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The Third Man – 70th Anniversary Screening

September 30, 2019

Shortly after the end of World War Two, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in Vienna at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime. Martins is shocked to discover that Lime has just been killed, hit by a speeding truck while crossing the road. He attends Lime’s funeral where he meets the stiff upper lip English Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Calloway gets Martins drunk and pumps him for information on Lime. Martins is shocked with Calloway’s assessment of Lime as being one of the most notorious racketeers in the City of Music. Calloway warns Martins to leave town, but the mourning writer feels compelled to stay and learn more about his late friend. He talks to Lime’s beautiful and melancholic girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Anna suspects that Lime has been murdered, but Martins discovers that the truth is even more shocking than that…

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Alida Valli as Anna and Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins

The 70th anniversary of the cinema release of The Third Man was celebrated with a screening of the film at Picturehouse cinemas throughout the UK. The film was preceded with a performance of Anton Karas’s famous zither score by the gifted musician Cornelia Mayer. Mayer gave some fascinating insights on the composition of the score. Director Carol Reed discovered Karas, a jobbing musician, in a Vienna wine bar. Karas didn’t speak any English. Reed didn’t speak any German. Reed conveyed the story of The Third Man by showing Karas a series of stills. Reed was quite hard on Karas, making him play for six straight hours without a break. An exhausted Karas had blood under his fingernails, and started to play more slowly as a comedown. Reed began to hear what would become the Harry Lime theme. He made Karas play for another hour until he perfected it. In one crucial scene there are two zithers playing. This is to symbolise Harry Lime in his coffin, and the Harry Lime still lurking in the sewers and alleyways of Vienna.

The screening of The Third Man was followed by Q & A featuring renowned script supervisor Angela Allen, who worked as a crew member on the film back in the late 1940s. Allen did not hold back on her opinion of Orson Welles. She described Welles as difficult and elusive. As Welles never turned up on time, the shadow of Harry Lime the audience glimpses in the dark Viennese streets was actually that of Guy Hamilton. Hamilton, who went on to direct four James Bond movies, wore padding to replicate Welles’s considerable girth.

Welles famously refused to shoot any scenes in Vienna’s sewers for the climactic chase, therefore expensive sets had to built in the UK. Allen insisted that the sewers did not actually smell that bad. However, Welles was disgusted when they first tried to shoot in the Vienna sewers as he saw two crew members eating bacon sarnies down there. Allen also refuted any suggestion that Welles wrote his own dialogue or directed scenes, despite Welles’s claims to the contrary. Reed directed the entire picture. Reed was such a workaholic, Allen said, that he took benzedrine so he could work through the night.

‘But, credit where it’s due’ Allen conceded ‘Welles did come up with the “Cuckoo clock” line’.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned, I thought in the cinema, as the moderator continued to badger Allen with questions about Welles was that Welles was the most skilled at making the picture about himself. Funnily enough, Touch of Evil was playing in the screen next door to us. And Picturehouse are screening Citizen Kane next month. I guess Welles was right with his prophecy ‘They’ll love me when I’m dead.’

Watching The Third Man last night I was struck by how many times you can revisit this film and always take something new from it. The spectre of Harry Lime dominates proceedings, but Bernard Lee is also astonishingly good as the bookish and dutiful Sergeant Paine. Wilfred Hyde-White is a comic delight as the put-upon bureaucrat Crabbin. Trevor Howard appears callous at first, but gradually he reveals the humanity driving his relentless quest to capture Lime. And let’s not forget the haunting love-story that is doomed before it starts between Anna and Martins, beautifully portrayed by Alida Valli and Joseph Cotton.

Seventy years from now, audiences will still be drawn to The Third Man.

 

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