Nothing like metonymy when you’re at the movies

Michael Wood

  • 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 Third Man Museum in Vienna opened in 2005, and houses, among many other things, relevant film scripts, photographs, posters, 420 cover versions of ‘The Harry Lime Theme’, and Anton Karas’s actual zither. Its current exhibition is called ‘Vienna Becomes a Movie Star’, subtitled ‘Filming The Third Man in Vienna’. Of course the Third Man Museum has a particular Vienna in mind: grubby, grand, corrupt, postwar, occupied, caught up in the litter of a history it can’t at the moment use. Vienna had plenty of film exposure before Harry Lime got there, but it mostly had to do with music and laughter, waltzes, merry widows and loud baritones. We might note too that Vienna was the lead actor in G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925), darkly representing the aftermath of another war, even though the film was shot entirely in Berlin. Along the same line of thought, we might add that quite a bit of the Vienna we see in The Third Man was artfully re-created in English studios, and that Orson Welles, in particular, spent very little time in the unsimulated sewer.

Both story and film make a point of their Vienna not being the old, happy one. Greene writes of the ‘smashed dreary city’, ‘a city of undignified ruins … where the Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away’. We note the repetition: city, park and tanks, all smashed. In the film a statue of Johann Strauss is one of the first things we see, but the voiceover – Carol Reed himself in the English version of the film, Joseph Cotten in the American one – is already telling us the past is someone else’s memory. ‘I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm … I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market.’ When the voice says, ‘Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs,’ the screen shows us a corpse floating in dirty water, and we are prepared for the voice’s readiness to take wreckage as a kind of norm: ‘Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit.’

‘This is just about my favourite opening to a film,’ Drazin tells us. ‘I love the conceit of the disembodied voice that belongs to some unnamed racketeer we never meet’ (he’s talking about the English version). ‘We fall for the charm of this voice so clearly on the wrong side of the moral divide, as people must have fallen for Harry Lime.’ I think it’s a great opening too, but I’m not so sure about the charm. There is a dryness in the English accent which I think Reed has borrowed from the narrative voice of the story: that of the army man investigating the Harry Lime affair, Major Calloway, a figure wonderfully played by Trevor Howard in the movie. His indifference must be a mask, of course. Deep within him, as any dictionary of clichés will tell us, there are surely layers of kindness and moral concern. But what a mask. Calloway’s apparent willingness to expect the worst of people makes Lime’s famous cynical line – ‘In these days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings’ – sound like the claim of a criminal boy scout.

We get a good sense of Calloway’s tone in the story when he tells us about the International Patrol’s investigation of Anna, Lime’s former girlfriend, a Hungarian who has fake papers and may be deported back to the Russian zone (in the film she is Czech, and played by the Italian Alida Valli). He says, ‘There is a lot of comedy in these situations if you are not directly concerned.’ A pretty bleak line, even if he does then show that he knows who isn’t laughing: ‘You need a background of Central European terror, of a father who belonged to a losing side, of house searches and disappearances, before the fear outweighs the comedy.’ The background suggests plenty of places outside Europe and later than 1948, and we might also recall the character in Conrad’s Nostromo who ‘used to clench her hands with exasperation at not being able to take the public affairs of the country as seriously as the incidental atrocity of methods deserved’. ‘A lot of comedy’ in these contexts is liable to involve an inability to see or to bear what a serious look might offer.

In the story Greene reminds us that ‘at this period co-operation between the Western Allies and the Russians had practically, though not yet completely, broken down,’ and this is also a part of what the city signals to us. No one has recovered from the world war but the Cold War is beginning, and the visible, ground-level Vienna, whether its images are born in a text or on the streets or in a studio, is a place of rubble and shadows, seedy hotels and half-empty houses, and the occasional strikingly beautiful church. Life goes on, but also goes nowhere. The operative spaces, in film and story, are high above it and hidden below it, a car on the Great Wheel and the vast sewer system beneath the city. The first is a setting where a supposedly dead man can have a chat with an old friend face to face; the second a network where anyone can circulate without worrying about occupied zones, and where Harry Lime almost manages to escape a second death. When Sergeant Paine, Calloway’s assistant, introduces our hero to the main sewer, he says: ‘Smells sweet, don’t it? Runs right into the blue Danube.’ This is another blow for the old days, but at least the system runs somewhere.

