Nothing like metonymy when you’re at the movies
- The Third Man & Other Stories by Graham Greene
Macmillan, 342 pp, £9.99, July 2017, ISBN 978 1 5098 2805 0
Graham Greene started the research for what would become The Third Man (story and movie) in Vienna in February 1948, and wrote the treatment as a free-standing fiction in March and April. Carol Reed directed the Vienna location shooting (three cameramen and three crews) between October and December of that year, and finished filming at Shepperton Studios in March 1949. After some editing and work on the soundtrack the movie opened in London in September, and won the Grand Prix at Cannes the same month. I take these details from Charles Drazin’s excellent In Search of The Third Man (Limelight, 1999), and if you want to immerse yourself in the legend and history of The Third Man without going too far from a good library, there is plenty more to read: a continuity script (StudioCanal, 2015), a screenplay (Lorimer, 1973), Greene’s writings on film (The Pleasure Dome, Oxford, 1972; Mornings in the Dark, Carcanet, 1993), Brigitte Timmermann’s The Third Man’s Vienna (Shippen Rock, 2005), and Alexander Glück’s On the Trail of The Third Man in Vienna (Styria, 2014), replete with fine photographs.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 23 · 6 December 2018
Michael Wood writes about the origins of The Third Man (LRB, 8 November). As Michael Korda remembers it, the film, which was talked about by Graham Greene (recently of MI6; he joined in 1941 and worked for Kim Philby) and Alexander Korda (knighted for services to MI6 and on whose production board the senior MI6 officer Claude Dansey sat), was first intended to be a ‘spy story’. Alexander Korda’s assistant Elizabeth Montagu, formerly of the OSS in Bern (where she had worked for Allen Dulles), accompanied Greene on a research trip to Vienna, where he was given a room in the hotel reserved for British officers, also the base for MI6’s Vienna station. This is the same hotel where the film’s character Major Calloway works (Wood calls him an ‘army man’ but he is clearly an intelligence officer).
Montagu introduced Greene to Philby’s friend, the Vienna correspondent for the Times Peter Smolka, now known as Peter Smollett, later OBE, a Russian spy who died in 1980 without having been exposed. It wasn’t until 1994 that research in the Soviet archives showed Smolka had been recruited by Philby in 1933 as agent ‘ABO’. Smolka spent nights drinking with Greene and showed him his unpublished though carefully researched stories, including one about the watering down of penicillin, for which he was eventually paid the generous sum of £250. Montagu later claimed that Greene and Korda wanted to conceal Greene’s indebtedness to Smolka’s material. His only credit in the film comes as the name of a bar or nightclub called Smolka.
Another coding is Harry Lime’s ‘best friend’, Baron Kurtz. Nigel West points out that this character shares the name of the MI5 agent provocateur who betrayed Graham Greene’s cousin Ben Greene. This was the royal biographer Harald Kurtz, an Austrian historian based in Oxford. Kurtz was exposed as a liar who denounced alleged Nazi sympathisers and fifth columnists for money; Ben Greene, a Quaker who helped many German refugees, was imprisoned because of him. Kurtz later ran an antiquarian bookshop until the Royal Library at Windsor noticed a shortfall on its shelves.
The most important coded message of all is perhaps hidden in plain sight. We may never find out if, at the time he wrote The Third Man in 1948, Greene already knew that his friend Philby (who was, it says in the Mitrokhin Archive, Smolka’s recruiter) was a traitor. This was after all several years before the exposure of Burgess and Maclean. But The Third Man tells the story of a writer who betrays his friend Harry: was Greene sending a signal to his erstwhile colleagues at MI6 about Kim (born Harold) Philby, who had smuggled people through the Viennese sewers when he was there in the early 1930s?