The 1949 film noir The Third Man ends with one of the most brutally uncompromising scenes in movie history.
Joseph Cotten’s character Holly Martins wants to help the beautiful and bereaved Anna (Alida Valli)* after Harry Lime (Orson Welles), her man — an evil man but the love of her life — was shot to death in the sewers of Vienna.
Following the funeral, Holly waits for Anna on the long avenue of trees leading away from the cemetery. She walks toward him. The scene unfolds slowly (one minute and five seconds), as the haunting Third Man Theme** by Anton Karas plays on the zither.
And then Anna walks on by without even looking at him. She keeps walking away.
The coldest brush-off.
Holly lights a cigarette and throws away the match.
End of story.
The movie ending is totally different from the ending in Graham Greene’s novella, which was written as a film treatment and which suggested that Anna and Martins are about to begin a new life together.
In the book, as Anna walks by, the text, as told by the narrator, reads:
He caught her up and they walked side by side. I don’t think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm.
Greene and producer David O. Selznick wanted that happy ending, but director Carol Reed refused to end the film on ‘an artificially happy note.‘
After the movie came out, Greene said that Carol Reed’s judgment had been correct.
‘One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.’
When I saw the film again on TCM last night, part of me wanted to go with the ‘happy’ ending. At least Anna could glance his way — and then a quick fade-out (I’d say freeze frame but they didn’t do much of that in the 1940s), leaving the ending in the imagination of the viewer. But Carol Reed was right. The ending is classic film noir.
*Alida Maria Laura, known by her stage name Alida Valli (or simply Valli), was an Italian actress who appeared in more than 100 films from the 1930s to the early 2000s. She was once described as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ and was the only actress in Europe in critics’ eyes to equal Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. She died in 2006 at the age of 84.
**The Third Man Theme, also known as the Harry Lime Theme, topped international music charts in 1950, bringing fame to the previously unknown zither player Anton Karas.
STORY BEHIND THE THEME
One night after a day of filming in Vienna, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli were relaxing in a subterranean bistro when they heard the zither music of Anton Karas, a 40-year-old musician who was playing for tips. Reed said this was the music he wanted for the film and hired a shocked Karas to write the theme.
THE BEAUTY WHO SELDOM SMILED
2 thoughts on “Classic film noir ‘The Third Man’ — and that much debated ending”
One of my favorite films. I’m surprised (and pleased) to hear that Greene agreed with the change.
A mere writer cannot compete with a great director — but as you say, it worked out just fine for all.