Thursday, July 15, 2004

In Search of The Third Man

In Search of the Third Man, by Charles Drazin (Methuen, 1999, and paperback 2000), is one of the most interesting non-fiction books that I've read in a long time. It contains a number of stories and insights which are well worth highlighting, and which generate a few thoughts of my own. But first -- new readers start here.

The Third Man was a film made chiefly in Vienna in 1948/49. On its release it was one of the biggest hits of all time, both in Europe and the USA. It also won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 1949, so it was both a commercial and a critical success. The film was 'presented', i.e. financed, by Alexander Korda, who was British (though highly cosmopolitan), and David O. Selznick, who was American. The director was an Englishman, Carol Reed, and the original screenplay was by the English novelist Graham Greene.

The casting was also a mixture of US and UK talent. The 'stars', whose names mean comparatively little today, were Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli. Smaller parts went to Orson Welles, who played the central character, Harry Lime, and Trevor Howard, who played an English officer.

The film is set in post-war Vienna, a city which had been 'bombed about a bit', to put it mildly, and many of the scenes were shot on location. Other scenes were filmed in Shepperton studios in England. The studio scenes, oddly enough, include virtually all the famous sequences which appear to be shot in Vienna's sewers, and also the shot where Harry Lime's 'body' is dug up in the main Vienna cemetery.

The plot of the film revolves around post-war conditions in Vienna. At the time when the film was made, the inhabitants of that city were still suffering from the after-effects of the war. Not only was their city still largely in ruins, but the Viennese were living on an average of 1200 calories a day -- which is a form of slow starvation.

The film makes it clear that this miserable combination of time and place provides endless opportunities for racketeers. One such is an American, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry, it turns out, is making big money by selling antibiotics on the black market. But he is not satisfied with just selling them: to boost his profits he dilutes them, which means that, even when patients are treated with Harry's high-priced drugs, they still die.

Harry's old friend (played by Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna and finds that Harry is, allegedly, dead. Only he ain't. Harry has become aware that the authorities (in the shape of Trevor Howard) are closing in on him, and he has found it politic to pretend to die. Even his long-suffering girlfriend (Alida Valli) thinks he's dead.

Eventually, everyone finds out that Harry is still alive. And when he makes a final attempt to escape justice, by fleeing through the sewers of Vienna, his old friend (Cotten) shoots him dead.

The Third Man is a classic of film history. If you haven't yet seen it, you should make the effort; it's easy enough to find on DVD. Be aware, however, that because of 'artistic differences' between the American Selznick on the one hand, and the Europeans (Korda and Reed and Greene) on the other, there were two different versions of the film released. The UK version is 104 minutes long, while Selznick put out a version at 93 minutes. This difference seems to be reflected in the various DVD versions. One DVD extra is the two versions of Joseph Cotten's opening voice-over statement, one to suit Selznick and one for the European market.

The film is famous for a variety of reasons, of which the chief are:

1. Orson Welles's performance. Most critics and film buffs agree that Welles dominates the movie, yet he is only on screen for about 11 or 12 minutes. The Harry Lime character is, however, talked about a good deal.

2. The music. Soon after his arrival in Vienna, Carol Reed heard a local musician, Anton Karas, playing an odd sort of Austrian guitar, called a zither. Reed decided to use this zither player as the sole source of background music in the film. Karas's recording of the theme from The Third Man was a massive hit on radio stations everywhere in 1949/50 and was a key factor in attracting the public into the cinema.

3. The ending. In the last scene of the film, Alida Valli leaves the wintry cemetery where Harry has at last been buried (for real, this time), and walks towards the camera along a straight, tree-lined avenue. She starts in the far distance. She walks steadily towards us, accompanied only by Karas's music, and walks straight past Joseph Cotten, with whom, in the average Hollywood movie, she might have been expected to walk off arm in arm.

So much for the necessary background. Some of the points worth making about all this will follow tomorrow.


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