grew difficult, they decided to take it one film at a time. Ironically, due to the success of the film, since both producers were at each other's throats for the credit for the film, they never collaborated again.
* Rumors have long since been widespread that Orson Welles wrote all of Harry Lime's dialogue and even that he took over the direction of his own scenes. Everyone involved, including Welles himself, have always insisted that the film was directed by only Carol Reed. Welles did claim that he wrote most of Lime's dialogue, which is also a fabrication. The extent of Welles' contributions were Lime's grumbling about his stomach problems (which were improvisations) and the famous "cuckoo clock" spiel at the end of the ferris wheel scene.
* During meetings between Graham Greene and Carol Reed with David O. Selznick, Greene was less than impressed with Selznick, who had (according to Selznick's own son) "become something of a parody of himself". Greene later mocked Selznick's dependency at the stage on the drug Dexedrine, better known as "speed". Coincidentally, Reed also became hooked on Dexedrine while shooting the time-consuming film. Both Reed and Selznick were operating on as little as 2 hours of sleep a day.
* Carol Reed had three separate film units working most days of production: a daytime unit, a nighttime unit and a sewer unit. Reed insisted upon directing each unit, resulting in him working 20 hour days.
* David O. Selznick insisted the filmmakers use his contracted starlet Alida Valli for the female lead. Actually, Carol Reed and Alexander Korda were happy with the choice, as Valdi, despite her Italian name and upbringing, happened to be of Austrian heritage and spoke the language fluidly. Selznick became dissatisfied that Reed had Valdi wear more plain clothes, wanting her to look glamorous and beautiful throughout. Reed won out on this aspect, due to the support of Korda.
* Cary Grant was considered for the part of Harry Lime. Conicidentally, Grant was a regular lunchtime visitor to the set of the film when the shooting returned to London sound-stages.
* David O. Selznick was resistant to Carol Reed's idea of casting Orson Welles as Harry Lime, since Selznick had labeled Welles as "box office poison".
* Somewhat apocryphal stories are abound about Carol Reed discovering musician Anton Karas while scouring Vienna bars and nightclubs. Reed actually heard Karas playing at a production party and insisted the Austrian zither player come to Reed's hotel room and record songs to use for the contract. Later in production, Reed realized he wanted to use Karas's music for the whole film and flew Karas out to London to record the score. Karas became a top selling musician thanks to the film and opened a nightclub called "The Third Man" in Vienna, which he ran to the end of his days.
* When the film was initially distributed in America, David O. Selznick replaced the narration at the beginning, originally done by Carol Reed himself, with a narration read inexplicably by Joseph Cotten. Nearly 7 minutes of film was cut out in Selznick's version, including all references in the original cut to Cotten's Holly Martins being an implied alcoholic and anything else that portrayed him as a less than heroic figure.
* Orson Welles starred in a radio series ("The Lives of Harry Lime," 1951-52) based on the early adventures of his character in this film.
* Joseph Cotten re-created his role in the Lux Radio production of "The Third Man" with Evelyn Keyes playing Alida Valli's role. Orson Welles was not in this radio play.
* This film tops the "BFI 100", a list of 100 of "the best British films ever" compiled by the British Film Institute (in 1999/2000). It is also included (at #57) on the American Film Institute's top 100 list compiled in 1996.
* Graham Greene based the character of Harry Lime on British double agent Kim Philby, who was Greene's superior in the British Secret Intelligence Service.
* Harry Lime's character name is derived from Graham Greene's own name. Henry =Harry Graham Greene (Green)= Lime
* Director Carol Reed originally wanted James Stewart for the role of Holly Martins; producer David O. Selznick insisted on Joseph Cotten, who was under contract to Selznick's production company at that time.
* Orson Welles said that when he agreed to play Harry Lime, he was offered either a straight salary or a percentage of the profits. Welles chose the salary but he later regretted it because the film went on to become such a huge hit, the percentage was ultimately worth far more than the salary.
* The tunnels featured in this film are part of the Wienkanal, which channels the Wien River through central Vienna out to the Danube River. The main tunnel is the huge arched structure through which the river flows a distance of about 1.6km. The gated side passages are connections to a wet weather sewer overflow, and the chamber with the balconies is the overflow point. The spiral staircase is one of 6 exits from the main culvert. Tours are run through the system on a daily basis. Events are occasionally held down the tunnels in commemoration of the film and its characters.
* Although David O. Selznick theoretically produced, the rest of the crew hated him and his ideas (he suggested once to Graham Greene that the film be called "Night Time in Vienna").
* Bernard Lee was second choice for Sgt. Paine. The actor who was first choice was not hired because of billing issues.
* The feature debut of Robert Brown (Warlords Of Atantis).
* In one shot in the Wienkanal, a security officer passes by a wall with the engraving "O5," which was the secret symbol of the Austrian resistance against Nazi occupation. ("O5" represents "OE" or "Ö," the first letter of "Österreich," the native name for Austria.)
* Graham Greene chose Harry Lime's surname because it "reminded him of the quicklime where murderers were buried."
# SPOILER: The ending was the subject of contention during production. Surprisingly, Graham Greene, known for his bleak, depressing stories, wanted the film to have a "happy ending", with Holly Martins embracing Anna Schmidt after Lime's funeral; whereas David O. Selznick, known for his love of "Hollywood endings", advocated that Anna should ignore Holly after the funeral. Carol Reed agreed with Selznick and the sad ending was used. Reed, however, felt insecure about the length of the nearly 2-minute shoot he filmed where Martins waits for Anna and she walks by him without acknowledging his presence.
# SPOILER: The scene showing the waning moments of Harry Lime's life in which he extends his fingers futilely towards freedom through a grate in the sewer was suggested to the director by Orson Welles. The hands actually used in that shot belong to director Carol Reed.