Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli
Plot: An out of work pulp fiction novelist, Holly Martins, arrives in a post war Vienna divided into sectors by the victorious allies, and where a shortage of supplies has lead to a flourishing black market. He arrives at the invitation of an ex-school friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job, only to discover that Lime has recently died in a peculiar traffic accident. From talking to Lime's friends and associates Martins soon notices that some of the stories are inconsistent, and determines to discover what really happened to Harry Lime.
Orson Welles worked one week on this film.
The Vienna Police Dept. has a special unit that is assigned solely to patrol the city's intricate sewer system, as its network of interlocking tunnels make great hiding places for criminals on the run from the law, stolen property, drugs, etc. The "actors" playing police officers in the film were actually off-duty members of that unit.
Orson Welles starred in a British radio series ("The Adventures of Harry Lime" [broadcast in the United States as "The Lives of Harry Lime"]) 1951-52) based on the early adventures of his character in this film.
When the film was initially distributed in America, David O. Selznick replaced the narration at the beginning (a necessity to explain the very unusual status of Vienna in the aftermath of World War II, when the film was set), originally done by Carol Reed himself, with a narration read by Joseph Cotten, in character as Holly Martins. Nearly eleven minutes of film was cut out in Selznick's version, including all references in the original cut to Cotten's Holly Martins being an implied alcoholic and anything else that portrayed him as a less than heroic figure.
The frequent use by director Carol Reed of Dutch angles to portray uneasiness and tension in the characters earned him a gift from his crew at the end of filming: a spirit level.
Carol Reed had three separate film units working most days of production: a daytime unit, a nighttime unit and a sewer unit. Reed insisted upon directing each unit, resulting in him working 20 hour days.
A huge fan of the film, Martin Scorsese wrote a major thesis on it whilst in film school. He got a B+ for it, his tutor remarking "Forget it, it's just a thriller".
Director Carol Reed originally wanted James Stewart for the role of Holly Martins; producer David O. Selznick insisted on Joseph Cotten, who was under contract to Selznick's production company at that time.
In one shot in the Wienkanal, a security officer passes by a wall with the engraving "O5," which was the secret symbol of the Austrian resistance against Nazi occupation. ("O5" represents "OE" or "÷," the first letter of "÷sterreich," the native name for Austria.)
Carol Reed went to great lengths to capture the atmosphere of the beleaguered city on film, and he was helped along by city officials and ordinary inhabitants. On nights when rain was unavailable to give the cobblestone streets the appropriate glistening sheen, for example, the city would provide a fire brigade to wet things down. Reed also incorporated many local residents into the film as extras such as the often glimpsed balloon seller.
Orson Welles initially refused to do the sewer sequences because he was convinced the bad air would give him some disease. Carol Reed claimed there was nothing to worry about as the smell was a result of disinfectant, not excrement. According to Reed, the apprehensive Welles didn't believe him.
Anton Karas wrote and performed the score, which featured only the zither. The title music "The Third Man Theme" topped the international music charts in 1950, bringing the previously unknown performer international fame.
According to Welles - "When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they've never made any cuckoo clocks", as the clocks are native to the German Black Forest.
In the AFI book "Private Screenings" critic Roger Ebert cited this as his favourite film.
Orson Welles evaded production assistants and assistant director Guy Hamilton while traveling in Europe when he was supposed to be on location filming in Vienna. During Welles' unexpected absence, Carol Reed had to film around him, getting numerous spectacular shots in the sewers seen in the finished film. Numerous body doubles for Welles were used, included Hamilton, who was made to wear an over-sized hat and padded coat to approximate Welles' larger size. Reed himself doubled for Welles' hands when they reach through the sewer grate. When Welles finally arrived, he was 2 weeks late.
Rumors have long since been widespread that Orson Welles wrote all of Harry Lime's dialogue and even that he took over the direction of his own scenes. Everyone involved, including Welles himself, have always insisted that the film was directed by only Carol Reed. Welles did claim that he wrote most of Lime's dialogue, which is also a fabrication. The extent of Welles' contributions were Lime's grumbling about his stomach problems (which were improvisations) and the famous "cuckoo clock" spiel at the end of the ferris wheel scene.
The ending was the subject of contention during production. Surprisingly, Graham Greene, known for his bleak, depressing stories, wanted the film to have a "happy ending", with Holly Martins embracing Anna Schmidt after Lime's funeral; whereas David O. Selznick, known for his love of "Hollywood endings", advocated that Anna should ignore Holly after the funeral. Carol Reed agreed with Selznick and the sad ending was used. Reed, however, felt insecure about the length of the nearly 2-minute shoot he filmed where Martins waits for Anna and she walks by him without acknowledging his presence.
David O. Selznick was resistant to Carol Reed's idea of casting Orson Welles as Harry Lime, since Selznick had labeled Welles as "box office poison".
After giving his talk to the book club, Holly Martins escapes from the police through an attic room containing a cockatoo (referred to as "a parrot" by Martins). There is a brief shot which includes a painting of a nude seen over Martins' shoulder. The nude's pubic hair can be clearly seen, so this shot's appearance in a major release of the period represents a very rare lapse by film censors.
Orson Welles is on screen for only about five minutes.