The Third Man (1949)
December 29, 2015 8:20 AM - Subscribe

Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy postwar Vienna only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of his old friend Harry Lime.

In February 1948, Hungarian-born Alexander Korda, chief producer at British Lion Films, sent Graham Greene to Vienna to come up with a film treatment set amidst the city's bleak post WWII landscape. A few months later Greene came back with a novella in which clumsy Western pulp writer Holly Martins arrives in Vienna to find that his childhood friend Harry Lime was killed in an auto accident a few days before. Martins soon has reason to suspect that the death was not an accident.

Korda promptly went to work, picking up Carol Reed as director (on the heels of Reed's great film of lost innocence, The Fallen Idol) and David O. Selznick as coproducer to supply some American talent and dollars. Selznick offered to cast Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli , both of whom were on contract to him. Reed very much wanted Orson Welles to play Harry Lime; Selznick vehemently disagreed, calling Welles "box office poison," but Korda apparently broke the tie and signed on Welles.

Reed and Greene holed up in a Vienna hotel in the latter part of 1948, planning and writing by day and partying in Vienna's cabarets by night. It is widely believed that Greene based the character of Harry Lime on infamous British double agent Kim Philby. Events from Greene's time in Vienna show up in the film: a literary lecture which Greene was coerced into giving is turned into a soporific lecture by the very unliterary Holly Martins. Frederick Baker, in his 2005 documentary "Shadowing The Third Man," suggests that Greene's tussles with Selznick over many details of the film found their way into the tense relationship of Martins, naive and headstrong American, with the savvy and overworked British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard).

At a welcome party for Reed and Greene thrown by Korda's former boss at Wien Film, Karl Hartl, a Viennese nightclub musician named Anton Karas played zither. Reed didn't even know what the instrument was called, but was so taken with Karas and the zither that he called on Karas to write a score for his film. Karas scored the film and recorded at least some of his music in Reed's hotel room, pillows pressed against the doors to muffle the sound. Karas' Harry Lime Theme was one of 1950's biggest international hits. The score provides a much-needed counterpoint to some of the heavier themes of the film and is an indispensable part of the film's aesthetic success.

Some interesting questions asked by film buffs over the years:

Is it a film noir? Many writers simply call it a noir and leave it at that. The film does have many noir elements: the shadows, the divergent lines, the corruption of one of its central characters. But, as Frederick Baker points out, the heavy location shooting in "The Third Man" is more typical of neorealist cinema. (Vittorio de Sica's groundbreaking neorealist masterpiece The Bicycle Thief hit cinemas in 1949.) Also, thematically, only one of the three central characters is truly corrupt: noir rarely focuses on what happens to the more innocent people around the wrongdoer. Martins is of course a complete naif, and Anna, while she is on the run from the Russians because of her Nazi father, really has not done anything wrong. I think that this element places the film slightly outside the realm of traditional noir. What makes a film noir or noirish has been discussed enthusiastically on the Blue before.

Did Welles direct or write the dialogue? Baker shows footage in which Welles himself says that he did NOT direct the film, but of course the visual style of much of the film owes quite a bit to "Citizen Kane." In the same breath, Welles said that he DID write much of the dialogue. Per Frederick Baker, that just is not so. Welles wrote Lime's famous "cuckoo clock" speech, but the rest of the dialogue is very much Graham Greene's. On the directorial issue, Welles rightly deferred to Reed, who brought an unerring aesthetic sense AND a deeply good-hearted humanist sensibility to what would be his masterpiece. Welles is brilliantly cast here and that, again, was largely Reed's idea.

The cat? Took them six days to get that doorway shot right, but catloving Reed persisted.

Further reading/viewing/mewing:
posted by Sheydem-tants (33 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The score provides a much-needed counterpoint to some of the heavier themes of the film and is an indispensable part of the film's aesthetic success.

