It's tough getting to the root of a film like The Third Man in a thousand words. In fact, it's tough getting to the root of a film like The Third Man in any number of words. The Third Man has so much to offer that between its cinematic impact, intricate plot, and show business intrigue, multiple textbooks could be (and probably have been) filled. In order to get the most out of it, though, you have to examine its context.
The Third Man was largely the result of a collaboration between five men in two continents. The first, Hungarian-born producer Alexander Korda, was intrigued by Vienna. He saw the dramatic potential of the city, which was occupied by four different countries in the wake of World War II. Korda was the president of the film section of a British organization known as the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR (or SCR)1. He enlisted some previous collaborators to make his Vienna picture a reality: war buddy Graham Greene would write the film, and fellow SCR Film Section member Carol Reed would direct it. With the addition of Orson Welles and his friend Joseph Cotten to the project, The Third Man as we know it was born.
Greene headed to Austria to do research for and work on his screenplay. There, he met Hans Peter Smolka, the first of several intriguing characters (spies, if you like) that would be invaluable to Greene and The Third Man. Smolka, in the true fashion of an intriguing character, had an alias: Smollett. Smolka was a correspondent for the Times of Central Europe who helped Greene tap into the Vienna underworld of racketeering. Among Smolka's invaluable contributions to Greene's script was the idea for the penicillin scheme2.
Smolka was well-connected to the espionage networks in Vienna and elsewhere. Perhaps the most valuable contribution provided by Smolka to the film was his knowledge of notorious KGB double-agent Kim Philby. Greene and Philby had been close during their time in the war together at the British Secret Intelligence Service. Though Greene probably did not learn of Philby's Russian loyalties until long after he had finished writing The Third Man, it is clear that Philby served as inspiration for the character of Harry Lime3.
Despite the inclusion of Welles, Cotten, and a few less notable American actors, The Third Man is a largely European production. Out of necessity, Korda co-produced it with prominent Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, but they had an extremely antagonistic relationship. Selznick controversially cut eleven minutes from the now standard British version for its American release. This was one of many clashes between him and the British filmmakers. Reed refused to cater to Selznick's American sensibilities. Among Reed's defiant stands were his refusal to cast Noel Coward as Harry Lime, his inclusion of the bleak ending, and his expressionistic direction4.
That being said, Welles had already established himself as a divisive cinematic icon with The Lady from Shanghai, The Magnificent Ambersons, and, of course, Citzen Kane. Though he does not appear in the film until its second half, his is an importance on the significance in the production of The Third Man is not to be overlooked. For starters, his directorial style was certainly an influence on Reed's. There are a number of similarities in the themes and expressionistic techniques of both films. Welles' most memorable contribution to the film might be his addition of the oft-quoted “cuckoo clock” speech which his character delivers to Cotten's during the famous Ferris wheel scene5.
The volatile environment of war-torn Vienna permeates every aspect of the film. Every jarring camera angle, every sewer shot, every stark contrast of black and white evokes the tension and despair of the occupied city. Even Anton Karas's inimitable zither score (did you think I'd forget the score?) is employed in rejection of the “old Vienna” that Holly claims never to have known. It's no surprise to learn that The Third Man's release just about coincides with the beginning of The Cold War.
Though Greene and Reed have both denied any particular political intentions of The Third Man, its similarities to the European political scene of the time is more than a little striking. Greene claimed “We had no desire to move people's political emotions; we wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh.” I would take this with a grain of salt. After all, it is coming from a former intelligence agent and personal friend of Kim Philby. Though the film is not necessarily a political allegory, it is interesting to look at it as such, and several critics have convincingly cast each of the four main characters as representations of the four powers in Vienna6.
Korda was content with The Third Man. He asked for a film “about the four-power occupation,” and what he got is a classic of the film noir genre film. I think it's safe to say that you'll remember it as more than that.
1Shaw, Tony. British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.
2Nicholl, Mark. “The Third Man: Background and Context.” Australian Screen Education. 2004: 94.
3Shaw, Tony. British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.
4Dirks, Tim. “The Third Man.” filmsite. AMC, 2010. 21 Apr 2011.
5Greene, Graham. The Third Man and the Fallen Idol. New York: Penguin Classics, 1992: 10.
6 Carpenter, Lynette. "I Never Knew the Old Vienna: Cold War Politics andThe Third Man," Film Criticism(1978).