It's Friday 16 July 1999... You could see this... ...You should see this

The arrival of the new `Star Wars' film in three weeks' time has driven out most of the competition. But not `The Third Man', a British classic defiantly re-released on the same day.
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The Independent Culture
By now, 50 years later, you can believe whatever you please about The Third Man. They're all dead, and you could spend a jolly enough week in Vienna without dreaming what it was like after the war. How hungry people were. As for the film, well, it's so fluent and natural that you wonder why they make such a mess of movies now. You marvel that The Phantom Menace has the nerve to open the same week-end as The Third Man - without story, characters, drama or atmosphere.What's left? Look at the l949 film, you feel like saying, can't you do that again? And if someone asked what was "that" exactly, I suppose you'd have to start with Graham Greene. Funny thing is, once upon a time, people would have believed more or less whatever Greene said. Nowadays we know more about him; we know he lied a lot, dreamed things up.

Anyway, Graham Greene and Alexander Korda were friends. Greene had reviewed films in the late 1930s, so they'd have known of each other. But Greene wrote once, in 1936, that Korda was "a publicity man of genius, who has not yet revealed a talent for films". Sometimes that kind of nerve can make for a friendship. And Korda was Greene's type, in a way: Hungarian, full of charm, loved beautiful women and movies, but maybe hadn't quite got the hang of them yet. But he was on his way to taking over the British picture business with The Private Life of Henry VIII, Rembrandt, That Hamilton Woman, Anna Karenina. Silly things, really, if you look at them now, but done with flair. And throwing money around so that investors might be persuaded to give him more. A man who lived on his nerves. Greene liked that, appreciated the danger.

Well, just after the war Korda and Greene got together and they made The Fallen Idol, from a Greene story, with Carol Reed directing. Ralph Richardson plays the butler and Bobby Henrey was the rich kid of the house - the ambassador's son - who adores the butler. If you haven't seen it, don't blame me. The ending's a bit soft, I think, but it's a bloody marvellous film, and the three of them must have thought, this is too good to lose.

Of course, you can't tell with movies. Repeat the set-up and you might end up murdering one another. No one knows where the magic comes from, or how to grasp it. But Korda and Greene were talking - for all I know they were sunning themselves on Korda's yacht, the Elsewhere, somewhere in the Med. Don't rule out the chemistry of yachts and cigars. And Alex says, "What about a picture in Vienna, Graham?"

You see, Alex had lived everywhere and he knew the hunted rat feeling of being middle-European. He'd known Vienna in the 1930s, and been back after 1945 to see the ruins and the city in fear of its occupying forces, each with its zone. And he'd smelled intrigue, the black market, that kind of thing. In a way, all great producers need is the nose.

And Greene jumps up and says, "Yes, why not?" Turns out he has the beginning - just a beginning, but he likes it - "I had paid my last farewell to Harry about 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, amid the host of strangers on the Strand."

"Harry?" asked Alex. "The Strand? What happened to Vienna, for God's sake?"

Greene smiles and reassures Alex. Tells him the two can easily fit together. Harry Lime, he adds. Good name, don't you think?

Lime like the fruit? Korda may have said. Or quicklime, says Greene. The stuff they throw on corpses. And it'll be a while yet before Orson Welles utters the line about "the old limelight and the fall of the curtain". In fact, Greene never used that precious opening. But he went off to Vienna on a recce. Alex got him in at the Sachar Hotel. He met people. Nosed around. And he heard about the sewers and the penicillin racket there had been in the city - not just trading the drug, but diluting it for a bigger killing, and the dilute product driving children mad. Gruesome stuff, but grist to his mill.

Now, you reach the genius of Graham Greene. Not just the script he wrote. But the way he went about it. He must have guessed he had something. So he wrote it as a story first, or a novella even - it's 58 pages in print. And he wrote that before he did the script, and he kept the copyright on both. And Korda let him. Trusted the writer.

And it's the story for the film. Rollo Martins turns up in Vienna expecting to have a job that his old friend Harry Lime has got for him. But Lime is dead. And that would have been the end of it, but Rollo meets Harry's girl, Anna; he realises that the death wasn't quite the way it's been reported - and what else has he got to do? He and Harry were old friends. At school together. Some minor public school, maybe, from which Rollo got expelled because of one of Harry's pranks.

And the novella is written from the point of view of another character, Calloway, the English policeman in Vienna who is on Lime's trail - gruff, unsentimental, matter-of-fact: Trevor Howard in the movie. "One never knows when the blow may fall. When I saw Rollo Martins first, I made this note on him for my security police file: `In normal circumstances a cheerful fool. Drinks too much and may cause a little trouble. Whenever a woman passes raises his eyes and makes some comment, but I get the impression that he'd rather not be bothered. Has never really grown up and perhaps this accounts for the way he worshipped Lime.' I met him first at Lime's funeral. It was February, and the grave digger had been forced to use electric drills to open the frozen ground in Vienna's Central Cemetery. It was as if even nature were doing its best to reject Lime, but we got him in at last and laid the earth back on him like bricks."

