Film... Our man in Vienna: Making 'The Third Man'
Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30
It's hard to think of a more distinctive and boldly original movie than The Third Man. Filmed on a tight budget in post-war Vienna during the winter of 1948, Carol Reed's woozy thriller might have turned out to be a run-of-the-mill film noir were it not for the happy collision of some extraordinary talents.
Principal among these was Reed himself, a hugely accomplished filmmaker then at the height of his powers. But it was his unlikely collaboration with novelist Graham Greene that sowed the seeds of something special. To a simple but powerful story was added the audacious cinematography of Robert Krasker, the weary backdrop of a bombed and bloodied Vienna, and a perfectly judged cast that was dominated by Orson Welles and his will-o-the-wisp villain Harry Lime.
Though only on-screen for 10 minutes, Welles stole the show by making you like a man you really knew you shouldn't. And so synonymous did he become with the film's enduring success, that a myth emerged maintaining that he was its real and uncredited director. This notion was fuelled by the disappointments of Carol Reed's late career: in the 1950s and 60s, he became more of a jobbing director than an auteur, and never made anything nearly as good as The Third Man again.
But the Welles theory is nonsense, because it was Reed's film in both style and spirit, and it was he who fought the objections of producers, backers and actors to ensure it would become something extraordinary. It's been called the greatest British film of all time, and though I can think of one or two competitors for that title, like David Lean's Great Expectations or Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, it's hard to argue with the seamless excellence of The Third Man. It's currently showing at the IFI, Temple Bar, and is a real treat on the big screen.
The idea for the film came from a note Graham Greene had scribbled on the back of an envelope and almost thrown away. It read: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand."
Greene and Carol Reed had collaborated on the fine psychological thriller The Fallen Idol in 1946 after being introduced by producer Alexander Corda. Reed was keen to work with Greene again, so the writer turned to his old envelope and transformed that sliver of an idea into a full-blown story about a disreputable smuggler in post-war Vienna. He wrote the story in novella form, then adapted the screenplay from it.
The novella was narrated by Trevor Howard's character, Major Calloway, but in the screenplay, Greene moved the visiting writer Holly Martens centre-stage. In the book, both Martins and Lime had been English: now they became American, a crucial change.
At the heart of the story was the trauma of post-war Europe. Reed had seen the worst World War Two had to offer while working the British Army's documentary unit, and Greene had sampled the seamy underbelly of geopolitics in his stints as a spy. Their film would capture the bleariness and confusion of a continent trying to come to terms with the enormity of the horrors it had just witnessed.
In Hungarian-born producer Alexander Korda, Reed and Greene had a willing accomplice, but when Hollywood legend David O Selznick got involved, things became a bit bumpier. He wanted Noel Coward to play Harry Lime: when Reed suggested Orson Welles, Selznick was not keen, as the big man was considered box-office poison in Hollywood.
But Reed got his way, and also persuaded Selznick and Korda to let him shoot on location in Vienna, a crucial decision as the city would, in a sense, become the most important character in the film. Italian beauty Alida Valli played Lime's doggedly loyal girlfriend, Anna, and Welles' old Mercury Theatre comrade Joseph Cotten was cast as Holly Martins.
Martins is a hack writer of pulp westerns who comes to Vienna to look for his old college chum, Harry Lime. He arrives just in time to attend Harry's funeral, but as there seems to be some confusion as to how Harry actually died, Holly decides to investigate. He's sternly discouraged by Major Calloway, a grim-faced British Army intelligence officer who looks like he's seen things he'd like to forget but can't.
In fact, Martins is surrounded by gaunt and traumatised locals in a city where his jaunty optimism is ridiculously out of place. No one seems keen to talk about Lime, least of all his solemn girlfriend Anna, but Holly's persistence yields fruit when Harry turns up out of the blue, unharmed and very much alive.
That moment, when Lime first appears, is the film's most iconic: Martins thinks he's being spied on and shouts at a figure hunched in a doorway across the street. A cat rubs against a large, well-shined shoe, then a passing car briefly illuminates Harry's smiling face: he looks slightly wicked, exceedingly amused.
It's probably the greatest entrance in cinema history, and Welles and Reed milked it for all it was worth. And though he only appears in a few scenes, Lime is at the heart of this drama: all The Third Man's characters are defined by their relationship to Harry, a bird of ill omen whose amoral charm poisons the lives of everyone he meets.
Holly Martins is caught between Anna's blind loyalty and Calloway's hard, cruel facts: at one point the Major takes him to a children's hospital to witness the misery Lime has caused by selling diluted penicillin on the black market. A subtle and restlessly philosophical author, Graham Greene was fascinated by sin and guilt, and gave Harry a hell of a speech when he meets Martens at a fairground.
As they rise slowly above the city on a Ferris wheel, Lime smiles, mixing pleasantries with thinly veiled threats. Gazing down at the people below, he asks his old friend "would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever…?"
Not content with that, Welles added his own addendum. "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Harry is a cynic, a lost soul, even a kind of monster, and yet, no one seems quite able to despise him. No one, that is, except the redoubtable Calloway, who finally convinces Holly Martins into betraying his friend by luring him into a trap.
Carol Reed's unforgettable climax involved a desperate scamper through Vienna's labyrinthine sewers. Orson Welles didn't fancy this one bit, and told Reed "I come from America, where everything is clean!" Eventually, the director persuaded him to play ball.
Most of Graham Greene's novels end tragically, but with The Third Man, for once, he'd planned a happy one in which a budding romance between Holly and Anna is implied. But Carol Reed and David O Selznick insisted this would be at odds with everything that had preceded it, and Greene would later admit they were absolutely right.
So instead, in a famous long-shot at the cemetery, Martens waits on a pathway as Anna slowly approaches him, but instead of stopping, she keeps on going, and walks right out of the frame.
That was one of the rare straight shots in a film where Reed and his cinematographer used odd angles and skewed scenes to emphasise the total dysfunction of the world they were describing. This mood was hugely enhanced by the ghostly zither music of Anton Zaras, whom Reed and Trevor Howard had discovered in a Vienna nightclub.
As the late Roger Ebert cleverly pointed out, Karas' zither music is jaunty but joyless, and always reminds me of a man on a dark and lonely road whistling to cheer himself up.
Not everyone was impressed with Reed's film when it came out, and some found its impressionistic style off-putting. His friend William Wyler sent him a spirit level and a note, which read: "Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera".
But Wyler was missing the point. Because in The Third Man, every single element elided to create a noir masterpiece that subtly conveys the trauma of an entire continent.
Carol Reed's Irish classic
A year before he made The Third Man, Carol Reed came to Ireland to make another noir classic that's less well-known, but very highly thought of. In fact, Roman Polanski thinks Odd Man Out is better than The Third Man, and describes it as "one of the best movies I've ever seen". Filmed mainly on location in west and central Belfast, Odd Man Out starred James Mason as Johnny McQueen, a 1940s IRA man who's on the run after staging a daring prison break. For six months, he's been hiding out in a sympathiser's home, but when he's persuaded to take part in a bank job, his cover gets blown.
In Odd Man Out, Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasner experimented with some of the off-kilter camera-work they'd perfect in The Third Man, and the film also boasted a similarly visceral sense of place. Many Abbey actors turned up in smaller roles, from Cyril Cusack and Denis O'Dea to FJ McCormick and Eddie Byrne.
Kathleen Ryan played the film's luminous love interest, a young woman who takes the considerable risk of hiding him. But perhaps the most memorable performance in Odd Man Out was Robert Newton's compelling turn as a drunken, and possibly insane, artist. It's on DVD, and is well worth a look.