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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Thriller Hit With Zither Background

Selznick-Korda An Uneasy Producing Pair of The Third Man (1950) --- Part One

Modern Art Meets Movie Merchandising
David Selznick thought Robert Mitchum would make a better Harry Lime than Orson Welles. More I think about it, the righter he seems. Selznick was painted as philistine mogul by surviving-beyond-him Carol Reed and Grahame Greene, both making a clown of their producer associate for interviewer/audiences cued to laugh at their oft-repeated tales. Of course, without Selznick and his stars/money, there'd have been no Third Man. Selznick had become all the more nit-picking and obsessive by 1949, his finger having slipped off the pulse of public taste. DOS felt movies ought to function in ways that worked before the war. It wasn't easy for him or anyone to realize that this industry and its viewership had changed much with coming of peace.

Again to the Mitchum point: I agree with Selznick that he'd have been better. Mitchum had danger, was capable of anything, even diluting penicillin for children, Harry Lime's worst of many crimes. Perfect casting his would have been for Bob having lately been tapped by L.A. vice at a reefer party. He'd fit right into a black market ... ours, Vienna's, anybody's. Orson Welles, on the other hand, never suggests a threat to me, nor can I accept his doing such horrid things in guise of Harry Lime. And we know he won't throw Holly Martens off the Ferris wheel. Were it Mitchum, we'd be surprised if he didn't. Further recasting: what about Gregory Peck in the Joe Cotten role? Selznick presumably still had his contract, unless The Paradine Case wrapped it up, and Peck v. Mitchum would have raised stakes considerably on that wheel. Not to take anything from The Third Man, however. It's still on my all-time favorites list.

There's more lore on The Third Man than for most from the Classic Era. Several book-length studies were written, and interviews abound with many who survived to the film's placement among settled greats. Enduring myth claims Orson Welles directed his scenes, de facto helming much of The Third Man, according to some. Well, it does look and play like a Welles project. He might have done something nearly as good if someone had let him, but by 1948, OW was a "detriment" to ticket-buying, according to Selznick when he demurred on Orson-casting. Sift through the record shows Welles did not write his dialogue for the Ferris wheel, but did contribute the gag about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock. He came up also with the indigestion routine and repeated mention of pills he can no longer get to relieve it. That's aspect of the scene I remember best, mordant humor woven through otherwise tense conversation. But did Welles suffer for not having directed The Third Man, a film very much in his style and a credit that would have made him solidly bankable again? We could wonder how often he'd be approached by fans who assumed OW was creative force behind a thriller so Wellsian as The Third Man. Could OW have laughed off such misplaced accolade as would John Ford when "congratulated" for Red River, a Howard Hawks job.

Selznick made a lucrative deal on The Third Man. For loan of Joseph Cotten and (Alida) Valli, along with some financing, he'd get Western Hemisphere rights and eventually the negative. Being up-to-minute on boxoffice trends and how other company's product was doing, DOS knew The Third Man would be a challenging sell. Being Brit-made put it dangerously close to an art film, or one people wouldn't want whatever its classification. Most of what came out of England danced on gallows here, if released at all, and arties had a ceiling he'd have to get beyond to realize profit on The Third Man. So yes, Selznick made changes, replacing Carol Reed's voice opener to something more conventional in Joseph Cotten's narration. And DOS took out a reel of footage to juice up pace. A dumb idea we'd say --- who'd choose to watch the US version of The Third Man today? --- but Selznick saw urgency to make his film accessible to statesiders who'd never seen anything quite like this before. He'd pioneer use of television trailers to sell The Third Man, one-minute spots made specifically for home viewing, according to Variety (the spots ran in all 58 TV markets available at the time).

