P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

European versus American storytelling:
the case of The Third Man

Richard Raskin

In a recent and exceptionally informative book on The Third Man,[1] Charles Drazin describes what he sees as a parallel between the American-versus-European polarity within the story told by the film and an opposition of American and European ways in the stormy relationship between its co-producers: David O. Selznik, providing Hollywood stars and money for the production, and Sir Alexander Korda, whose British-Lion company actually made the film, with Carol Reed directing.

Ultimately the present article will focus specifically on the ways in which Drazin characterizes the American and European approaches to storytelling, respectively embodied by Selznik and the Korda-Reed team. But before examining and questioning those characterizations, I would like to show briefly how Drazin admirably turns the tables on Carol Reed, and sets the story straight as to the role the much maligned Selznik actually played with respect to the incomparable ending of The Third Man.

At the conclusion of Graham Greene's original treatment, Martins and Anna leave the cemetery together, arm in arm, which inspires the narrator (Calloway) to remark that Martins had a way with girls.[2] The film, of course, concludes with a remarkable shot lasting over a minute, with Martins leaning against a wagon in the left foreground as Anna approaches from a great distance, getting progressively closer, and – without so much as a glance in his direction – finally walking past him and out of frame, with the strains of Karas's zither music heard throughout the shot.

Initially, Graham Greene was opposed to this change in the ending of the story, which he believed to be entirely Carol Reed's brainchild.[3] And Reed himself had no qualms about taking full credit for it in an interview he gave in 1974 when he stated:

At one time it was thought that every picture must end with an embrace so that the audience could go out happy, but I don't think that's what it did. A picture should end as it has to. I don't think anything in life ends 'right'[...] In The Third Man, Graham Greene wanted Joseph Cotton to overtake Valli in that car; then the film would finish with the couple walking down the road. I insisted that she pass him by. David Selznick had some money in the film (I think it took care of Cotten and Orson Welles' valet). I must say he was very nice and appreciative about the picture as soon as he saw it, but he said, "Jeezes, couldn't we make a shot where the girl gets together with the fella?" "It was in the original script," I said. "We chucked it out." "I'm not sure. It was a good idea." But I mean, the whole point with the Valli character in that film is that she'd experienced a fatal love – and then along comes this silly American! [4]

Widely quoted by virtually all subsequent commentators on The Third Man (including myself [5]), this statement led people to believe that the London production team, headed by Reed and Korda, intelligently understood that the story required an unhappy ending, while Selznik, as though deliberately living up to a vulgar Hollywood stereotype, inanely pressed for a happy one.

And this is where Drazin's research set the record straight. He read Carol Reed's two-page summary of the so-called "Bermuda meeting" which took place on that island in May of 1948, when The Third Man was still in pre-production. The purpose of that meeting, in which Selznik, Korda and Reed participated, was to reach agreement on the story and various production issues. With respect to the ending, Reed himself wrote in his notes:

[Selznick] felt that it was a great pity that at the end of the story Rollo [the original name for Holly Martins] and the girl Anna should finish together; we should go from the cemetery scene to Anna going a way by herself.

Selznick felt this very strongly, that Anna's love for Harry Lime should be fatal, especially since it seems impossible for her to be with Rollo immediately after the shooting of her lover.[6]

And so it turns out that the American producer, David O. Selznik, was the one who first suggested that Holly not get the girl at the end, though Reed would later claim credit for that idea and depict Selznik as foolishly opposed to it.

Drazin deserves great appreciation for setting the record straight, and giving credit where credit is due, especially since Reed's remarks on the ending can be taken to imply that underlying the disagree­ment as to how the film should conclude, was an opposition between American simple-mindedness and European sophistication.

Yet, with regard to other aspects of The Third Man, as I would now like to show with two concrete examples, Drazin himself buys into that same caricature of American-versus-European approaches to storytelling.


One of the most memorable entrances of any film character, is the shot of Harry Lime (Orson Welles), suddenly illuminated as he stands in a doorway, across from Anna's apartment, about an hour into the film. In the screen-play, there is no explanation as to why Lime is standing there at that moment, and this bothered Selznik who

went to great lengths to patch up what he perceived to be holes in the story. Harry Lime turning up outside Anna's apartment building, his face suddenly lit up in a doorway, may have provided one of the greatest entrances in movie history, but Selznick wanted to know what he was doing there. He suggested that some explanatory dialogue should later be added in the Great Wheel scene:

MARTINS: What were you doing outside Anna's house?

