The Third Man: Vienna in the Footsteps of a Film Classic-
(By Brigitte Timmermann for the VIENNALE 2002 Catalogue)
Scripted by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed and set in Cold War Vienna, THE THIRD MAN is an undisputed masterpiece of the British cinema and ranks amongst the 60 most important and most popular movies in the history of film. Its 50 th anniversary was celebrated with a spectacular re-release in the English-speaking world.
The story of black market racketeer Harry Lime, his naive pulp fiction writer Holly Martins and beautiful Anna Schmidt between the two men was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece when premiered in London in September 1949 and proved a blockbuster with international audiences all over the world for years to come. It was awarded the British Film of the Year Award for 1949 , the Grand Prix at Cannes , an Oscar (and two more nominations) and and has recently been voted Best British Film of the Century .
The stunning black-and-white photography and tilted camera angles of Australian-born Robert Krasker, Orson Welles's sarcastic cuckoo-clock speech, an international all-star cast, and the hypnotising zither score by Anton Karas have lost nothing of their appeal. Film buffs are still thrilled by Orson Welles' best film entrance ever and the famous Ferries Wheel showdown high atop the deserted Prater Fairground. The manhunt through the dark labyrinths of Vienna 's sewers still holds them in its spell. For years, aficionados have been flocking to Vienna to get a feel for the places where Carol Reed and his London-Film crew set up their gear in wintry October 1948.
THE THIRD MAN was born out of a crisis of the film industry both in Britain and in Austria . Being faced with an ever growing competition from Hollywood and a detrimental film funding policy of the government, the British film industry was forced to resort to more international productions both in terms of subject matters and exciting foreign settings. On the other side of the Channel, the Austrian film industry had to try and shed its Nazi-image resulting from the amalgamation of the Austrian and German film industries after 1938 and regain its reputation as a central-European film metropolis in its own right. Eventually, three producers teamed up: Hungarian-born film tycoon Sir Alexander Korda of London Film Productions was the driving force and principal financier behind a film. Who better than a cosmopolitan character like Alexander Korda, with his brilliant connections to the world of film as well as international politics and intelligence, knew how to exploit the unrivalled potentials of post-war Vienna, the city he knew so well since his work at the Vienna Laaeerberg film studios in the early 20s, and the ties to which he had never cut off? He worked out a deal with American producer David O. Selznick ( Gone With the Wind ) who provided the stars Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli in return for American distribution rights. Last not least, there was Austrian producer-director Karl Hartl, the artistic director of Wien Film Productions who had been Korda's production manager and closest associate on his Austrian films, who managed to get Korda as well as Greene and Reed hooked on the idea of setting Greene's story in Vienna and shooting the entire film on genuine Vienna locations (which made the THIRD MAN the first British film shot almost entirely on location). It was also Karl Hartl who complemented Carol Reed's British crew of 40 with production assistants like Paul Martin, cameramen like Hans Schneeberger or Walter Partsch, sound engineers, light technitians, and dozens of bit-players and doubles, he assisted Carol Reed in location research and casting the Austrian actors and helped keep the Soviets at bay when shooting was required in the Russian sector of Vienna.
When Korda sent Greene to Vienna to research the city's potential for a suspense-packed story, Vienna was far removed from its popular image of music and good life. It was marred by ghastly ruins, governed by the four victorious powers and policed by an international patrol. It had become a playground of Cold War politics and notorious hub of international espionage. People were destitute and the black market was thriving. The city was packed with refugees many of whom were from Eastern Europe trying, like Anna in the film, to obtain false papers to avoid repatriation by the Soviets. Indeed a perfect backdrop for a tense mystery thriller story!
But Graham Greene wanted more than just cheap entertainment about a man setting out to clear his dead friend's name and himself becoming involved in the city's criminal underworld. Using Vienna as a metapher of a world that had physically and morally fallen into pieces, he made it into a pessimistic story of social, political and moral corruption. It is not only about crime - the ruthless trafficking in penicillin - but also of redemption, not only of friendship but also its betrayal. At the same time he allowed THE THIRD MAN to become a most authentic documentary of Vienna , a microcosm of Cold War politics, which most accurately captures the tension, mistrust and fear so characteristic of post-war Europe . Fact and fiction beautifully amalgamated, with character relationships becoming symbolic of national political relationships.