The Third Man wouldn't be a first Occupation-set thriller. That distinction may go to Berlin Express. Earlier arrival in terms of comedy was A Foreign Affair from Billy Wilder/ Paramount. A closer cousin to The Third Man, and a merchandising example Selznick may have consulted, was MGM's The Search, also realist in approach and perceived by many at the time as an art pic. The Third Man was blessed with content that could sell, sex and sudden death a most potent. Misery of bombed-out Vienna populace was secondary to these, The Third Man very Hollywood in that respect despite Reed/Greene's quest for something different. There would be multiple ad styles tendered by the pressbook ("fully three times as many ad mats as are usually furnished for the best pictures," observed Motion Picture Herald), each keyed to specific audience desire, some designed like modern art. This was a very forward-thinking campaign, one that would be imitated by others to come. Selznick was known to oversee every detail of exploitation, so may we credit him with perceptive selling that helped make The Third Man a US hit?

Go HERE for Part Two of The Third Man.


Blogger b piper said...

I can only imagine what kind of impassioned responses your preference for a Mitchum Hsrry Lime over the Wells version is going to bring! I myself have to disagree. Sure Mitchum was more physically imposing (and a great actor) but Lime isn't the unstoppable brute of CAPE FEAR --- he's the smug schoolboy gone bad, who can peddle bad penicillin to children as proof of his own innate superiority over the "masses", the inconsequential ants he sees from atop the Ferris wheel. He's Leopold and/or Loeb.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Had Welles directed it, he'd have spent a year in the editing room, getting distracted by another project, before Selznick fired him and butchered it himself.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Well, every film hits people differently. I can't imagine anyone BUT Welles as Lime. His performance chills me to the bone because I totally buy how utterly charming he is, to the point that he could convince anyone to aid him in his diabolically evil doings. I've watched this movie many times over (I consider it the apex of film making, the movie that most of any I've seen compellingly uses the tools of cinema to tell its tale) and every single time I fear for Martens and the potential to be tossed out of that Ferris wheel by Lime. For me, I have to buy that Lime can convince me I'd need pants even if I didn't have legs... and I do buy it.

6:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Another vote for Orson Welles as Harry Lime, this one from Dan Mercer:

I'm afraid that I'll have to agree with bpiper, quite dispassionately, you know, but very definitely. Mitchum's casting would be decidedly offbeat, but he's just too strong for the role. The "Adventures of Harry Lime" radio show gives the back story of the character, with Orson Welles's reprising his bit. Lime was a small-timer living by his wits. Poisoning children wasn't something he was really up for, just nothing he could avoid. But we have to understand what a weakling he was. Of course he would skulk in shadows or flee down sewers. And Holly was the inconsequential sort who'd pal with a Lime, laugh at his jokes, and think what a clever fellow his friend was, never being aware or much concerned that that was about all there was. With Mitchum, we'd have an entirely different sort of character, someone much more dangerous, maybe a corn-fed Dr. Mabuse. But then we'd also have an entirely different kind of movie in need of another director. Good as Carol Reed was, who would be better than Fritz Lang for this kind of show? Keep Valli, though. She's great playing the sort of woman whose beauty suggests ideals and mysteries that intrigue but don't really exist, when you consider that she'd give it all up for a man like Harry Lime.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

If he didn't benefit from director confusion, Welles said his star rose immeasurably as an actor following this."My one moment as a traffic-stopping superstar". Deluged with offers, he went back to working on Othello.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

The main problem with promoting Mitchum onto a role done to perfection by Welles in the first place, is that we are projecting Mitchum's future persona towards an earlier time. Mitchum's post-war stardom was predicated on his essaying the role of the soft-spoken, amiable ex-veteran (with a hint of cool) finding his place in the world (TIL THE END OF TIME, CROSSFIRE, HOLIDAY AFFAIR). Even when he ventured into thriller or noir territory his characters were morally on the straight and narrow path. In UNDERCURRENT it is Robert Taylor who plays the psycho. Mitchum is the late-inning hero. As he is in PURSUED and BLOOD ON THE MOON. His proto-type noir role in OUT OF THE PAST is essentially a hard-boiled version of Chandler's Marlowe or Hammett's Spade - men who can skirt the rules but have their own code of integrity. The twist being that Mitchum is too trusting towards femme fatales.
That wouldn't happen in the 50's as Mitchum's roles hardened and became more corrosively cynical (BANDITO). But in 1949 he wasn't ready to essay Harry Lime's amorality.

2:01 AM  

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