‘The Third Man’ (1949): British vs American Films

‘The Third Man’ (1949): British vs American Films
Screenshot of the U.S. trailer to the 1949 movie "The Third Man." (Public Domain)
Tiffany Brannan

Orson Welles was an eclectic character with undeniable talent, whose personal eccentricity lent peculiar genius to his films. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that the 2022 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival (TCMFF) would include one of his films, “The Third Man” from 1949. I was familiar with the title, but I knew very little about it. Rather than reading up on it, I decided to save my discovery for when I would see the film while covering TCMFF in April. It played at 9 a.m. on Saturday, my earliest screening of the four-day festival, but it was at the top of my list of films to see.

Waiting in the audience for the pre-film presentation to begin, I conversed with some friendly fellow festivalgoers. When these longtime “Third Man” fans heard that this would be my first viewing, they assured me that I would love it. Their high recommendations only increased my excitement to see the film.

As TCM host Eddie Muller came out to introduce the film, I knew I was in for a treat. Joined by award-winning director/cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, Mr. Muller led a discussion about this film’s background, production, and enduring legacy. As the “Czar of Noir,” he was the logical presenter, since this British-American picture is frequently called one of the greatest international “films noir.”

Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1937. (Public Domain)
Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1937. (Public Domain)
Muller and Dickerson agreed that it is a “film noir” because of its mysterious black-and-white cinematography and morally questionable characters. I think the classification of movies as “noir” or not is misleading, as I’ve written before, but that’s another topic altogether.

A Unique Film

Contrary to many people’s belief, including my own before seeing the film, “The Third Man” is not an Orson Welles production. He plays a role in the film, but he did not write the screenplay, direct, or produce it, as he had many of his earlier works. He did, however, contribute some of the most memorable elements surrounding his character, including writing his famous cuckoo clock speech. This movie was directed and produced by British filmmaker Carol Reed at British Lion Film Corporation. The screenplay was written by Graham Green, inspired by a concept that intrigued Green for years.

Although technically a British production with location footage in Vienna, this movie was released in the United States by Selznick Releasing Organization with David O. Selznick as an uncredited producer. Because of this, American actors Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles were cast in lead roles to make the film more appealing to US audiences. Italian actress Alida Valli finished the love triangle as a troubled Austrian girl.

Orson Welles was readily available for European filming because he was currently “in exile” in Europe, since, according to Eddie Muller, Hollywood couldn’t take him anymore. Although Selznick deemed him box office poison and preferred British actor/impresario Noel Coward or rising American actor Robert Mitchum, he eventually agreed with Reed’s choice of Welles.

A publicity photo of actor Joseph Cotten in 1952. (Public Domain)
A publicity photo of actor Joseph Cotten in 1952. (Public Domain)
The story begins when American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives in post-war Vienna, having been offered a job by his old college friend Harry Lime. Once in Austria, Holly learns that Harry died three days earlier in a freak accident. The British officer on the case, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), informs Holly that his late friend was a powerful local racketeer, but the crime writer can’t help finding the details of his friend’s death suspicious. He determines to find out the truth about the accident which left him jobless and friendless in Vienna. Along the way, he meets Harry’s sweetheart, Anna Schmidt (Valli), whom he finds instantly attractive. With every account he hears, he grows more certain that the official report is incorrect, yet the truth may be more ominous. Could Calloway be right that Lime is better off dead?

British vs. American Films

If you’re looking for old movies to watch with children, how do you determine the content of a film made before the Rating System was created in 1968? Studying film history can help you predict a film’s moral tone before seeing it. For instance, films made from 1934 to 1954 were held to strict moral guidelines because Joseph I. Breen, head of Hollywood’s Production Code Administration (PCA), ensured that the Motion Picture Production Code shaped their content. With few exceptions, movies made during these twenty years are remarkably decent, wholesome, and appropriate for all ages. I might also add that they are among the most artistic and entertaining films ever made, since filmmakers relied on quality story material instead of shock value. However, looking at a film’s production year is not enough to ensure that it is a Code film. Only American productions were self-regulated thoroughly by the PCA, which collaborated on storylines, scripts, and costumes before filming ever started.

