The Third Man (1949) Directed by Carol Reed. Written by Graham Greene. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli.

Orson Welles could not have imagined that his greatest triumphs; the theatrical coups, the radio fame and the brilliant Citizen Kane, would all be over by the time he was 27. His second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, would be butchered in the editing room by RKO while he was in South America filming a documentary at the behest of the US government's "Good Neighbor Policy." It's All True was never finished, and Welles gained the unjust reputation of being financially wasteful and unable to complete his projects. He spent the rest of his career using his prodigious talents to raise money for his own films. The unpretentious auteur of Citizen Kane could occasionally be found guest-hosting for Johnny Carson.

J. Hoberman wrote The Third Man is "A fun-house Casablanca…set in the broken heart of Europe--an uncanny Vienna populated by a multi-national assortment of rogues and fools." Joseph Cotton plays a writer of pulp Westerns whose noble instincts are out of place in a complex political arena he can't possibly comprehend. Graham Greene worked occasionally as a spy in real life, and brought this experience to his thrillers. Director Carol Reed spent WWII shooting documentaries for the British Army. The shadowy rubble in partitioned Vienna gave a neo-realistic chill to American audiences unable to visualize life in a war zone, and clearly foreshadows the maze of Cold War panic and paranoia.



Welles acted in The Third Man to finance his Othello. His desperate need for cash prompted him to choose a quick $100,000 for ten days work, instead of a percentage. The film became an international hit, and the jaunty theme, played by Anton Karas, a zither player Reed discovered in a Vienna café, became practically inescapable. Welles bemoaned the fact he could have retired on the unmade money. Still, it was the only movie of his that he could ever stand to watch on television. He wrote his own dialogue (Greene credited him in the published screenplay) and added a few directorial touches, but firmly said Reed was the creator of the film.

In his autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten wrote at length about the filming of The Third Man. The night-time illumination of the shattered Viennese squares took a great deal of time, and the cast spent the many hours between dusk and dawn waiting for camera set-ups to be completed. No final scene was ever written and Reed shot the end without telling his leading man his intentions. The perfect concluding scene doesn't reveal Cotten's panic as the camera rolls and rolls; afraid that he had forgotten what the director told him he was supposed to do.



Welles's entrance in The Third Man is one of cinema's most memorable ones. Cotten wrote of it, "King Vidor, one of our cinematic giants, always said that in the history of films, every great moment that shines in memory is a silent one." (Discuss.) Welles said, "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 is really a vehicle. All you have to do is ride."


Photo (One of 3 Cotten glamour shots) from anonymous Movie Star Scrapbook c. 1941