LIME: Well, I've always had a secret spot in my heart for Anna. I miss her.

MARTINS: That doesn't go down with me, Harry. You were going to turn her over to the Russians, weren't you?

LIME: Yes, as a matter of fact I was.[7]

So far, so good. It is instructive to know about such discussions along the way. But let's take a close look at the far-reaching conclusions Drazin draws from this suggestion made by Selznik:

In this prosaic exchange, which would of course be left out of the final film, there lay a fault-line between two cultures - a European feel for paradox and mystery versus an American urge to explain. In this Cinema of Answers, there must be no scope for ambiguity, the heroes must be heroes, and the villains clearly villains (p. 36).

Without defending Selznik's suggestion, though I doubt acquiescence to it would have damaged the film in any way, I would like to point out that there is an odd disproportion between the minor addition Selznik wanted in this connection and the invective Drazin feels justified in directing at American culture, on the basis of that suggestion.

I am not suggesting that Drazin should have kept his views to himself or that he did not have every right to express them as he saw fit. My point is that the scope of his reaction is incommensurate with the shortcoming at hand (assuming that Selznik was wrong), and that the very disproportion between the two is itself a sign worth taking into account.

The Third Man that was released in the U.S. in February 1950 was not identical to The Third Man that had opened in London in September of 1949. The main difference lay in the opening voice-over. In the European version (which today is the only one available in the U.S. as well), the text is spoken by Carol Reed, while in the American version, a slightly modified text is spoken by Joseph Cotten. Here are the two versions of the voice-over text, aligned for easy comparison:

Carol Reed voice-over

Joseph Cotten voice-over

I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough - mmm - had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs. But, well, you know, they can't stay the course like a professional.

I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. They could get anything if people wanted it enough. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs. But you know of course they don't last long, not really, not like professionals.

Now the city, it's divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power, the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the centre of the city, that's international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers. Wonderful. What a hope they had, all strangers to the place, and none of them could speak the same language, except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know.

Now the city's divided into four zones, you know, American, British, Russian and French. But the center of the city, that's international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers. Wonderful. You can imagine what a chance they had, all of them strangers to the place, and no two of them speaking the same language. But they were good fellows on the whole and did their best.

Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit.

Vienna doesn't look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed a little of course.

Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime. Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him some sort, I don't know, some sort of a job. Anyway, there he was, poor chap, happy as a lark and without a cent.

Anyway, I was dead broke when I got to Vienna. A close pal of mine had wired me offering me a job doing publicity work for some kind of a charity he was running. I'm a writer, name's Martins, Holly Martins. Anyway down I came all the way to old Vienna happy as a lark and without a dime.

Once again, it may well be that the original text is superior to the modified one, though the differences between the two are hardly earth-shaking. The fact that only the British version has survived would certainly suggest that it was the better one. But look closely at the extensive conclusions Drazin draws from the minor differences between the two:

Now [in the American version] everything is established, and all mystery eliminated, as Holly Martins takes control of his own story. The worldly unknown British voice with a dubious past becomes the known and down-to-earth American one. You can't imagine Holly Martins ever having been within a million miles of Constantinople. Oklahoma suited him better. A startling, offbeat and ironic beginning becomes a humourless and conventional opening to a Hollywood thriller, with no more purpose than to establish the scene. Everything is just what it is. To Holly Martins the military police in Vienna really are 'good fellows on the whole doing their best'. The ambiguity and delicious mischief of the original are lost. Anything irregular or slightly irreverent is straightened out. The insouciant understatement of 'bombed about a bit' becomes the prosaic 'bombed a little of course'. Even the casual, conversational tone now seems false. For there's nothing spontaneous about the introduction now, it's just the hero telling his story.

The British introduction opens up the imagination; the American one closes it down. The changes are very small - just the odd rephrasing here and there, a few words cut - but they reflect the vast gulf between British irony and the Hollywood need for clarity and reassurance. In the American version you know that Martins is going to be around in the end. In the British one, there's every possibility that he might not be (pp. 125-126).

