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  • Post last modified:January 28, 2022

The Third Man: Waltzing in Vienna


Orson Welles. Photo: British Lion Film

Elizabeth Varley, the daughter of a British lord, spent World War II working as an ambulance driver in France and later for the British embassy in Bern. After the war she worked on screenplays for producer Alexander Korda, and that’s why she found herself in Vienna in 1948, serving as a tour guide for Graham Greene. He was about to write the script for The Third Man and needed to familiarize himself with the city. She showed him seedy nightclubs; the Times correspondent Peter Smolka made Greene understand Vienna’s black market.

The author’s research was so thorough he ended up writing a whole novella. It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone outside the production, but it was subsequently published, showing interesting differences between Greene’s first take on the story and the cinematic masterpiece that Carol Reed came to direct.

Offered a job in Vienna
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a writer of Western stories who arrives in Vienna shortly after the war. He’s there because his childhood friend Harry Lime has offered him a job. Martins hasn’t met Lime in years, and is shocked to learn that Lime was killed in a traffic accident. Martins soon finds reason to suspect that something is wrong. The people he meets give different accounts of what happened and how many were present at the site. He also learns that Lime had a girlfriend, the actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). When Martins goes to see her at the theater, they both suspect foul play. Soon, the British military police are searching Anna’s apartment and a porter who had more information is suddenly killed…

A rumor that Orson Welles directed
Carol Reed’s greatest films were made after the war and this one is at the top of the list. Years after the premiere of The Third Man, rumor had it that Orson Welles directed the film, which is understandable to some degree. Peter Bogdanovich, the great director, film scholar and friend of Welles’s, believed that Reed was likely inspired by Citizen Kane (1941) and Welles’s filmmaking style. Welles did contribute to the dialogue in important ways (there wouldn’t be any ”cuckoo clock” speech up in that ferris wheel, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, without him), but he also made it clear to Bogdanovich in later interviews that it was all Carol Reed’s picture.

Much of the film was shot on location in Vienna, where Reed and his team took great advantage of the city. It’s not just what we can see in terms of ruins, bomb craters, the four zones and the underground milieu, but they also capture a sense of this postwar city, where you can disappear, start over, make a fast buck or perish without anyone knowing you were ever there. In this film, Vienna is as much a character as Harry Lime. Obviously, he suddenly makes an appearance after a while, not quite as dead as Martins believed, and the scenes with Welles are among the film’s best, thrilling when it comes to the tense dialogue as well as the climactic chase in the sewers, staged to extraordinarily stylish effect by cinematographer Robert Krasker. Unsurprisingly, he was inspired by German Expressionism as he shaped a portrait of a city that is hardly endearing but fascinating and dangerous.

Cotten is fine in the lead as his character is drawn into Lime’s black-market schemes, but Welles tends to dominate, his mysterious and crafty crime lord so persuasive that Valli’s Anna can’t and won’t find a way to escape him.

One of the film’s most unforgettable ingredients is the music score. Reed didn’t want any Viennese waltzes. Instead, he became fascinated by the zither music by Anton Karas, an unknown performer in the city at the time. It was a chance encounter, one that made Karas just as immortal as the film itself. 

The Third Man 1949-Britain. 104 min. B/W. Produced by Alexander Korda, Carol Reed, David O. Selznick. Directed by Carol Reed. Screenplay: Graham Greene. Cinematography: Robert Krasker. Music: Anton Karas. Cast: Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Trivia: James Stewart and Cary Grant were reportedly considered for the part of Martins and Lime. Later a TV series, The Third Man (1959-1965). Remade in Croatia in 1997.

Oscar: Best Cinematography. BAFTA: Best British Film. Cannes: Grand Prize. 

Quote: “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.” (Welles to Cotten)

Last word: “I suffered a lot of opposition going to Vienna with ‘The Third Man’. In those days, one didn’t take actors on location. But here’s an example of the way finance does dominate the business. If you’ve got five weeks on location, you know you’ve got to get all your shots in that period. We had a day and a night unit. The actors we used at night didn’t work in the day and vice versa. We worked from eight p.m. to five a.m. then went to bed, got up at ten a.m. worked with the day unit until four, and then went back to bed until eight. That way we got double the work done in the same time. It’s a bit of a rush, but it’s better to rush than not get it all and have to match things in the studio.” (Reed, “Encountering Directors”)



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