Wonderful stuff, and Carol Reed was going to do it. But Alex was a bit short - always had been - so he'd made this deal with David Selznick, the American who made Gone With the Wind, Rebecca and Duel in the Sun. They were alike: gamblers, big spenders, and a bit short. They had a deal: Selznick would distribute The Winslow Boy and The Fallen Idol in America; Korda would do the same for Selznick's pictures, The Paradine Case and Portrait of Jennie, in Britain. And they'd make The Third Man together. That didn't seem so bad because Selznick thought he could get Cary Grant to play Rollo Martins. Plus he had an actress under contract, Valli, perfect for Anna. And what about Noel Coward as Lime? Grant and Coward? Makes the mouth water, doesn't it? And you can see Lime - smart, thin-lipped, sarcastic, cruel and the way Greene had him in the script: "A light, amusing, ruthless character, he had always

been able to find superficial excuses for his own behaviour."

Well, it didn't work out. They offered Grant a piece of the profits - it would have been a fortune - but Grant was on the cheap side and he wanted his money up front, so it fell through. And Coward went with him. So someone said, what about Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten? Cotten was another Selznick contract player, so that was easy. As for Welles, Selznick was wary: he said that Orson tended to mess around with material, and he and Cotten were old chums. Put them together and a film could get out of control. But Reed had a hunch about Welles - if anyone could find him.

That was only the start of the fuss. Selznick also wanted to "help" on the script. So he begged Greene and Reed to go out to California for conferences - meetings that began at 10.30 pm and which were spoiled by Selznick's reliance on Benzedrine and his habit of forgetting which picture they were talking about. But he thought the guys should be American, not English. OK, they agreed. In which case why name one of them Rollo? cried Selznick. So Greene and Reed agreed that it was a little too Sloane Square. They'd think of something else. "Holly" was what they thought of. Is he a girl? yelped Selznick. Are these two fruits?

Then there was the title. The Third Man, mused Selznick. Not bad, but what about A Night in Vienna? Something with a hint of romance. Selznick still wanted Coward, but Reed was firm. He said Lime was too far from Coward's image - and Coward, after all, was gay. In the end, Selznick had too many other problems to contend with - approaching bankruptcy and whether or not to marry Jennifer Jones. When Welles saw the script, he knew it was for him. But he took money up front, too, and a fraction of what had been offered to Grant.

So the unit went to Vienna in the autumn of l948, and they filmed at night in the streets, in the sewers, at the cemetery and at the Prater for the Ferris wheel scene. Reed was never sharper, adding little touches here and there. Like the cat. There's a scene where, at long last, Harry Lime appears, across the street at night, standing in a doorway as the light from an upper window falls on his smiling face. You know the moment. But Reed added the cat. Anna has a cat - a rather spiteful animal - it only ever liked Harry, Anna says. And the cat jumps out of the window, and goes prowling. And it finds the shiny black shoes in the doorway. Harry and pussy. Made the scene.

And Reed handled Welles, who said it was too cold and damp in the sewers at first. But he managed it, in the end. And when they did the Ferris wheel scene, Reed gave Orson just a bit of rope, so that Orson added a speech for Lime; you know the one, about how in Italy there were the Borgias, war, terror, murder, bloodshed - and it produced Michelangelo, Leonardo, the Renaissance. Whereas in Switzerland there was "brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did it produce? The cuckoo clock."

That was Orson, and everyone loved it. Even Graham Greene said he thought it was terrific, though he never incorporated it in his novella. Oh yes, one other thing. In some Viennese dive, Reed found this man, Anton Karas, who played the zither. What's a zither? Sort of a flat guitar. And he got Karas to do the music - it was a sensation, all over the world. Helped sell the picture. Made Selznick happy. And Reed even changed Greene a bit. At the end, when they finally bury Lime, Reed had Holly Martins wait for Anna, hoping she'd be nice to him, but she walks straight past him without a nod or notice. That's the end. No comfort. But in the novella Greene had relented: he had them leave the cemetery together, arms linked.

That's about it, really. The picture was released in 1949. It won the big prize at Cannes. Reed was nominated for an Oscar. Nothing for the script. Or for Welles as supporting actor - George Sanders won that year for All About Eve. But Robert Krasker won for cinematography. And, of course, the black and white is spectacular. And it was a huge success.

But what does that mean? Korda went bust. Selznick went bust. Carol Reed never again matched The Third Man. Welles started playing Harry Lime on the radio, only now the character was a kind of hero who solved crimes and helped people in distress, as opposed to wrecking the brains of children with bad penicillin. And I suppose that's what Welles brought to the film - he made Lime charming. You were hurt when he had to die. One speech, that cat and the smile had gently turned Greene's meaning aside. That's the movies for you - so damn tricky.

It was a long time ago. You can go to Vienna now, and it feels plump and prosperous. But Vienna's awfully good at sweeping things under the carpet. You can still feel corruption there, and Lime's presence. My wife and I went there. We found the real door where Harry had stood. It was daylight, and she insisted that she take a picture of me standing in the doorway. We never saw a cat. As I backed in to get the composition right, all of a sudden the door opened behind me and a little old lady came out. She took the whole thing in at a glance. "Ach, that Harry Lime!" she said.

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