While British filmmakers knew their movies would need PCA Seals of Approval to be distributed in the United States, they had no Code of their own. Instead of being thoroughly self-regulated, finished British films would merely be submitted to the PCA, which could only suggest cuts instead of guiding the film to be made right in the first place. This post-production editing annoyed many British filmmakers, although British boards had no qualms about censoring PCA-approved American films for distribution in the United Kingdom.

Theatrical poster for the American release of the 1949 film "The Third Man." (Public Domain)
Theatrical poster for the American release of the 1949 film "The Third Man." (Public Domain)

“The Third Man” was made with more consideration of Hollywood’s Code because it was a British-American production. For Selznick Releasing Organization to be able to release this film across the pond, it would have to be up to America’s moral standards. The original UK version of this film didn’t quite measure up, so a few changes were made before the PCA granted a Seal of Approval to the US version.

In general, I found the original British version, which was screened at TCMFF, to be very Code compliant. The main difference with the edited movie was the runtime. While the British “director’s cut” was 104 minutes long, the American cut was only 93 minutes. Among the deleted scenes was a sequence in a Viennese café featuring a very scantily clad dancer. The rest of the footage that was cut depicted Holly’s excessive drinking, which enforces the stereotype of the ne’er-do-well American alcoholic writer. Although not all his imbibing was removed, American audiences did not see Holly Martins as an alcoholic.

The only actual change was the opening narration describing post-war Vienna, which was voiced by Joseph Cotten in the American re-release instead of director Carol Reed. Although many sources describe the original opening as too seedy for American audiences, the words were basically the same. In fact, the only real difference in the changed narration is that it is delivered by the protagonist instead of some unknown character, which makes more sense to me.

An Enduring Classic

This film is the Viennese equivalent of “Citizen Kane.” Like Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece, it begins after the central, title character’s death. By coincidence, both characters are played by Welles. In each, a writer tries to unravel the mysterious details of a powerful man’s life and death, although one is strictly acting as a journalist while the other was the deceased’s personal friend. Joseph Cotten is in both films, although he is just one of the witnesses in Kane’s life while he is the main investigator of Lime’s.

In both movies, Orson Welles’s and Joseph Cotten’s characters are friends in young adulthood, but Welles rises to prominence using methods which his friend considers unethical. In “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles dominates the whole runtime, as he depicts decades of aging, while he only is onscreen for about five minutes in “The Third Man.” However, his brooding presence lurks in every frame of the film, leading to his unforgettable appearance over an hour into the film. At TCMFF, the audience burst into applause at his appearance, as they must have in 1949.

A 1951 autograph card of Anton Karas. (Public Domain)
A 1951 autograph card of Anton Karas. (Public Domain)

One of this film’s most distinctive qualities is its unique score. The whole soundtrack is comprised of zither music, composed and performed by Anton Karas. I was familiar with the cheerful melody through Guy Lombardo’s recording of “The Third Man Theme,” but I didn’t realize it came from a film of the same name. This infectious theme topped the US charts for eleven weeks in 1950. If, like me, you heard the theme before seeing the movie, you might wonder how such an upbeat folk tune would fit a suspenseful melodrama. However, its brilliance is in the contrast. Dramatic musical strains by a conventional film composer like Bernard Hermann or Max Steiner would accentuate the story’s darker themes, but the light zither melodies create a stark contrast between the dark imagery and the playful tunes. When it accompanies the surprising story, “The Third Man Theme” becomes ironically sinister while counterintuitively highlighting the film’s comedic moments.

This is a movie which I recommend for any old film fan. Whether you think of it as British or American, “film noir” or not, Code or non-Code, it is a masterpiece. Due to a wise decision from David Selznick and Carol Reed, the film does not have a typical Hollywood ending. However, it has a Code-compliant message that right must outweigh friendship and that the wages of sin are death.

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She is launching Cinballera Entertainment this summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.