With the luminous 4K restoration of The Third Man hitting theaters now, this seems like a fine time to revisit Vincent D’Onofrio’s wonderful short, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles, in which he plays the legendary actor and auteur in preparation for shooting what has become known as The Third Man’s “Cuckoo Clock” scene. The 2005 film marked D’Onofrio’s directing debut and Will Conroy spun the screenplay out of the actor’s own, meticulously researched story.
This wasn’t the first time that D’Onofrio played Welles. In 1994, he played a 1950s version of the man in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, looking every inch the part, but voice actor Maurice LaMarche dubbed his dialogue. In a 2006 FilmStew interview, D’Onofrio admitted that he wasn’t fond of his own performance and wanted another crack at getting under the skin of a cinematic genius whose name was already synonymous with trouble by the time he took the role of The Third Man’s vicious, debonair black marketeer Harry Lime.
Carol Reed’s sublime noir reunited Welles with his friend and collaborator Joseph Cotten, cast as Holly Martins, a penniless pulp Western novelist who comes to postwar Vienna at the invitation of his old pal Lime only to arrive in time for the man’s funeral. Not satisfied with the official explanation of the hit-and-run accident that killed Harry, Martins undertakes a dangerous and clumsy investigation of his own in a city under military occupation and that has been divvied up into sections by the Americans, Soviets, British, and French. The location itself is striking, piles of rubbles sitting cheek-by-jowl next to what survives of prewar Vienna’s magnificent architecture. Long shadows fall over those exteriors and engulf the interior high ceilings, spiral staircases, and maze of sewers, Robert Krasker’s expressionistic cinematography adding to the sense of menace.
The great novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene (Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The End of the Affair) wrote The Third Man’s script. What inspired D’Onofrio’s story was the discovery that it was Welles and not Greene that wrote a key piece of dialogue in which Lime makes a case for his criminal behavior by comparing the Borgias’ bloody 30-year reign over Italy with 500 years of peace in Switzerland.
That monologue is still in Welles’ future when Five Minutes, Mr. Welles opens. Alone in a room with Katherine (Janine Theriault), the assistant lent him by Universal, he is waiting to be called to the set for his next scene. But as he rehearses with her, he has trouble remembering his lines. The scene, he feels, needs something else, but she argues that there’s no time for that, and in any case, he seems stumped. This is Welles in all his magnificent contradictions, by turns charming and petulant, a man defiant in his independence, yet desperate to hang on to a job he needs if he is to have any hope of having enough money to make Othello. Katherine accuses him of acting like an aristocrat but without the money to back up his arrogance, and there is something to that.
Like The Third Man, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles is in black-and-white, the cinematography by Frank Prinzi, an Emmy winner who also shot over five dozen episodes of D’Onofrio’s series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Composer David Mansfield adds an atmospheric score that is wholly original and yet also evokes Anton Karas’ indelible zither accompaniment to The Third Man. D’Onofrio gets his second chance at inhabiting Welles and, in the process, delivers a wonderful homage to the man and the role.
By all means, see The Third Man again or for the first time in its new restoration. It is absolutely gorgeous and nearly 70 years after its original release, it is as vital as it ever was. But spend 30 minutes with Five Minutes, Mr. Welles as well. D’Onofrio’s remarkable tribute to a classic actor and classic film deserves to be seen.—Pam Grady