Carol Reed's directing finally made THE THIRD MAN the ultimate movie about Vienna . Weeks of local research, long evenings spent at seedy Vienna bars watching people and six weeks of location shooting on Vienna 's vast squares and in the Old Town 's historic cobble-stoned back alleys – a sensation in the late forties – made sure the city got absolute centre stage position. Never before and never after in film history would Vienna be so impressively portrayed, so beautifully photographed. Making full use of the delapidated cityscape, of nightly street vistas and of the Ferries Wheel, one of the most striking of the city's landmarks, he made THE THIRD MAN into a hallmark of Vienna and a film that is most immediately associated with this city. Needless to say that he also managed to catch the city's very spirit and the prevailing frustration and despair over the country's liberation turned occupation. THE THIRD MAN became his unrivalled masterpiece, the film he will always be remembered by.
In the beginning, Carol Reed's assistant director Guy Hamilton was not so sure about a success. “Did we know it was going to be a success?” he reminisced one day, “of course not. Everyone did his best. But the casting wasn't really ideal: Joe Cotten had as much sex-appeal as .... you could have fed him to the birds. Orson was box-office poison, Valli was more or less unkonwn, Trevor was Trevor. There was simply no Cary Grant in it. It was a real trap.” But Carol Reed proved him wrong.
Carol Reed was fortunate to work with a star-studded cast, right down to the supporting parts played by Austrians. There was Orson Welles, the wunderkind of American cinema who in 1941 immortalized himself with Citizen Kane and yet was shunned by Hollywood for being “box office poison”. Selznick would not hear of him, Carol Reed insisted on him and fared only too well. Harry Lime became one of his most enigmatic performances and made the film. All credit, however, must go to Carol Reed for getting a well-tempered performance out of Orson Welles, who quite naturally would have preferred to do the directing himself. Only once did he escape, and a few seconds were enough for the most celebrated lines of the movie (at the end of the Ferries Wheel scene): “...and don't be so gloomy. Remember what the man said: under the Borgias there was warfare, bloodshed and murder and they had Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they have brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what have they produced? The cuckoo clock! So long ....”
The famous encounter of the two one-time tour on the Ferries Wheel was as much Cotten's scene as it was Welles', yet it was Orson Welles who got all the credit for it. It seemed to be Joseph Cotten's destiny to always stand in the shaddow of his greater-than-life-friend (except for once when Venice award him with Best Actor of Year Price Price for Portrait with Jenny ). What critics do give him credit for is that at least he captures life in the shadow of a bigger man in a most perfect manner! Joseph Cotten, the anti-hero, the innocent abroad, the perfect loser. His first appearance in film together with Orson Welles was in Citizen Kane , their ways crossing again on the set of Journey into Fear.
Lovely and soulful Italian-born Alida Valli as Harry Lime's Czech girl-friend is torn by a frustrated love and also pursued by Vienna 's international police for living in Vienna with a forged passport – provided for her by her racketeer-friend Harry! Only 20 years old, Venice had chosen her Best Actress of the Year. Following the war she landed a contract with David O. Selznick who starred her in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case next to Joseph Cotten and Charles Laughton. But her career did not really take off until her appearance in THE THIRD MAN. Most of her subsequent appearances were in Italian films, working with such noted directors as Luchino Visconti, Michelangeo Antonioni, Pier Paulo Pasolini, and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Trevor Howard ( Brief Encounter , Ryan's Daughte, Mutiny on the Bounty ) impresses with a grimly unswervering British Military Police man. His loyal sergeant, the only one who is not ashamed of admiring Holly Martins pulp westerns and whose greatest dream in life was to see Texas , the setting of the stories he loved so well. He is played by Bernard Lee, well known to James Bond fans as legendary ‘M'.
In addition to the starring parts, Carol Reed picked also each character in the support cast with meticulous care. Much to the surprise of his fellow countrymen, they were all big names with their local fans: Hedwig Bleibtreu was the doyenne of the Burgtheater in Vienna , Ernst Deutsch one of the most prolific actors of the German stage under Max Reinhardt,Paul Hörbiger an all-time-favourite with vast cinema and theatre audiences both in Austria and Germany . German-born Erich Ponto was cast by Carol Reed while giving a guest performance at Vienna 's renownedJosefstadt Theatre, Anna's theatre in the film.
Carol Reed not only had the perfect cast at hand, but also the best crew he could wish for. Australian-born cinematographer Robert Krasker was awarded an Oscar for his vivid, expressionistic black-and-white photography, Austrian-born Oswald Hafenrichter a nomination for Best Editing. Vincent Korda, John Hawkesworth, Joseph Bato and Ferdinand Bellan of the Art Department , were each artists in their own rights. Production assistant Bod Dunbar later founded the London School of Film.