Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

The Dominant Presence of Orson Welles

The Third Man is a British thriller set in occupied Vienna, portraying a city plagued by moral corruption. The story follows American novelist Holly Martins as he investigates the murder of his friend Harry Lime while confronting deceit and evil. The film’s captivating visual style captures the haunting atmosphere of the decaying city. Led by Orson Welles’ exceptional performance as Lime, the cast’s acting adds to the film’s timeless classic status, offering a perfect blend of drama, action, and well-developed characters.

Welles played a dominant role during the production of The Third Man, overshadowing the film’s star, Joseph Cotten, director Carol Reed, and writer Graham Greene. Reed collaborated closely with Greene, faithfully adapting his work into the screenplay. However, Welles’ reputation as a renowned filmmaker, though impressive with previous successes like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, also came with challenges due to ambitious projects that often failed. Seeking refuge in Europe, Welles significantly impacted the film during its production.

Enjoying a luxurious life in Europe without the constraints of Hollywood, Welles indulged in cigars, fine food, and lavish spending on friends and women. Despite his luxurious way of living, the recent failure of his film, Macbeth, weighed heavily on him. Before working on The Third Man, Welles had signed a three-picture deal with Alexander Korda. However, many proposed projects, including one based on Cyrano de Bergerac, have yet to materialize. Welles found a more collaborative working relationship with Korda, in contrast to the controlling nature of David O. Selznick, who treated actors like mere machinery. Korda’s support allowed director Reed significant creative control over the film’s European production.

Challenges on Set

While making The Third Man, director Reed faced challenges similar to his protagonist, Martins. Welles, playing Lime, proved elusive and hard to locate, seemingly relishing the adventure of being pursued by the production crew. Eventually, they found him at Nice’s Hotel Ruhl. The film’s shooting occurred in Vienna and England, with some scenes filmed in actual Viennese sewers and others in a cleaner sewer set in Shepperton, Surrey. Despite Welles’ eccentric behavior, he respected Reed as a director but still employed tactics to increase his fee. The income generated by The Third Man and other acting engagements played a role in funding Welles’ directorial undertakings. An accomplishment worth mentioning was his successful interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello, which earned him the Grand Prix at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival.

During the production of The Third Man, Welles offered suggestions for certain scenes, but director Reed remained professional and steadfast, often shooting his version before incorporating Welles’ ideas. In the editing room, Reed and producer Selznick clashed over character portrayals and American exceptionalism. Selznick’s constant memos, likely influenced by his addiction to Benzedrine, sometimes showed a lack of understanding of the film’s intent. For example, Selznick wanted the lead actress, Alida Valli, to appear glamorous despite her character’s poverty, but Reed successfully argued for a more authentic look.

Interference and Artistic Vision

A fire destroyed six reels of footage, forcing Reed to re-edit the film and delaying Selznick’s viewing of the rough cut. Later, Selznick demanded an American cut that portrayed the lead character as a heroic American, removing references to corrupt American police. Reed’s original version focused on mystery and ambiguity, while Selznick’s cut idealized the American hero conquering foreign lands. Reed’s version ultimately appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix.

Selznick’s interference resulted in changes that altered Reed’s artistic vision and disrupted the film’s logical continuity. His version of the film is now unavailable. He removed a scene featuring a near-naked stripper, essential in depicting Lime’s seedy world. Reed’s version used this scene to provide crucial context for Martins’ investigation. Selznick also included a dying child in the hospital to accentuate Lime’s crimes, portraying him as an ugly monster. In contrast, Reed’s version conveyed the emotional impact subtly through Cotten’s facial expressions, allowing the audience to connect with the protagonist without overt manipulation.

Selznick’s meddling caused friction in Hollywood, but he justified his changes by aiming for commercial success. On the other hand, Reed fought passionately to preserve his original film cut, including using Anton Karas’ zither twang, which Selznick initially resisted in favor of an orchestrated score. Reed had discovered Karas’ music at a party in Vienna and later convinced him to create The Third Man Theme, which became the film’s defining and beloved element.

Resounding Success and Uncredited Contributions

After completing the film’s editing and adding Karas’ music, Reed received positive feedback from studio heads, except for a request to remove the banjo, which he chose to ignore. The Third Man enjoyed a highly successful release in London and became a musical sensation, with millions of copies of The Harry Lime Theme sold in the US. The zither music, often called The Fourth Man, added character and irony to every scene, infusing tragedy and humor in a noirish manner.

The film received widespread acclaim from both general audiences and art critics, although it faced some criticism from the Viennese, who believed it portrayed their city negatively. Despite his significant role as director and writer, Reed rarely received proper recognition for his work. Welles perpetuated the idea that he had a major impact on the film, making extravagant claims about his creative input. While some people dispute Welles’ inspirations, Reed never publicly refuted his claims. Instead, he embraced the notion of Welles as a legendary artist who had a hand in every aspect of filmmaking.

Welles’ Legacy

In The Third Man, Welles’ creative influence was limited to his memorable “cuckoo clock” speech, which he wrote and delivered with casual charisma. The film’s popularity, particularly the love for Welles’ character, Lime, led to the creation of a radio program called The Lives of Harry Lime, recounting Lime’s adventures in flashback. The show portrayed Lime as a morally ambiguous hero involved in crime and intrigue. Interestingly, one episode introduced Gregory Arkadin, who later became the protagonist in Welles’ film Mr. Arkadin. The Third Man and Mr. Arkadin share similarities as they involve protagonists delving into European crime circles to uncover the enigmatic truth about a central character.

Welles was a born storyteller known for his showmanship and undeniable talent, often confirming his troubled genius status. Despite having some of his directorial projects left incomplete or released in versions he did not endorse, critics and film historians continue to recognize him as a master. Welles forged his esteemed standing in the industry through his active engagement in theater and radio, with particular emphasis on the infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which sparked widespread panic.

Welles’ career, much like his films, blended authentic-sounding special effects with elements of fiction, creating a captivating legend known as The Welles. Similarly, in The Third Man, Lime’s entrance is skillfully crafted through montage, blending reality and illusion under Reed’s expert direction. The film’s opening sequence showcases Welles as the enigmatic Lime, highlighting the masterful manipulation of the cinematic apparatus.

Welles’ presence and reputation often overshadow The Third Man, leading to misconceptions that he directed the film or played a more significant role in its creation. However, it is essential to recognize the crucial role of director Reed in shaping the film’s expressive atmosphere and enduring charm. Reed’s meticulous attention to detail, camera angles, lighting, and collaboration with composer Karas contributed to the film’s brilliance. Despite Welles’ allure, Reed remains the driving force behind The Third Man, deserving recognition for his masterful direction and vision.

Crafting Iconic Scenes and Themes in The Third Man

The Third Man is renowned for two standout scenes featuring Welles—the Ferris wheel confrontation and the sewer chase—which have led some to speculate about his directorial involvement. However, Reed, who exerted influence throughout the production, is the true credit for the film’s directorial triumph. Reed’s unique visual stylization shines in this film and his previous works, from insisting on shooting in Vienna to choosing Welles over other options. The combined efforts of a skilled ensemble and production team, which included Greene, Cotten, and Karas, led to a timeless depiction of postwar corruption and the decline of principles. The Third Man is a haunting masterpiece, delving into guilt, love, and enigmatic redemption themes.


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