The changes in the voice-over text which Drazin acknowledges to be "very small," are nevertheless ascribed a vast scope of meaning, totally out of proportion with their importance.

The following table summarizes some of the differences they – as well as Selznik's suggestion concerning the "figure in the doorway" scene – represent for Drazin:

American cinema European cinema
Closes down the imagination
Urge to explain
Cinema of Answers
All mystery eliminated
Everything established
Everything is just what it is
Heroes must be heroes and the villains clearly villains
Opens up the imagination
Feel for paradox and mystery
Scope for ambiguity
Room for uncertainty, for the unknown
Hollywood need for clarity and reassurance British irony
Prosaic, humourless, conventional Startling, off-beat, ironic
Anything irregular or slightly irreverent is straightened out Room for the irregular and irreverent, for delicious mischief

That this paradigm for contrasting styles of cinematic storytelling could be disengaged from the minor differences on which it is based - such as "bombed a little of course" instead of "bombed about a bit" - is indeed extraordinary, and suggests that the paradigm was there to begin with, and that differences were subsequently found to justify it as best they could. That is, after all, the way cultural stereotypes generally work.

Instead of taking the overall stance that The Third Man became a great film despite the interference of a meddling American producer, and that European storytelling is exciting while American storytelling is pap, I would suggest that among the reasons for which The Third Man is in fact a masterpiece, is the interplay within the film of the best of American and European storytelling, the best of American and European acting, and even the best of European and American production styles and values.

Here, as is so often the case with narratives of any kind, a model which allows for the dynamic interplay of opposite approaches may have more to offer than one which defines alternate approaches as mutually exclusive and promotes one at the expense of the other.

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Adamson, Judith. Graham Greene and the Cinema. Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1984.

Adamson, Judy and Philip Stratford. "Looking for The Third Man on the Trail in Texas, New York, Hollywood," Encounter(June 1978), pp. 39-46.

Clem. "The Third Man," Variety(7 September 1949).

Carpenter, Lynette. "I Never Knew the Old Vienna: Cold War Politics and The Third Man," Film Criticism(1978),

Cook, Christopher. "Hijacking The Third Man," Listener 116, 2991 (18-25 December 1986).

Cotten, Joseph. Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. 1987.

Crosby, John. "The Second Man," Observer (1 June 1969).

Crowther, Bosley. "The Third Man," New York Times (3 February 1950).

Denby, David. "Night World" in Favorite Movies. Critics' Choice, ed. Philip Nobile. New York: Macmillan, 1973, pp. 87-96.

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Gomez, Joseph A. "The Third Man: Capturing the Visual Essence of Literary Conception," Literature/Film Quarterly 2, 4 (Autumn 1974), pp. 334-340.

Greene, Graham. "Sir Alexander Korda," Sight and Sound 25, 4 (Spring 1956), pp. 214-215.

Greene, Graham. The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. Harmondsworth: Penguin, n.d.

Greene, Graham. The Third Man. London: Faber and Faber, 1988; orig. pub. 1973.

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Pogue, Leland. "The Third Man" in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1: Films. Chicago: St. James Press, 1984; pp. 891-2.

Raskin, Richard. "Closure in The Third Man: on the dynamics of an unhappy ending," p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies 2 (December 1996), pp. 101-119.

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1 In Search of The Third Man (London: Methuen, 1999).

2 Graham Greene, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Harmondsworth: Penguin, n.d.), p. 119.

3 "One of the few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he was proved triumphantly right. I held the view that an entertain­ment of this kind was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending …" Preface to The Third Man, in Greene's Ways of Escape (London: The Bodley Head, 1980), p. 124. A less complete version of this text is included in 1950 Heinemann and subsequent Penguin editions of The Third Man and The Fallen Idol.

4 Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974), pp. 169-170.

5 Richard Raskin, "Closure in The Third Man: On the Dynamics of an Unhappy Ending." p.o.v. number 2 (December 1996), pp. 101-119.

6 Drazin (op. cit.), p. 23. These notes are on file in the British Film Institute Library Special Collection of the Carol Reed Papers.

7 Drazin, p. 36.

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