This film is one of the greatest film noirs and continues to be worthy of watching after over 40 years have passed. In 1948 the producer Korba sent the novelist Graham Greene to Vienna to research a movie. Two month later Greene provided him with a prose version of what would eventually become the plot for the movie, which was completed in 1949. Vienna in those days still had a lot of bombed out buildings resulting from World War Two and it was, like Berlin, divided into four sectors and governed by the allies (American, French, British, and Russian troops were in control of the city.) A tremendously effective chase scene through the sewers of Vienna was filmed and it involved the sewer police---a corps of officers that really did exist.
The director was Carol Reed (this was his finest film and won many awards; however, it was not until 20 years later that he won the Academy Award for Oliver!) and the stars were Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins (a long time friend of Harry Lime), Alida Valli as Anna (Lime's girlfriend whom Holly falls in love with), Orson Welles as Harry Lime (the third man, who is supposedly dead when Holly arrives in Vienna at Harry's invitation), and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway the British military officer involved in the case. Holly doesn't think Harry's death was accidental and so he gets involved investigating the case on his own.
Although Welles was in the film and was a more talented director than Reed, he didn't get involved in the direction of the film. However, Reed and everyone since Citizen Kane built upon the work that Welles did in that earlier work.
Holly Martins plays a naïve, somewhat immature 35 year old American writer of pulp western novels. In the scene where he is a guest lecturer it is clear he has almost no literary sophistication. He has been a friend of Harry's for 20 years and when they were young Holly is the one that would get caught when Harry would get the two of them involved in various improper adventures. Holly is a very bad judge of character. Now Harry is involved in the blackmarket and selling adulterated penicillin that has horrific effects on those who take it. He is, in short, a murderer directly and indirectly. However, he also is a figure of sophisticated style. (Thus, the two Americans portrayed in this movie are the stereotypical Americans---either unsophisticated or evil---not exactly a pretty picture of Americans.) Anna simply loves Harry, regardless of what he has or has not done. She knows about the hardness of life and is in Vienna on forged papers that Harry helped her obtain.
It is very interesting to review the original prose story that Greene created with the final script. They are very similar but vary in certain key ways. For example, Anna in the prose version is identified as the daughter of a Nazi and this helps explain why she is hiding. In the script this is not spelled out so that she is a more sympathetic figure. The changes from the first prose version to the final script are often for the better. For example, Greene wanted Holly and Anna to walk off together at the end of the movie and it was Reed who correctly persuaded him that they should not. In the prose version Holly shoots Harry but in the script Harry is shot by the police---both versions have Holly fire the final shot to kill Harry off as an act of kindness. The prose version is often having the story told by the police Major whereas in the script it is usually Holly who is telling the story. By comparing the two versions we see how the movie evolved and get a better understanding of how movies are created. However, not all the changes improve things. For example, in the prose version, when Holly visits Dr. Winkel's home and comments on a crucifix with its arms above Christ's head, Winkel explains that it is a Jansonist version---the arms are raised because they believe Christ died ONLY for the elect. This is never used in the film but would help us better understand Harry and Winkel and how they can behave as they do. Harry saw himself as superior, one of the elect, and therefore it was OK to kill or whatever to win. This relates to Welles' in-character improvised monologue about the cuckoo clock. Another part that was dropped was the comment to the effect that Holly Martins would always regret not leaving Vienna BEFORE finding out the truth about his friend and getting more deeply involved. At the end of the film, Holly is a wiser and less naïve person who has grown up somewhat. Will he now return to American and write better novels? The movie doesn't address this future. I, for one, would like to think he does and perhaps some day we will get a sequel to find out what does happen to Holly and Anna. In real life, Welles is never able to match the acting he provided in this film. Cotten went on to act in many films and have a very long and successful career. And what about Valli? She who in the part of Anna was so forgiving, so willing to look at only the best of Harry? In real life, Alida Valli, born Alida Maria Altenburger in Italy in 1921, was the daughter of a journalist of Austrian descent and an Italian mother. She became one of the Italian screen's leading young stars but when placed under contract with Selznick the only film of note that she made was The Third Man before she returned to her acting career in Europe. That career was damaged in 1954 due to her involvement in a drug, sex, and murder scandal that rocked Italy for a couple of years. Hmmm….life imitates art???
You also see this movie's evolution through other events surrounding the production of the movie. Alexander Korda started the production and brought in David O. Selznick. Reed came in as both director and one of the producers. Reed fought with Selznick and won most of the battles. Selznick wanted someone other than Welles as he felt Welles was box-office poison. Selznick put Cotten into the lead when Reed wanted Jimmy Stewart. Selznick also cut 11 minutes out of the American version as compared to the English version of the film when they were released and in the process portrayed Holly more favorably.
Shooting of the film started on October 22, 1948 in Vienna and lasted seven weeks, ending on December 11, 1948. Filming then began at England's Shepperton studios where the movie was completed. Greene's prose version continually refers to the snow covered streets; the movie has cold wet streets with little snow. Thanks to the location shooting we have the music of Anton Karas playing his zither because it was Reed who heard him playing one evening in Vienna and used his music---which was an unusual choice as it is close to unheard of to have one musician playing all the music in a movie. Thanks to Reed, Karas became a famous musician.
Welles has the greatest role an actor could ask for in this film and he handles it masterfully. For much of the beginning of the movie everyone is talking about Harry Lime but we don't get to meet him until much later in the film. This creates great anticipation and you eventually learn that Harry is the third man---a third man helps carry the dead "Harry" from the street to the sidewalk. It is also a great film for an actor because black and white movies, as Welles has said, are "the actors friend" because they help us focus on the dramatic.
So what are the elements that go into the creation of a great movie such as The Third Man? The Anton Karas zither music, the bombed out Vienna scenes, the great black and white cinematography, Graham Greene's writing, the marvelous acting by Welles and all the other cast members and the willingness of the director Carol Reed to fight for all of these elements, especially for the location shooting in Vienna which provides such a wonderful backdrop. It is the rare coming together of all the right people at the right time. It is partly good luck, partly hard work, largely unfailing commitment to creativity.