Scene Is Believing: The Third Man

 

The Sewer Chase, Vienna and Shepperton Studios

Voted the greatest British film ever by the BFI in 1999, The Third man is a thick stew of international tensions in a blitzed, expressionist post-war Vienna. It features two American stars, German speaking (and untranslated) eccentic supports, and an idiosyncratic score that led to a craze of hitherto little known Zither playing, lampooned by British press cartoonists. Personally, I’d vote Get Carter as the no.1 authentically British film, or at least joint first.

Where The Third Man is very British in character though, is in its sense of muddied loyalties and betrayals that run like the massive sewer system beneath Vienna’s rain slicked streets; right to the rotten, corrupt heart of darkness at its centre – suave black marketeer Harry Lime.

Hapless American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, is an accidental tourist in post war Vienna, lured there by the promise of work from estranged friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  When he arrives he discovers Lime has been seemingly murdered. Lime has in fact killed another man to take his place, while he continues his criminal activities. He is now The Third Man of the title, the mysterious witness to his own killing. Limes’ Czech girlfirend Anna (Alida Valli) has also been callously abandoned by the amoral Lime, though she still clings to the vestige of a lost love, trapped with Lime’s useless forged papers between the Cold War carved up sectors of the city.

British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and Sgt. Paine (Bernard lee) strip the blinders from Martins’ eyes, showing him the result of Limes’ crimes – impure penicillin has poisoned children in the local hospital. Sickened, Martins agrees to help entrap Lime. When he is warned by Anna, he flees for the massive sewer system, chased by Martins, Paine and Calloway, and a  squad of Vienna’s specialist sewer police.

Director Carol Reed and Orson Welles in Vienna’s sewer system.

Screenwriter Graham Greene (he subsequently published the novella used as preparation for the script) was already aware of Vienna’s sewer system (all 3000 km of it). His friends Peter Smollett and Kim Philby (before the Cambridge spy scandal) had helped leftists escape through the sewers during internecine conflict there in 1934. In acknowledgement, Smollett became the restaurateur Smolka. Harry (Lime) was Philby’s real first name.

Lime’s earlier speech to Martins lays out his cynical motivation. Not so much the famous “cuckoo clock” improvisation, but his earlier words. “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings, Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five year plans and so have I.”

It is appropriate for Lime’ s slippery character and Orson Welles’ sense of mischief and pride, that Welles was often doubled during the sewer chase. Although now inconceivable that anyone else could have played the part, he had to be teased and coerced to take it, insistent that it would be a small part, and well payed. Ironic, since he dominates proceedings, even when not on screen. When told of the climactic sewer chase, he was at first adamant that he wouldn’t go down there, even though they are remarkably clean – when next watching, look out for the laughably tame rats the production added.

Parts of the sewer system were convincingly recreated by Vincent Korda in Shepperton Studios in England. Only Welles’ breath gives a clue as to what was filmed beneath Vienna’s streets, and beneath the hot studio lights. Even then, Welles only deigned to do a couple of close ups in the sewers. Shots of Lime staggering through the tunnels, desperate to escape, are several doubles, including assistant director and later James Bond helmer, Guy Hamilton.

Fatally wounded, Lime crawls up a wrought iron stairwell to a street grating. The fingers poking through to the cold, tantalising breeze above are director Carol Reed’s (possibly reaching for his next Benzedrine fix – rumour has it he was taking it to keep up with the hectic night shoot schedule). Martins confronts Lime, whose nod is a tacit acceptance of what must be done. We only hear the shot from Calloway’s vantage point, then Martins slowly returns, innocence stripped away. Like Willard killing Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now, there is no satisfaction in being the king slayer.

 

 

Originally posted 2012-09-12 13:12:14. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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