Thirty-six years ago today, on April 25th, 1976, filmmaker Carol Reed passed away. One of the greatest directors ever to come out of the U.K., Reed started out as an actor, but gained fame as a writer-director in the late 1930s and 1940s, thanks to films like “Night Train To Munich,” and the outstanding “Odd Man Out” and “The Fallen Idol.” Later, he’d also find success with films like “Trapeze,” “Our Man In Havana,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Oliver!,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, beating out Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001” and Gillo Pontecorvo‘s “The Battle of Algiers.”
But Reed’s undisputed masterpiece is “The Third Man,” a 1949 film noir based on a screenplay by the great British writer Graham Greene. The film involves a writer of Westerns, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who comes to post-war Vienna after being promised a job by his childhood friend Harry Lime. On arriving, he discovers that Lime had seemingly been killed shortly beforehand. However, he soon finds out, through investigating with Lime’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) that his old pal had been stealing and diluting penicillin from military hospitals, leading to the death of children, and that Lime (indelibly played by Orson Welles) is still alive.
The film is frequently named as among the greatest ever made: the British Film Institute called it the greatest ever film from the U.K. in 1999, and the AFI labelled it the 57th best American film the year before (it was co-produced by Britain’s Alexander Korda and America’s David O. Selznick, hence the dual parentage). It’s such a key part of Austrian culture that there’s an entire museum in Vienna dedicated solely to the film. And rightfully so: it’s rich, funny, thrilling and impeccably made and acted, feeling as fresh today as it must have in 1949. To commemorate the anniversary of Reed’s passing, you’ll find below five things that you may not know about the director’s greatest achievement.
1.Graham Greene originally gave it a happier ending, while Carol Reed was forced to change the film for U.S. audiences.
The film was always intended to be a screenplay first and foremost, but Greene (a novelist and former spy best known at the time for his 1938 novel “Brighton Rock,” made into an acclaimed film in 1947 starring Richard Attenborough) wrote the story in prose as a novella first. There’s a number of differences — Holly Martins was called Rollo in the novella, both he and Harry were British rather than American, and the whole thing is narrated by Major Calloway, the part played by Trevor Howard in the film. But the biggest difference comes in the ending: Greene wanted a happy ending, with Holly (or Rollo) and Anna reunited, while Reed, and even producer David O. Selznick, a famous advocate of happy endings, believed that Anna should shun him. That being said, Reed didn’t get his own way on everything. For the U.S. release, Selznick removed the opening narration (which is performed by the director himself), and cut eleven minutes of scenes, mostly to make Holly more heroic, and less of an alcoholic. Reed’s cut has subsequently been restored for home video releases.
2. We might have seen a version of the film starring Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant.
It’s hard to imagine a version of the film without Orson Welles in what’s arguably his most iconic role (or indeed, without Joseph Cotten as the lead), but as ever, that wasn’t necessarily the original plan. Reed’s original choice for Holly Martins was James Stewart, but producer David O. Selznick had Joseph Cotten under contract, and insisted on using him. Ironically, Selznick objected to Reed’s choice of Cotten’s long-time collaborator Orson Welles to play Harry Lime, a character who Greene had based on legendary spy Kim Philby, who’d been his superior in the British Special Intelligence Service during the war, and who, in 1963, would turn out to be a long-time Soviet agent. Selznick called Welles “box office poison” for the part, and pursued Cary Grant instead. Reed got his way, but Grant would become a frequent visitor to the set — the actor was filming “I Was A Male War Bride” on the next-door stage at Shepperton.
3. Anton Karas, composer of the famous theme & score, was an unknown performer in a Vienna wine bar when Reed found him.
Even those who’ve never seen the film will likely have heard its famous theme, part of the seminal score by Austrian musician Anton Karas, who used only a zither to perform it. Karas had been a complete unknown beforehand; he performed in a Heuringer (an Austrian wine-tavern), and was heard by Reed at a production party. Reed immediately asked him to his hotel room to record demos, and when shooting wrapped, invited him to London to write and record the score. On the film’s release, “The Harry Lime Theme” became an enormous hit with the record selling an unprecedented 500,000 copies by the end of 1949, and on release in the U.S. the following year, it topped the Billboard chart for eleven weeks. Even today, it crops up in unlikely places: it can be heard in a bar in Vin Diesel actioner “xXx,” and The Lonely Island sampled aspects of the score for one of their earliest tracks, “Stork Patrol” (see below).
4. The shoot was a rocky one: Welles went A.W.O.L before shooting, and Reed became dependent on speed to keep to his schedule.
Welles was a man not short on ego, and initially proved to be something of a nightmare on the shoot, travelling in Europe as the film was meant to shoot, and arriving two weeks late. Even then, he refused to shoot the sewer scenes on location, forcing Reed to use body doubles (including assistant director Guy Hamilton, who’d later make his name helming Bond movies like “Goldfinger“) and to rebuild the sewer as a set in Shepperton, back in the U.K.. Welles calmed down once the shoot was underway, and enjoyed playing Lime, and while rumors that he ghost-directed persisted, they are patently false, though he did contribute the famous “cuckoo clock” speech. But Welles wasn’t the only headache that the director had to contend with. Reed was shooting three units simultaneously to keep on schedule, and became hooked on Dexedrine (or speed) to help him pull his 20-hour days, which perhaps helps to explain the brilliantly skewed visual style of the film. That being said, not everyone was enamored of the dutch angles. Reed’s friend, director William Wyler, sent him a spirit level, with the droll note attached “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put this on top of the camera, will you?”
5. Welles would play Harry Lime again in a prequel radio series, which in turn would inspire his own film “Mr. Arkadin.”
The film was a bona-fide hit (the biggest of 1949 in the U.K.), and unsurprisingly, it would go on to other mediums. As was often the practice at the time, a radio adaptation aired soon after, with Cotten (but not Welles) reprising his role, while in 1959, a British TV series aired also called the “The Third Man,” starring Michael Rennie (“The Day The Earth Stood Still“) as a watered-down version of Lime, now a Robin Hood-like art dealer. But perhaps the most significant adaptation was the radio series “The Adventures of Harry Lime” — “The Lives of Harry Lime” in the U.S. — which produced 55 episodes in 1951 and 1952. It showcased Lime’s adventures before Vienna, and featured Welles returning to the role he made famous. The polymath even wrote a number of episodes, one of which, “Man Of Mystery,” served as the source material for his own film “Mr. Arkadin,” which Welles called his “biggest disaster” after it was re-edited by the producers. The original radio version, along with a number of others, is included on the Criterion Collection versions of “The Third Man” and “Mr. Arkadin” (which is presented in three different cuts).