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The Origins of The Third Man

The various elements that inspired the classic film

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Sometime in 1947 the prolific producer Alexander Korda, a Hungarian émigré and head of London Films, had the idea to make a film set in Vienna, which at the time was divided into zones and occupied by American, British and French forces. It would make a good backdrop, but this wasn't the only reason for Korda's interest.

London Films had certain reserves of currency in Austria and this was a time when currency exchange was difficult, requiring permission from government and central banks. Korda scouted out various writers but soon settled on Graham Greene, whom he greatly admired. Greene, Korda and director Carol Reed had collaborated on The Fallen Idol (1948), adapted by Greene from his own short story (and at the time in the process of being shot), and Korda wanted to do it again.

He pestered Greene and the writer eventually presented him with a fledgling idea in the form of a single sentence:

I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.

Korda was hooked and The Third Man was conceived. The writing didn't come easily for Greene until the end of September 1947 when suddenly his "Risen-from-the-dead story", as he called it, fell into place in his mind.

In February 1948 Greene went to Vienna for research. There he was struck by the rubble and ruins caused by Allied bombing. He was also shown the city's cavernous sewer-system and a reporter from The Times, Peter Smollett, told him about black-market dealing of watered-down penicillin in the city. Greene stayed at the officers' hotel, Sacher's, and visited various bars and nightclubs, all of which would later feature in the film.

From Vienna Greene travelled via Prague to Rome, where he met his mistress and, with money he received for the commission, bought a villa in Anacapri, where he finished the short story, which he delivered to Korda.

At the end of April 1948 Korda, with Reed accompanying him, travelled to the United States to meet with the legendary producer David O. Selznick (who had been responsible for Gone with the Wind (US, d. Victor Fleming, 1939) with a view to bringing in American finance. By the middle of May a deal had been signed for four films. In return for the right to release Korda's films in the US Selznick would provide finance and give Korda access to the stars Selznick had under contract. The Third Man would be the film to inaugurate the deal.

The following month Reed and Greene made a further trip to Vienna. They paced out scenes in Reed's hotel room, working out the details of the storyline and continuity. And they drank heavily: "Carol hates going to bed before 4," Greene wrote at the time. By the time they returned to England they were firm friends and a draft script was finished.

In the contract with Selznick was a provision that he be consulted on the script (though he had no right of veto). So Reed and Greene went to California in August 1948 for intensive discussion with the mercurial American. Pages and pages of notes were drawn up, full of ideas and objections, drawing on memos from Selznick and another draft of the script.

The process exhausted Greene and the night before he was due to leave for England from New York, 22 August, he suffered haemorrhaging and had to be hospitalised for twenty-four hours. The consultation had taken place and a final script was ready, which bore very close resemblance to Greene's original story. Selznick's suggestions were mostly ignored. It was time to gather together the cast and begin filming.

Rob White

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Fallen Idol, The (1948)Fallen Idol, The (1948)

Classic child's eye story from Carol Reed and Graham Greene

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Greene, Graham (1904-1991)Greene, Graham (1904-1991)

Writer, Critic

Thumbnail image of Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)

Director, Producer, Executive Producer

Thumbnail image of Reed, Carol (1906-1976)Reed, Carol (1906-1976)

Director, Producer, Writer