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Who exactly was the third man?  Not Joseph Cotten, he was looking for the third man.

You may not know this but British director Carol Reed’s  1949 classic The Third Man was meant to end happily.  At least that’s what the producers wanted. Reed had another idea, and thus a bit of film history was made.

You remember the ending.  It’s set in a Vienna cemetery on a raw, bitingly cold day.  Joseph Cotten as “honest, upright” Holly Martins stands in the foreground while a woman in the distance strides purposefully toward the camera. She is Italian actress Alida Valli portraying the mistress of villain Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has just been buried. The impression is that the woman and Martins will somehow connect in a romantic finale. At least, that’s how the producers saw the ending.

Here’s how Cotten remembered that scene years later: “The hero (Cotten), smoking a cigarette, was standing in the foreground waiting for her. Like the audience, he was confident she would join him, and they would stroll away happily together, arm in arm.

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“Valli walked on and on, closer and closer, until at last she was a life-sized figure in the foreground with the hero. And then, without turning her head, or even glancing in his direction, she continues her steady pace, out of the shot and into limbo.”

At the time of filming, Cotten had no idea The Third Man would end this way.  He wrote that “I remained there (in the scene), as directed.  My eyes followed Valli out of the shot…Nobody uttered a word. The camera kept rolling. The special effects men from their high perches continued to drop toasted autumn leaves from above.

“I continued to puff on my cigarette, and began to get quite panic-stricken. Was there more to the scene? Had I gone blank? What was Carol waiting for me to do? I took one more puff, then in exasperation threw the cigarette to the ground, at which point Carol shouted through his laughter the word I had been waiting desperately to hear — ‘CUT.'”

Cotten didn’t know it then but he had just completed one of the greatest single scenes in one of the greatest classics ever made.  The Third Man’s  bitter-sweet ending runs wordlessly for about 90 seconds, a long time onscreen when nothing is said and there’s little action. Anton Karas’ signature zither music plays poignantly on the soundtrack. That’s it.

King Vidor, one of our cinematic giants, always said that in the history of films, every great moment that shines in memory is a silent one,” Cotten wrote in  Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, the actor’s excellent 1987 autobiography.

Born in rural Virginia in 1905, Cotten came from a well-off Southern family (his father wanted him to join Uncle Benny’s banking business).

From an early age, he was determined to become an actor, and eventually worked his way up to starring roles on Broadway in the early Thirties. He joined lifelong friend Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater, and it was Welles who brought Cotten to Hollywood to take on the role theater critic Jed Leland in Citizen Kane.

The association continued with 1942’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” and in 1943’s Journey Into Fear,” which Cotten wrote with Welles based on the Eric Ambler novel. Cotten also worked with Welles in a cameo part as a drunken coroner in 1958’s “Touch of Evil,” and in a small part in the director’s 1974 late-career film, “F for Fake.”

In addition, Cotten starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic, “Shadow of a Doubt,” playing young Teresa Wright’s cold, murderous Uncle Charlie. As film writer David Thomson notes, Cotten’s “best performances are in parts outside Hollywood conventions.”

In all, he appeared in 66 films over a 40 year period, from the classics mentioned here to studio generated disaster movies (“Airport 77“) and worse.  Our recommendation is to catch Cotten’s work in four solid films: George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman; King Vidor’s 1946 western outing, Duel in the Sun with Jennifer Jones; with Jones again in William Dieterle’s A Portrait of Jennie  in 1949; and in Robert Aldrich’s Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte in 1964 with Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland.

By the end of his career in the early 1980’s Cotten was appearing in string of very entertaining horror movies with titles such as “Screamers“and The House Where Death Lives (his last movie in 1981).  Factoid:  Cotten was also part of the large cast in one of the most influential box office bombs in movie history, Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Offscreen, Cotten was married twice, the second time to actress Patricia Medina (check out her great performance as a floozy in Welles’ 1955 Mr. Arkadin.

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The union was a happy one, lasting until Cotten died of multiple health problems (including a stroke) in February 1994.  He dedicated his autobiography to Medina — “For Patricia, who is my world.”

The actor took a rightful measure of pride for being the star of films that three of the greatest directors who ever walked this earth — Welles, Hitchcock and Carol Reed — singled out as their finest work.

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