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Producing The Third Man

Casting, shooting and editing a cinema classic

Main image of Producing The Third Man

As with many classic films, The Third Man might have been very different had the leads been taken by the stars whom the producers first had in mind. In this case, David O. Selznick, who co-financed the film with Alexander Korda, wanted Cary Grant to play Holly Martins and Noël Coward to play Harry Lime. Grant was approached but the financial terms he was looking for were prohibitive. Coward was a different matter, because the director assigned to The Third Man, Carol Reed, was after Orson Welles.

Welles was admired as a prodigy but he had a reputation for being difficult and, as far as Selznick was concerned, he was box-office poison. Korda likewise was lukewarm about the idea. So Reed resorted to unconventional tactics.

This is how screenwriter Paul Tabori, Korda's first biographer, reports Reed's recollection of how the deal was done. Welles telephoned him just as he was speaking on another line to Korda.

Reed hesitated for a moment - and then he did an "awful thing". He hung up on Alex as if they had been cut off. He talked to Welles and arranged everything amicably. Then he called back Korda in London, pretending that the connection had been broken.

The rest of the casting was much more straightforward. Both Joseph Cotten, who plays Holly, and Alida Valli, the young Italian star who plays Harry's girlfriend Anna, were under contract to Selznick and he happily assigned them to The Third Man. Trevor Howard, who had taken a small role in Reed's propaganda film The Way Ahead (1944), signed up for the only other substantial part, that of Major Calloway. Had Welles reneged on his agreement (which was always a possibility, even though he badly needed money), Howard would have stepped into his shoes.

Filming took place in Vienna and London over a period of six months. Cast and crew began work in Austria at the end of October 1948 and stayed there three weeks. It was a typically inclement autumn, with rain, sleet and snow. The rain gave the streets a pleasing sheen and when it snowed Reed could always move filming to the sewers, where the film's culminating chase takes place. Much of the photography was done at night, by the first unit (under the supervision of Robert Krasker). Stan Pavey headed the second unit in the sewers, while Hans Schneeberger and a third unit handled daytime photography.

Welles, incidentally, hated it down in the sewers. According to Reed's biographer Nicholas Wapshott, he complained vigorously to Reed. "Carol, I can't work in a sewer, I come from California! My throat! I'm so cold!" He finished the scenes as quickly as he could.

Studio shooting took place in London, first at Isleworth then Shepperton, from December 1948 through to March 1949. At Shepperton Vincent Korda, Alexander's brother, designed the sets, assisted by the gifted backdrop painter Ferdinand Bellan. The Vienna cemetery was recreated there and, in January, when Welles arrived, the Great Wheel scenes were shot with the help of back projection.

Selznick was in London in August to approve a final cut for the European market and The Third Man duly opened in London on 2 September 1949, to a rapturous reception. Everything had gone smoothly, but now Selznick and Korda fell out.

Selznick, back in California to supervise an American cut, proposed to release The Third Man as "A Selznick Picture". Korda was having none of this, though it seems his chief motivation for making life difficult for Selznick was that he wanted to renegotiate their contract, which made no provision for Korda to receive any share of the US box office.

Korda had a trump card to play - he had the only negative of the film. Forced by the wrangling to cancel the planned US release in November, Selznick had little option but to cave in to Korda. By the time The Third Man opened in the US at the beginning of February 1950 - again to great acclaim - it was under the banner "A Selznick Release" (a significant concession) and Korda had both a personal on-screen credit and a share of the US box-office receipts.

Rob White

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