By John Duncan Talbird.
What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride.
—from This Is Orson Welles (New York: Harper Collins, 1992)
Orson Welles’ Harry Lime doesn’t appear in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) until an hour into the film. All the other characters — his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), his lover Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who is trying to bring him to justice, and his various co-conspirators do nothing but talk about him until then. He’s supposed to be dead and though we know that Welles plays him and we expect his eventual appearance, it’s still a delicious shock when it happens. I’ve seen this film at least a half-dozen times and I get a chill when that old German woman yells out her window into the night, turns on a light, and Harry Lime is revealed to his best friend Martins, and to us, standing in a classic noir doorway, only to disappear back into the shadows with nothing but the damp sound of his retreating footsteps. This, like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), is a classic role because everything surrounding it — script, setting, cinematography, soundtrack, supporting performances — conspire to make it great.
I think this is the most memorable role that Joseph Cotton ever played. And Alida Valli shows us why these two men have fallen in love with her. We see her first at Harry Lime’s funeral (the first one) and she seems rather plain, worn, in fact. Over the course of the film, though, we come to know this tragic figure as Holly Martins does. I don’t think a depressed woman has ever seemed as romantic in a motion picture before or since. Despite their bravado performances — and the solid supporting cast, especially the two British soldiers played by Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee — everyone thinks of Welles’ Lime when they think of this movie. That, and Anton Karas’ zither music.
The Third Man is a masterpiece of location scouting and shooting. Rubble-strewn, postwar Vienna is another character in the film. The broken-cobble streets, the bombed-out car that Holly Marten’s hides in from pursuers, the disused amusement park where one child pushes another on a dead merry-go-round and Lime makes a not-so-subtle threat to throw his best friend from the top of a carousel. The extras even become characters in this film as they fill up the screen at moments in close-up, all of them watching Holly Martens as he stumbles drunkenly through the nighttime city vainly attempting to clear the name of his dead smuggler friend. The city chases Holly at one point, a group of angry civilians pursuing him and Harry’s girl Anna through the night, the crowd led by a strident child screaming German, his shadow larger than the fleeing couple.
It’s a testament to Reed’s masterful control over his material — along with Graham Greene’s brilliant script and Robert Krasker’s canted cinematography and, of course, that zither music — that Welles stands so tall in our memory. Despite all the realism of the film — a postwar Vienna playing itself, real Russian and German actors speaking their birth languages without subtitles — it is a model lesson on the illusion-making of the best films. Welles only spent ten days on the Vienna set. Much of the scenes we associate with him — his running shadow, his hiding and fleeing in the Vienna sewers, his dying fingers grasping through the holes of the manhole cover — are doubles. The fingers in that shot before Lime dies are actually Carol Reed’s. Because Welles’ refused to go down into the sewers after his first take, many of those shots of the fleeing Lime are also doubles. That fleeing shadow after Welles’ dramatic appearance is actually Assistant Director Guy Hamilton in a big coat and a big hat since, as Reed said, he was “a skinny little bastard” and Orson Welles was a big man.
Despite the dual British-American nature of the production, the Brits managed to keep the Americans from ruining this picture. In addition to Welles uncooperativeness, Joseph Cotten also worried that his character’s original name, Rollo, had homosexual implications (though it’s unclear why he thought that Holly would be a better choice). David O. Selznick, the US producer of the film, sent seventy-two memos to Reed during shooting and famously told Graham Greene in expressing his dislike for the title, “You can do better than that, Graham.” Selznick was very concerned that the film would seem too “British” which is why the two main characters, Martins and Lime, were changed to Americans and played by American actors. Also, in the American version, Joseph Cotten narrates the opening sequence instead of the Brit Carol Reed in the original version. For US audiences, eleven minutes were edited out, presumably to make the film clip along at a faster pace.
Those eleven minutes have been added back. Rialto Pictures and Deluxe Media have done a masterful job in their recent restoration of The Third Man created from Carol Reed’s definitive print. The film’s damp, noir streets and alleyways are the crispest I’ve seen. The shadows glide across the screen as if they were originally shot in digital. Via the magic of stagecraft and Krasker’s close-ups, Alida Valli’s Anna magically transforms from a pathetic woman to a love interest and back into a tragic figure in the space of two hours. The sound is clear and seems to wash over you. Anton Karas’ zither music stayed with me for hours after watching this restoration. And Welles is charming, beautiful and a giant — in all senses of the word — the twinkle in his eye flashing from the screen as he plays a villain pulling a big one over on everyone, those cherubic cheeks barely hinting at the fat man he will one day become.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the just-released, limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.