Nostalgia corner: The Third Man (1959-63)

The Third Man

It’s tempting, these days, just as the likes of Agents of SHIELD, Hannibal and Bates Motel are gracing our screens (or about to), to think that the idea of spinning off a TV series from a popular movie is a new phenomenon. But just as the likes of Dick Barton and Bernard Quatermass were moving from radio and the small screen to the big screen in the 40s and 50s, so, too, were popular movie characters making the transition to TV.

So after the jump, let’s talk about Harry Lime aka The Third Man.

Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir The Third Man, adapted by Graham Greene from his novel, starred Joseph Cotten as a man searching for his late friend Harry Lime in post-war, Allied-controlled Austria. Cotten discovers that Lime was actually a criminal, stealing penicillin from hospitals, diluting it, then selling it on, leading to numerous deaths. When things got troublesome for him, he faked his own death and is still alive – which leads to one of the best introduction scenes in movie history.

Orson Welles played Lime to great effect, again giving us in a semi-improvised speech, another of cinema’s most famous moments:

With the soundtrack to the movie topping the international movie charts in 1950, demand for more The Third Man was inevitable, although the ending of the movie somewhat precluded a sequel. A US radio series, The Lives of Harry Lime, centred on Lime’s pre-Vienna adventures, with 52 episodes being made between 1951 and 1952. Not only did Welles star in this but he also wrote several episodes.

But it wasn’t until 1959 in a British-American co-production between the BBC, the National Telefilm Associates of America and the British Lion Film Corporation that Harry Lime was to return to the moving pictures, albeit this time in a TV series. However, the idea of turning someone who had profited from the deaths of mothers and children into the hero of a TV show was something that no channel on either side of the Atlantic was willing to countenance, so the late Harry Lime, profiteer, metamorphosed into more of a Saint figure, a shady criminal-come-businessman with a conscience who’s prepared to investigate crimes and brings other criminals to book.

The show starred Michael Rennie as Lime and Jonathan Harris as his assistant Bradford Webster. Rennie is probably best known as Klaatu in the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still

…while Harris is eternally famous as Dr Smith from Lost in Space:

As Webster, Harris is as Smith first was: cold and analytical, always studying a situation for opportunities, and always great to watch. Rennie, meanwhile, is less like Welles than Roger Moore’s The Saint, a jet setter who’s unflappable and witty. Among the other recurring characters was the obligatory police inspector to spar with, Arthur Shillings, played by future Maigret Rupert Davies.

As well as attempting to emulate Reed’s superb cinematography and direction, the show brought in the famous zither music that had done so well for the movie. Initially filmed in the US, the show moved after 20 episodes to film in the UK as well, but remarkably for the time, there was also European location filming, rather than using stock footage, leading to some impressive backgrounds for Lime to solve cases against. This and Rennie helped it to last five whole seasons until 1965, with a total of 53 episodes being made.

Surprisingly, however, the show has only seen the light of day a couple of times since. But, you lucky people, you can watch an entire episode on YouTube. Enjoy!


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.