Hyman Vernosky and Russian Spy Influence on ‘The Third Man’

I’ve been learning more about crime scene staging and extrapolating the practical similarities to disinformation. Especially in the context of probabilistically unlikely coincidences, I have long held a view that you can’t intimately know more than one Russian spy and work with them without plausibly being at least a Russian asset yourself.

To that extent, I have always been really interested in the filmmaker Orson Welles. One major coincidence the blacklisted Welles was involved in was starring in the Cambridge Five-influenced film, ‘The Third Man’ (1949).

Orson Welles poster for Russian release of Welles comeback film ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958)

As I had previously written about the possible aspects of The Third Man to incriminate America in popular culture for Russian crimes – I learned today that my hypothesis had not been entirely true and wanted to write about it. However, the finding of potential American involvement in the real-world post-war penicillin rackets which formed the basis for the film’s plot uncovers another potential coincidence which might point to espionage in consideration of the other aspects of this film linked to Russian espionage and propaganda.

Back to Welles. Orson Welles had been blacklisted and fled the US in the McCarthy era and had a long FBI file tracing many Communist front connections. His self-professed “political mentor” in the 1940s was Louis Dolivet who was a Russian spy married to the sister of Michael Straight (sometimes called ‘the only American in the Cambridge Five network‘).

Dolivet and at least one other probable Russian agent (Michael Olian) had also provided significant funding to Welles during his film career and played similar roles in the development of the movie ‘Mr. Arkadin’ (based on Joseph Stalin and Olian – but bankrolled and produced by Dolivet). (At least one counterintelligence professional I’ve spoken to has cited the receipt of money as an important indicator of agency.)

My research has also demonstrated Orson Welles’ strong connections to media hoaxes which can be traced to propaganda channels primarily affiliated with Russia. (This includes ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio hoax of 1938 which was absolutely inspired by the efforts of anti-fascist propagandists in Hollywood linked to both British and Russian intelligence.)

Orson Welles starred in The Third Man (which ‘Mr. Arkadin’ had been an informal sequel to), as villain figure Harry Lime; a greedy figure who is running a racket to sell diluted penicillin in post-war Vienna leading to deaths. The film was written by Graham Greene (who within a few years would be denied entry to the US because of his prior Communist Party affiliation). Graham Greene had coincidentally (or not) reported to one Kim Philby (Cambridge Five ringleader) while in the intelligence services.

The story line of the movie was influenced by both Philby and H.P. Smolka, another Russian agent closely linked to Philby and the Cambridge Five network. It had been my understanding that the criminal rackets depicted in the film had actually originally been the games of figures like Smolka and Philby.

Suffice to say, neither Smolka or Philby was American, and were both working in the high level interests of Russia as intelligence moles. To create a film which portrays these actions as those of an American criminal was kind of a revolutionary thing in film. It made America the ‘capitalist bad guy’ and so based on all the Russian spy and Communist connections behind it, I have always looked at this as an early piece of Cold War propaganda.

Beyond this, it may be worth noting that ‘The War of the Worlds’ was written by H.G. Wells, who was a lover of Third Man producer Alexander Korda’s secretary (and Russian Spy) Moura Budberg. H.G. Wells had been head of counter-German propaganda in WWI Britain. He had produced anti-fascist films with Korda previously. These are yet more ‘coincidences’ in this network related to propaganda.

I found a scholarly paper on The Third Man I missed in prior research, which touches on Philby and Smolka and also referenced a former US Army CID (Criminal Investigative Division) agent named Zane Grey Todd, whose obituary stated that he had been an influence of sort for The Third Man movie too, because he had led an investigation into two American medical officers who had stolen penicillin working with a former ‘Miss Austria’ which factored into the storyline. The obit did not mention names of the offenders.

Digging a little, I found a 1946 newspaper which referenced the case (see page 4). The names of the people involved were “Norberta Grimm, Miss Austria of 1938”, “Capt. Hyman Vernosky”, and “Capt. George Neusbaum”. Neusbaum (Nusbaum) was found to have been influenced by Vernosky and Grimm and received the lesser sentence. It is alleged that the CID agents busted the group before the penicillin was sold on the black market. Both Vernosky and Neusbaum were from New York.

Whereas the obituary had referenced both unnamed officers as being medical, the newspaper report only explicitly said that Neusbaum was so. I found some reporting on the review of Vernosky’s case, and it actually says they were both in ‘Signal Corps’ (see p. 319). (E.g. Signals Intelligence.)

Vernosky, as presumably an ethnic Russian Jewish American might have had a very similar profile to figures I already mentioned in this document (like Korda, Smolka, Olian, and Dolivet – but also Welles too (as he had been orphaned and raised by a Russian/Lithuanian Jewish doctor)). Beyond this one may also say that Vernosky as such an ethnic person and in the Army Signal Corps could have had a similar profile to a figure like Julius Rosenberg as well.

I feel like it is a big coincidence that a guy with a background like this and in a signals intelligence group no less would potentially also factor into the theme of The Third Man, given all the other Russian spy and Communist influences behind it. Perhaps Zane Todd was a bit of a Holly Martins who looked too naively at the whole matter.

It really makes me wonder if Vernosky might have been dealing in more than penicillin – like important strategic information or signals intelligence.  This is pure speculation based on his profile similarity to figures close to the Cambridge Five group. 

Perhaps Norberta Grimm had espionage connections or was even a ‘Mata Hari’ kind of figure.  I can’t find much if anything about her online except for what is reported in the single available news article I located. It is purely speculation she had some further espionage connections.

It makes me wonder if either Grimm or Veronsky may have intersected with Smolka or Philby’s network? Certainly Smolka was near Vienna at this time, and Philby had a wife he’d met in Vienna (again with a similar potential profile to the other figures mentioned).

Perhaps he was just an opportunist, but would it be right to give Veronsky’s background another look, given the other influences of high level Russian and Communist assets on The Third Man?

There seem to have been many people of Russian Jewish heritage who ended up working around this espionage network, perhaps in alignment with the propaganda-focused messaging of the (Soviet) Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee from the same era. This theory is not intended to stereotype anyone. If the Cambridge Five had not been involved in this film, this coincidence would be unworthy of reporting.  There is too much smoke here to assume there is absolutely no fire.