If legendary Hollywood producer David O Selznick had got his way, The Third Man would have turned out oh so very different: “A friend goes out to find a friend. He doesn’t find him. Why doesn’t he go home?”
So ran his bullish, pragmatic, witless response when writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed fed him the pitch, his involvement suffered in return for the loan of a pair of contracted stars: stalwart Joseph Cotten and fresh-faced Italian beauty Alida Valli. Incredulous, Greene started to mumble a suitably righteous reply. Selznick cut in. “Who’s gonna watch a movie called The Third Man? We need something snappy. I’m not a writer – you’re the writer – but how about something like Night In Vienna?”
Shadowing The Third Man is crammed with such tales. Originally made for TV in 2004, Frederick Baker’s feature-length documentary is the selling point of this otherwise not-so-special Special Edition, shuffling archive interviews, fresh chatter, tantalising theory, historical context and anecdotes, anecdotes, anecdotes. How did Reed and Greene spend their Vienna nights after toiling on the screenplay by day? Visiting strip joints, their “sinful” behaviour tilting Greene, the Catholic novelist, into confession. How did the film crew cajole the cat into hugging Harry Lime’s ankles for his iconic entrance? Shoes smeared with fish paste, string jiggled under trouser legs. And how did Reed find the energy to puppeteer three film units (day, night, sewer) for seven relentless weeks? Benzedrine, and lots of it.
Baker’s doc also comes with its fair share of insights, some prosaic (floating The Third Man as a pessimistic riposte to Casablanca), some far-sighted/fetched (Lime as Führer, sacrificing faceless hordes – “Would you really care if one of those dots stopped moving?” – in pursuit of power).
But let’s not forget that Greene described his adaptation of his own novella as a “comedy/thriller”. The Third Man is, first and foremost, cracking entertainment – a magical mystery tour over and under a war-torn Vienna as author Holly Martins (Cotten) investigates the death of best friend Lime (Welles). It clashes neo-realism (locations, non-actors) and expressionism (nightmarish shadows, seesaw framing) to electrifying effect, nimbly stitching the styles with Anton Karas’ zither score. Welles, too, invites oxymorons: his Harry is a corrosive cherub, bewitching viewers even as he repels them with his soulless racketeering.
Selznick, of course, wanted a happy ending. Greene, surprisingly, agreed. It was Reed who insisted on the elegiac final shot, his intransigence honouring both the themes of the film and the political climate of the time. A masterpiece.