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James T. Callahan
"The Third Man", at first glance, would seem an odd choice of movie to adapt into a television series. The Carol Reed-directed 1949 thriller, was, after all, about a notorious criminal, Harry Lime, and his plot to convince Interpol and the Vienna police that he was dead, to allow him to continue his corrupt activities. A film rich in atmosphere, with an unforgettable sewer chase finale, and a haunting, yet lilting zither theme, it seemed to offer little to hinge a television program on.
But the BBC was enjoying a 'rebirth' in the 1950s, aided by a large input of American money from the use of British studios and production companies (for tax purposes, many American studios utilized British facilities, throughout the decade), and as the British studios became stronger, the quality of the television product being offered to the BBC improved, as well. "The Third Man" was actually an ideal candidate for television, as it had been a world-wide success, and, as it had offered American actors Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in the leads, a series based on the film opened a door to a potential American market that few other British film titles could match.
Of course, Welles and Cotton would never agree to star in a weekly series, but in the retooled format of "The Third Man" (involving the international 'Robin Hood'-like escapades of a wealthy 'art dealer' with an obligation to Interpol, and his associate/friend), the BBC was able to utilize the services of Michael Rennie as a 'kinder and gentler' Harry Lime. Rennie was very familiar to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, having starred as 'Klaatu' in the classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, as well as the Christian leader, Simon Peter, in THE ROBE. His Harry Lime possessed a wry sense of humor, a strong code of honor, and a naughty habit of 'tweaking' law enforcement noses while pulling off his capers (qualities that would be 'inherited' by Simon Templar when "The Saint" became a weekly series, in 1962).
The true pleasure of the "The Third Man", however, was watching Lime's loyal, if somewhat cowardly assistant, Bradford Webster, portrayed to perfection by Jonathan Harris. Webster had the aplomb of a Clifton Webb, but the ineptitude of Nigel Bruce's 'Dr. Watson', and Harris was so endearing in the role that he recreated virtually the same character as 'Dr. Zachary Smith' in "Lost in Space", which debuted shortly after "The Third Man" completed production. Rennie and Harris had a warm, wonderful chemistry together, and made each episode a delight.
As with nearly all of the 'international' shows of the 50s and 60s ("I Spy" was the only exception), the episodes were shot in the studio or on the back lot, with set 'dressing' and costumes creating the exotic flavor of the 'foreign' locales. While this tends to make the episodes appear 'low budget', today, to the audiences of the time, it was all wonderful escapism. And that theme song is ageless!
If "The Third Man" reappears on a 'nostalgia' channel, check it out...it is really a very entertaining series!
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