If you haven’t seen Carol Reed’s The Third Man, stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of the greatest films ever made. And this film also exists in book form; a slim novella by Graham Greene. Greene was an English novelist who happened to be Catholic. This distinction was important to him. In his own words:
“I don’t consider myself a Catholic writer, but a writer who took characters with Catholic ideas as his material.” (New York Times)
I read his novel after watching the film because I was obsessed and I had to see how these characters came to life on the page. Greene wrote the book as a basis for the screenplay, by request of Alexander Korda. The novel was published in 1950, a year after the film was released.
This is one of those rare instances where the film is actually better than the book. Certainly it’s a lot more famous. And The Third Man stands as an impeccable bit of filmmaking, adaptation or not. It also offers proof of how cinema can enrich certain works. Greene’s spare writing and descriptions are well suited to the mysterious Vienna and the shady characters that weave in and out between the pages. In this short novella you become engrossed in an intriguing little drama. So while you don’t have to necessarily read the book, you still should. It’s a fairly quick read too.
On the surface, The Third Man is a straightforward story about corruption. But probe a little deeper and you find something much more rich and complex. It’s about the decay of souls within a decaying city.
The place is postwar Vienna, a bombed out city that resembles any other in Europe, occupied by the four Allied powers. Within its shabby, forlorn ruins are shabby, forlorn people.
Holly Martins, an American pulp Western writer, eagerly arrives in the city to meet his friend Harry Lime, who has recently offered him a job. But Holly receives a nasty shock when he arrives at Harry’s apartment: he’s dead. Run over by a car, killed instantly. Holly attends the funeral and from there gets a ride back to town with Major Calloway. The two share some drinks, Holly slightly drunk. He begins to reminisce over his friend, who he clearly worshiped. But Calloway puts a dent in his fond memories. Harry Lime is better off dead.
“He was about the worst racketeer to ever make a dirty living in this city.”
Holly becomes belligerent then, nearly hitting Calloway before another officer intervenes. He insults Calloway and the whole police force before vowing to clear Harry of such a malicious lie.
Holly soon meets Harry’s friends and begins to piece together details of the accident. Harry’s thought were with Holly even in death. He wanted to make sure he was taken care of. This makes Holly pause. The porter at Harry’s apartment said Harry died instantly. The first friend he speaks to, Kurtz, explains that he was dead before the ambulance arrived. The story doesn’t seem to match up, as the porter is convinced Harry could not have been alive after he was struck by the car. Holly also learns all of Harry’s friends were present at the time of the accident. It was even his own driver who hit him in the middle of the road, though the man was not at fault.
As Greene describes it, “Martins suddenly saw in that odd chamber of the mind that constructs such pictures, instantaneously, irrationally, a desert place, a body on the ground, a group of birds gathered.” It’s here that the first ripples of suspicion begin to form. Those birds, the dark ominous figures – the police have missed something about Harry’s death. Perhaps it was not an accident after all. And who is the third man? Holly has been ruminating over the identity of another man who helped carry Harry’s body away; a man that Kurtz and Harry’s other friend deny, but who the porter insists was there.
But as Holly starts to investigate his dear friend’s possible murder, some unpleasant facts are uncovered. Calloway was right, Harry Lime was a racketeer, and not merely one dealing in trifles. He was the leader of the biggest penicillin racket in the city. Often the penicillin was diluted, meaning it was useless for the patients that were in dire need. Soldiers died of gangrene as did children suffering from meningitis. At least, the lucky ones did. The ones who didn’t had to be transferred to mental wards.
As the whole awful truth emerges, Holly is left dumbfounded. Can this really be the Harry Lime he knew and loved?
“…a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years before- in a school corridor. Every memory- afternoons in the long grass, the illegitimate shoots on Brickworth Common, the dreams, the walks, every shared experience was simultaneously tainted, like the soil of an atomized town. One could not walk there with safety for a long while.”
This grim vision leads him to call Harry’s death, whether accidental or murder, justice.
That could be the end of the story. Lost friendship, shattered ideal, a bad man cooling in a grave. But the story is far from over. It wouldn’t be as extraordinary or memorable if that was all there was to it. What if Harry Lime is the third man? And what if that’s a twist neither you nor Holly could have anticipated?
Under the masterful writing and direction of Graham Greene and Carol Reed, is a mystery that fits seamlessly in the noir tradition. Greene’s words evoke a haunted, ragged city that materializes onscreen, with the added bonus of Robert Krasker’s Oscar winning cinematography.
Those Dutch angles and moody lighting brilliantly capture the sordid heart of Vienna. The film is also notable for its score. Rather than using traditional Viennese music, such as the waltz, Reed chose the zither, a stringed instrument played by Anton Karas. The frenzied music helps to set the tone. It’s lively at times but slightly jarring too, with the capacity to turn sinister. In those darker moments, the jaunty strings are no longer whimsical, but chilling.
It’s all those elements that make The Third Man such a compelling watch, and credit belongs to the cast as well.
When I’m reading a book that’s been adapted into a film, I see the characters as the actors who play them. This isn’t always a good thing, because the actors might not physically resemble the characters. There isn’t any such problem with Greene’s novel. The characters are blank slates that any face can be projected onto.
Alida Valli, with her dark, elegantly stoic beauty, is wonderfully cast as Anna, Harry’s lover.
The criminally underrated Joseph Cotten is just right as Holly. He’s a decent guy who gets caught up in an underworld machine. It’s easy to relate to him as he unwittingly slips into Vienna’s uneasy corners. Holly searches for truth, and there is no greater search in literature, film, or life.
And who but Orson Welles could have portrayed Harry Lime in all his smug, amoral glory? When Harry’s face appears, illuminated by the glow of light from an apartment overhead, meeting Holly’s bewildered gaze with that slightly mocking smile, this is one of the most arresting images captured on film. Even without context, I’m drawn to Orson Welles.
“He called sharply, ‘Do you want anything?’ and there was no reply. He called again with the irascibility of drink, ‘Answer, can’t you,’ and an answer came, for a window curtain was drawn petulantly back by some sleeper he had awakened, and the light fell straight across the narrow street and lit up the features of Harry Lime.”
Few films are better than this one. Few books are as richly detailed behind their simple sentence structures. It only took me a few hours to refresh my memory and reread The Third Man, yet I was seriously hooked as if it was my first time reading it. The zither was playing quietly in that odd chamber of my mind, the shadows and long tilts jumping up as I turned each page and walked along the slick streets with Holly. It’s not often that such harmony exists between words and pictures.