Orson Welles evaded production assistants and assistant director Guy Hamilton while traveling in Europe when he was supposed to be on location filming in Vienna. During Welles' unexpected absence, Carol Reed had to film around him, getting numerous spectacular shots in the sewers seen in the finished film. Numerous body doubles for Welles were used, included Hamilton, who was made to wear an over-sized hat and padded coat to approximate Welles' larger size. Reed himself doubled for Welles' hands when they reach through the sewer grate. When Welles finally arrived, he was 2 weeks late.
The Vienna Police Dept. has a special unit that is assigned solely to patrol the city's intricate sewer system, as its network of interlocking tunnels make great hiding places for criminals on the run from the law, stolen property, drugs, etc. The "actors" playing police officers in the film were actually off-duty members of that unit.
Rumors have long since been widespread that Orson Welles wrote all of Harry Lime's dialogue and even that he took over the direction of his own scenes. Everyone involved, including Welles himself, have always insisted that the film was directed by only Carol Reed. Welles did claim that he wrote most of Lime's dialogue, which is also a fabrication. The extent of Welles' contributions were Lime's grumbling about his stomach problems (which were improvisations) and the famous "cuckoo clock" spiel at the end of the ferris wheel scene.
Once he finally arrived in Vienna, Orson Welles refused to film various scenes in the sewers. Due to his protests, various sets replicating the Vienna sewers had to be constructed by Alexander Korda on sound-stages back in England.
The huge ferris wheel that Martins and Lime ride on in the Prater was erected in 1897. Sigmund Freud claimed to have used it to induce seasickness in patients while experimenting with cocaine as a treatment.
Somewhat apocryphal stories abound regarding Carol Reed discovering musician Anton Karas while scouring Vienna bars and nightclubs. Reed actually heard Karas playing at a production party and insisted the Austrian zither player come to Reed's hotel room and record songs to use for the contract. Later in production, Reed realized he wanted to use Karas' music for the whole film and flew Karas out to London to record the score. Karas became a top-selling musician thanks to the film and opened a nightclub called "The Third Man" in Vienna, which he ran to the end of his days.
During meetings between Graham Greene and Carol Reed with David O. Selznick, Greene was less than impressed with Selznick, who had (according to Selznick's own son) "become something of a parody of himself". Greene later mocked Selznick's dependency, at that stage, on the drug Dexedrine, better known as "speed". Coincidentally, Reed also became hooked on Dexedrine while shooting the time-consuming film. Both Reed and Selznick were operating on as little as 2 hours of sleep a day.
When the film was initially distributed in America, David O. Selznick replaced the narration at the beginning (a necessity to explain the very unusual status of Vienna in the aftermath of World War II, when the film was set), originally done by Carol Reed himself, with a narration read by Joseph Cotten, in character as Holly Martins. Nearly eleven minutes of film was cut out in Selznick's version, including all references in the original cut to Cotten's Holly Martins being an implied alcoholic and anything else that portrayed him as a less than heroic figure.
Carol Reed had three separate film units working most days of production: a daytime unit, a nighttime unit and a sewer unit. Reed insisted upon directing each unit, resulting in him working 20 hour days.
The tunnels featured in this film are part of the Wienkanal, which channels the Wien River through central Vienna out to the Danube River. The main tunnel is the huge arched structure through which the river flows a distance of about 1.6km. The gated side passages are connections to a wet weather sewer overflow, and the chamber with the balconies is the overflow point. The spiral staircase is one of 6 exits from the main culvert. Tours are run through the system on a daily basis. Events are occasionally held down the tunnels in commemoration of the film and its characters.
Orson Welles said that when he agreed to play Harry Lime, he was offered either a straight salary or a percentage of the profits. Welles chose the salary but he later regretted it because the film went on to become such a huge hit, the percentage was ultimately worth far more than the salary.
This was meant to be the first of a series of collaborations between mega-producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda. However, as the production grew difficult, they decided to take it one film at a time. Ironically, due to the success of the film, since both producers were at each other's throats for the credit for the film, they never collaborated again.
David O. Selznick insisted the filmmakers use Alida Valli for the female lead. Actually, Carol Reed and Alexander Korda were happy with the choice. Selznick became dissatisfied that Reed had Valli wear more plain clothes, wanting her to look glamorous and beautiful throughout. Reed won out on this aspect, due to the support of Korda.
This film tops the "BFI 100", a list of 100 of "the best British films ever" compiled by the British Film Institute (in 1999/2000). Paradoxically, it is also included (at #57) on the American Film Institute's Top 100 American films" list compiled in 1996.
Harry Lime's character name may be derived from Graham Greene's own name. Henry=Harry Graham Greene (Green)= Lime. Others say he chose the surname because it "reminded him of the quicklime where murderers were buried."
The film was released in America by Criterion on the Blu-Ray disc format, but was almost immediately discontinued due to Criterion losing the rights to the movie, which then went back to Studio Canal, the previous owners. As such, the Blu-Ray release from Criterion has quickly become a collector's item.
In one shot in the Wienkanal, a security officer passes by a wall with the engraving "O5," which was the secret symbol of the Austrian resistance against Nazi occupation. ("O5" represents "OE" or "Ö," the first letter of "Österreich," the native name for Austria.)
The future director John Glen was working in the editing department at Shepperton Studios when the film started production. He had a similar build to Joseph Cotten and was enlisted to supply the sound of his footsteps in post-production sound dubbing. He watched a continuous loop in the Westrex theatre and memorized the exact speed of Cotten's pace before dashing outside to a stairwell with a hard surface where the sound of his walking was recorded.
The failure of the original copyright holder to renew the film's copyright resulted in it falling into public domain, meaning that virtually anyone could duplicate and sell a VHS/DVD copy of the film. Therefore, many of the versions of this film available on the market are either severely (and usually badly) edited and/or of extremely poor quality, having been duped from second- or third-generation (or more) copies of the film.
After the failed talk, Holly Martins escapes from the police through an attic room containing a cockatoo (referred to as "a parrot" by Martins). There is a brief shot which includes a painting of a nude seen over Martins' shoulder. The nude's pubic hair can be clearly seen, so this shot's appearance in a major release of the period represents a very rare lapse by film censors.
Orson Welles initially refused to do the sewer sequences because he was convinced the bad air would give him some disease. Carol Reed claimed there was nothing to worry about as the smell was a result of disinfectant, not excrement. According to Reed, the apprehensive Welles didn't believe him.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The scene showing the waning moments of Harry Lime's life in which he extends his fingers futilely towards freedom through a grate in the sewer was suggested to the director by Orson Welles. The hands actually used in that shot belong to director Carol Reed.
The ending was the subject of contention during production. Surprisingly, Graham Greene, known for his bleak, depressing stories, wanted the film to have a "happy ending", with Holly Martins embracing Anna Schmidt after Lime's funeral; whereas David O. Selznick, known for his love of "Hollywood endings", advocated that Anna should ignore Holly after the funeral. Carol Reed agreed with Selznick and the sad ending was used. Reed, however, felt insecure about the length of the nearly 2-minute shoot he filmed where Martins waits for Anna and she walks by him without acknowledging his presence.