Sorry, but I very much disagree on this point. I find the zither music annoying and distracting, and certainly not an effective counterpoint of any kind. I love this film, but I often find myself debating whether to watch it because I know the music is going to taint a lot of my enjoyment.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:13 AM on December 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

God help me, I love the zither.
posted by maxsparber at 11:11 AM on December 29, 2015 [10 favorites]

@Thorzdad It's so funny how people react SO DIFFERENTLY to music. For me, "The Third Man" would be almost unbearably sad without Karas' score. Then again, I play banjo, too, so I do tend to be a fan of disfavored stringed instruments!
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

The cuckoo clock speech is one of my favorite things Welles ever did:
Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, 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. So long Holly.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's a great speech, but it may not be accurate.

"when Italy was enjoying the Borgias, Switzerland was enjoying a reputation as-to quote Douglas Miller's "The Swiss at War"-"the most powerful and feared military force in Europe." Switzerland was about as neutral in those days as had been Mongolia under Genghis Khan."
-John McPhee, La Place de la Concorde Suisse
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:50 AM on December 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the speech is weird -- after all, Switzerland also had 30 years of war during the Borgias, and it was called the 30 Year War. And, I mean, they discovered DNA, invented Laudanum and aluminum foil, and had Paul Klee and Ferdinand Hodler, so there's a lot more to them than clocks.

But, you know, I think the filmmakers knew that. But Harry Lime will say anything that supports his gleeful immorality, true or not.
posted by maxsparber at 12:05 PM on December 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Orson Welles was such a magnificent bastard. Joseph Cotton, too.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:15 PM on December 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Love this movie, Cotten is one of my favorite actors from that era.
posted by octothorpe at 1:01 PM on December 29, 2015

And listening to the soundtrack right now.
posted by octothorpe at 1:03 PM on December 29, 2015

Herb Alpert's rendition of. The Third Men Theme" was incredible, and one of his ten best songs.
posted by happyroach at 1:32 PM on December 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love this movie, and had the privilege of catching a theater screening of it earlier this year. Put me in the pro-zither camp. I think it goes a long way in giving the movie its peculiar jauntiness, and is a perfect accompaniment to Lime's carefree, freewheeling evil.

Being not especially well-read in pre-20th century European history, I took Lime's statement about Switzerland at face value. That it is inaccurate is actually perfect--it underscores the fact that Lime is a total bullshitter, and not as smart as he clearly wants everyone to think he is.

Earlier this year, I saw a video online where some genius mashed up Welles' speech with the video of Linus' Christmas speech from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Can't seem to track it down now, though.
posted by zchyrs at 3:17 PM on December 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

I like cuckoo clocks, though.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:48 PM on December 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

@zchyrs good point about Lime's BS: it is likely that Greene had that in mind.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:31 PM on December 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Matthew Dessem's essay on his old blog The Criterion Contraption is also worth a read, as is pretty much everything he's written about movies.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:40 PM on December 29, 2015

Thorzdad, I'm with you on the zither, totally didn't work for me either
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:06 PM on December 29, 2015

I haven't been to Vienna, but you can take a The Third Man tour of the sewers.
Sewer review.
Sewer contact info.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:38 PM on December 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Anton Karas will have you in a dither with his zither!*

* actual marketing line inexplicably expected to excite 1940s British audiences.
posted by Artw at 7:06 PM on December 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Calloway: ... What's the matter with your hand?
Martins: A parrot bit me.
Calloway: Oh, stop behaving like a fool, Martins.
I love this movie so much.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 10:14 PM on December 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah I like this movie, but the zither music drives me absolutely potty. I'm not a big fan of any film which has an overly intrusive score and by god is it over bearing here.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 11:36 PM on December 29, 2015

This is one of my favorite movies. I wish I could get more people to watch it.

"That it is inaccurate is actually perfect--it underscores the fact that Lime is a total bullshitter, and not as smart as he clearly wants everyone to think he is."

