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


Orson Welles was an eclectic character of undeniable talent, whose personal eccentricity gave a particular 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, 1949’s “The Third Man.” I knew the title, but I knew very little. Rather than read about it, I decided to save my discovery for when I see the film during TCMFF coverage in April. It played at 9am on Saturday, my first screening of the four-day festival, but it was at the top of my list of films to see.

While waiting in the audience for the pre-film presentation to begin, I chatted with some festival-goer friends. When those 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. Accompanied by award-winning director and cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, Mr. Muller led a discussion on the background, production and lasting legacy of this film. As the ‘black czar’ he was the logical presenter, since this Anglo-American picture is often called one of the greatest international ‘black films’.

Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1937. (Public domain)

Both Muller and Dickerson agreed that it was a “film noir” due to its mysterious black-and-white cinematography and morally questionable characters. I think classifying movies as “black” or not is misleading, as I’ve written before, but that’s a whole other topic.

A single movie

Contrary to the belief of many people, including mine before seeing the film, “The Third Man” is not an Orson Welles production. He has a role in the film, but he did not write the screenplay, direct or produce, 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 peekaboo speech. This film was directed and produced by British filmmaker Carol Reed of the British Lion Film Corporation. The screenplay was written by Graham Green, inspired by a concept that has intrigued Green for years.

Although technically a UK production with footage from set in Vienna, this film was released in the US by Selznick Releasing Organization with David O. Selznick serving as an uncredited producer. For this reason, American actors Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles were cast in the lead roles to make the film more appealing to American audiences. Italian actress Alida Valli ended the love triangle as a troubled Austrian.

Orson Welles was readily available for European shoots as he was currently “in exile” in Europe, since, according to Eddie Muller, Hollywood could no longer bear him. Although Selznick considered him box office poison and preferred British actor/impresario Noel Coward or rising American actor Robert Mitchum, he ultimately went along with Reed’s choice of Welles.

Epoch Times Photo
A 1952 publicity photo of actor Joseph Cotten. (Public domain)

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

British films versus American films

If you’re looking for old movies to watch with kids, how do you determine the content of a movie made before the rating system was created in 1968? Studying movie history can help you predict the moral tone of a movie before you see it. For example, films made from 1934 to 1954 were subject to strict moral guidelines as Joseph I. Breen, head of Hollywood’s Production Code Administration (PCA), ensured that the Motion Picture Production Code shaped their content. With few exceptions, the films made over these twenty years are remarkably decent, wholesome, and suitable for all ages. I might also add that they are some of the most artistic and entertaining films ever made, as the filmmakers relied on quality story material rather than shock value. However, just looking at a movie’s production year isn’t enough to make sure it’s a Code movie. Only American productions were fully self-regulated by the PCA, which collaborated on scripts, screenplays and costumes before filming began.

While British filmmakers knew their films would need PCA seals of approval to be distributed in the United States, they didn’t have a code of their own. Instead of being entirely self-regulating, finished UK films would simply be subject to the PCA, which could only suggest cuts instead of guiding the film to get it right in the first place. This post-production montage annoyed many British filmmakers, although British directors had no qualms about censoring PCA-approved American films for UK distribution.

Epoch Times Photo
Theatrical poster for the American release of the 1949 film “The Third Man”. (Public domain)

“The Third Man” was made with more Hollywood code in mind as it was an Anglo-American production. For the Selznick Releasing Organization to release this film across the pond, it would have to live up to American moral standards. The original UK version of this film wasn’t quite up to par, so a few edits were made before the PCA gave the US version a stamp of approval.

In general, I found the original UK version, which was screened at the TCMFF, to be very Code-compliant. The main difference with the edited film was the running time. While the UK director’s cut was 104 minutes, the US cut was only 93 minutes. Among the deleted scenes was a sequence in a Viennese cafe featuring a scantily clad dancer. The rest of the footage that was cut depicts Holly’s heavy drinking, which reinforces the stereotype of the ne’er-do-well American alcoholic writer. Although not all of her drinking was suppressed, the American public did not view Holly Martins as an alcoholic.

The only real change was the opening narration depicting 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 altered narration is that it’s delivered by the protagonist instead of an unknown character, which makes more sense to me.

An enduring classic

This film is the Viennese equivalent of “Citizen Kane”. Like Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, it begins after the main character dies. Coincidentally, both characters are played by Welles. In each, a writer attempts to unravel the mysterious details of a powerful man’s life and death, though one acts strictly as a reporter while the other was the deceased’s personal friend. Joseph Cotten is in both films, although he is only one of the witnesses to Kane’s life while he is the primary investigator of Lime’s.

In both films, the characters of Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten are friends as adults, but Welles rises to prominence using methods his friend considers unethical. In “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles dominates the entire runtime, as he portrays decades of aging, while he’s only 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 more than an hour into the film. At the TCMFF, the audience erupted in applause when he appeared, as they should in 1949.

Epoch Times Photo
A 1951 autograph card from Anton Karas. (Public domain)

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

This is a film that I recommend to any lover of old films. Whether you consider it British or American, “film noir” or not, Code or non-Code, it’s a masterpiece. Due to a wise decision by David Selznick and Carol Reed, the film does not have a typically Hollywood ending. However, it contains a Code-consistent message that right must trump friendship and that the wages of sin is death.

Tiffany Brannan


Tiffany Brannan is a 20-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history and vintage beauty editor, film critic, fashion historian, travel writer and ballet author. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.

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