- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre has begun a three-week Orson Welles retrospective with a famous movie he didn’t direct and appears in only briefly. However, in addition to emerging as the classic chase thriller of the post-World War II period, “The Third Man” demonstrated how a bravura performer could steal a movie despite a minimum of screen time.

Mr. Welles, still a precocious 34 when “The Third Man” was being cast,desperately needed funds in order to resume his own production of “Othello,” which was stalled in Rome. (It will be revived July 1, 5 and 7 as part of the AFI series.) Anticipating the elusive nature of Harry Lime, the character he was to portray in “The Third Man,” Mr. Welles ran the Hungarian-British producer Alexander Korda a merry chase before allowing himself to be apprehended and flown to London to conclude a deal.

His price seemed substantial at the time: $100,000. And professionally speaking, Harry was light duty:a few days of location shooting in Vienna, with some running around the sewers, and one major dialogue scene, shot at Shepperton Studios in London and permitting the actor to improvise most of his lines.

Harry’s cynical last remarks, addressed to Joseph Cotten as his disillusioned friend Holly Martins, turned out to be as immortal as anything ever written for the screen: “Don’t be so gloomy.You know what the fellow said:In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed; they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.So long, Holly.”

Mr. Welles lived to regret selling himself short for a fleeting but indispensable acting turn.He had been offered a percentage of the profits, which turned out to be enormous.He settled for the cash.He might have been able to subsidize all the postponed or abandoned productions in his filmography with the lost windfall from “The Third Man.”

Directed with exceptional stylistic assurance by Carol Reed from a screenplay by Graham Greene, “The Third Man” was willed into being at the outset by Alexander Korda. He thought a successful movie could be contrived around the occupation of Vienna, which had been partitioned into four zones supervised by American, British, Russian and French military police.They joined in combined patrols of a fifth sector, the so-called “international zone” in the middle of the city, still conspicuously scarred by the effects of bombing and artillery attacks during the war.

Mr. Reed and Mr. Greene had just completed an esteemed collaboration, “The Fallen Idol,” derived from a Greene short story.The writer’s immediate response to the Korda suggestion was a fragment he had jotted down years earlier and never developed:”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 that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.”

Mr. Greene consented to spend two weeks looking about Vienna, during a bone-chilling February of 1948.It seems a pity that the movie failed to exploit one of the details he observed while touring cemeteries:The ground was so frozen that gravediggers needed electric drills.A chance acquaintance with an English military intelligence officer spurred Mr. Greene to begin formulating a plot.

His informant mentioned that sales of diluted penicillin had been a pernicious black market racket in the city.He also knew of an “underground” police force, which turned out to be not an espionage entity but a branch of the Viennese constabulary, assigned to patrol the city’s vast sewer system, which could accommodate clandestine foot travel between the various zones without the need to show identity papers at checkpoints.

Mr. Greene completed a short story version of the work in progress, joined the director for a mutual visit to Vienna and then talked out the screenplay with Mr. Reed, “covering miles of carpet a day.”Mr. Greene reflected, “You cannot work out a continuity at a desk — you have to move with your characters.” Their work required a certain amount of protection from the nitpicking and self-interest of American producer David O. Selznick, who had arranged to help finance the movie in exchange for domestic distribution rights.

Alfred Hitchcock had coined the term “MacGuffin” as shorthand for the precious object that characters in mystery stories are obsessed with finding and retrieving.As a rule, a MacGuffin is an inanimate object, preferably as coveted as the Maltese Falcon or the stamps in “Charade.”However, the troublesome Harry Lime set a high standard for human MacGuffins. To this day his only rival is probably George Kaplan, the phantom spy of “North by Northwest.”

TITLE: “The Third Man”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1949, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional violence and sustained ominous atmosphere)

CREDITS: Directed by Carol Reed.Written by Graham Greene, with additional dialogue by Orson Welles. Produced by Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick.Photography by Robert Krasker.Production design by Vincent Korda. Editing by Oswald Hafenrichter. Zither musical themes played by Anton Karas

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring.

WHEN: Today through Tuesday

ADMISSION: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students with valid IDs and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

DVD Edition: Criterion Collection

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