That's the best way to interpret that line. Whether Welles intended it, whatever Greene or Reed thought of its veracity, knowing that it's convincing bullshit only improves it. It's utterly in character and the fact that much of the audience takes it at face-value is sort of wonderful.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:29 AM on December 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

The famous cuckoo clock line was, according to Welles, from an old play, thus the "Like the fella says" phrase at the beginning. This strongly suggests that it should be understood as apocryphal.

Also, in the film, Anna is not in the run due to a Nazi father. Rather, it's directly stated that she is of Czechoslovakian origin, and thus a target of Soviet repatriation. Even in the book, the reason the Soviets can claim her has as much to do with her status as an Hungarian national as with her father's Nazism.

Harry and Holly work well as the two faces of New World arrogance and ignorance, the one a profiteering, savvy, charmer who can rationalize anything if it's to his benefit, and the other a stumbling, selfsure ignoramus given to romantic delusions. I don't know if it's a film noir, but from a certain perspective -- one evident in Graham's other spy fiction -- it is a sort of horror story about postwar realignment.
posted by kewb at 12:53 PM on January 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Loved this movie, but I also loved the TV show that was based on it, too...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:58 PM on January 1, 2016

This is probably in my top 10 films of all time. And the score is phenomenal.
posted by brundlefly at 6:05 PM on January 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

@kewb: thanks for clarifying the difference between the film and novella when it comes to Anna's predicament. The Nazi father was mentioned in "Shadowing the Third Man." I didn't remember it from the film, but figured I'd just missed a detail.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:48 AM on January 2, 2016

I first saw The Third Man in my 10th grade English class. The Ferris wheel scene gripped me as the first realistic film villain I'd ever seen.

Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

It was years before I saw it again, or remembered/learned the name of the movie, but it's been a favorite ever since.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:46 PM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

As well as the sewer tours, there is a quirky little museum in Vienna dedicated to the making of this movie and information and information about the city after the war. It is well worth a visit - it is filled with all sorts of memorabilia and the proprietor is knowledgeable to the point of obsession (but in a good way).
posted by marguerite at 7:49 AM on January 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I adore this film. Easily in my top 10.

For those who want more Harry Lime, The Lives of Harry Lime was a radio series of prequels made two years after The Third Man. The stories aren't as dark or sophisticated as the film, but Welles is still incredible.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 7:50 PM on January 26, 2016

Ohh, I'm going to get to see the 4K restoration at EbertFest in April on the giant screen at the Virginia Theater in Champaign.
posted by octothorpe at 7:58 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just watched it on a giant screen and fell in love with it all over again. Watching a talk right now with Angela Allen who was a script supervisor on the film and almost a hundred other movies. She's almost 90 but is just wonderful and charming.
posted by octothorpe at 9:09 PM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just watched this movie again. After 20 years I had forgotten how great it is: the camera angles, the use of shadows, the morality about war profiteering vs being a charming scoundrel, the ending where he doesn't get the girl.
And then the impression of 1948 Vienna, the clothes, the mountains of rubble of war destruction, the 3 occupational powers jointly in control of Vienna, ...
posted by jouke at 12:26 AM on September 17, 2023

I love this film beyond all reason. Absolutely worth seeing on the big screen if you can. Joseph Cotten's best role, which he embraces even though it's far from flattering.

(I first saw what must have been a butchered version on a small screen not too long after I'd seen Dr. Zhivago, and so my reaction was, dear God, not more stringed instruments! Now I wholeheartedly embrace the zither. It reminds me of the description of the city's laughter in An Ermine in Czernopol.)
posted by praemunire at 10:36 AM on September 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

If you like the expressionist shots of streets with looming shadows you may enjoy Soderberghs 1991 Kafka.
posted by jouke at 10:44 AM on September 17, 2023

I admit I became slightly less impressed with the visual style after I saw M, but then a style doesn't have to be brand-new to be deployed effectively.
posted by praemunire at 11:11 AM on September 17, 2023

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