I’m not much given to symbolic readings but we are in the imagination of Graham Greene, and I can’t help seeing a theological dimension in these higher and lower domains – except that we don’t know which is heaven and which is hell, or whether there is any difference. The set-up is perfectly portrayed in the movie by the porter who provides the information about Lime’s supposed death. ‘Killed at once,’ he says of the street accident. ‘Immediately. Already in hell,’ pointing upwards. ‘Or in heaven,’ pointing down. This ‘mistake’ was corrected in the German dubbed version. Nice to be sure.

In the story Calloway summarises for the reader what he says about Lime’s business to the crook’s old friend Martins (Rollo and English in the text, Holly and American in the film, where he is played by Joseph Cotten). ‘The penicillin racket’ was at first ‘relatively harmless’:

Penicillin would be stolen by military orderlies and sold to Austrian doctors for very high sums … You might say this was a form of distribution – unfair distribution because it benefited only the rich patient, but the original distribution could hardly have claim to greater fairness … Then the racket began to get organised: the big men saw big money in it … It eased the conscience of many small men to feel that they were working for an employer … and if there was guilt, the leaders bore the guilt. A racket works very like a totalitarian party.

The moment of organisation is what Calloway had ‘sometimes called stage two. Stage three was when the organisers decided the profits were not large enough … they wanted more money and quicker money while the going was good. They began to dilute the penicillin with coloured water, and, in the case of penicillin dust, with sand.’

In the film Martins witnesses some of the results in a children’s hospital. We know that, as Calloway says, the lucky children are dead, and the film doesn’t show us a single sick or damaged surviving child. We see Martins seeing their beds, and get an excruciating close-up of an unharmed teddy bear. Nothing like metonymy when you’re at the movies: the next-door object rather than the thing itself. And Karas’s zither music at this point is worse than the bear: schmaltzier and cheerier than ever, the alienation effect at its uncosy best.

It’s worth pausing over the stages of causation here, because no one in the story or the movie can bear to think of them. The penicillin is diluted because it allows the crooks to spend less money and make more. It produces grim and gothic horrors in children and others because it is diluted, so the sacrificed victims are the price of profit. Do the crooks think like this? No, because they are just doing what they do, selling what sells well. When Martins asks Lime if he has ever seen any of his victims, Lime says, ‘Don’t be melodramatic,’ and suggests that anyone would kill for money if the price was right and the people killed meant nothing to us. A little later he complicates his answer with a religious touch. He does feel something for his victims. When Martins says to him, ‘You used to be a Catholic,’ Lime replies:

Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do. The dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.

The last phrase is said, Greene notes in the story, ‘with that odd touch of genuine pity’, and the phrase survives into the screenplay, although not into Welles’s actual expression in the film. In this context the doctrine of the soul and the afterlife seems like a refinement of the totalitarian party line. It’s not that the leaders bear the guilt – they don’t, and the very idea of guilt is probably a phantom in these regions – but that crime itself becomes a colossal act of charity. Poor devils. Harry’s pity does not extend to the children who are still alive and suffering.

In the film Harry is not an incarnation of evil, he’s just an old pal who became a rat. In the story Martins thinks ‘he’s never grown up,’ and then realises that ‘evil was like Peter Pan – it carried with it the horrifying and horrible gift of eternal youth.’ When this line appears in the movie, without the Peter Pan association, it seems merely sententious, largely because it compares so badly with Anna’s forgiving version of a similar but quite secular thought: ‘He never grew up. The world grew up around him.’ The world here is whatever happened to Vienna.

Of course Harry may be no worse than any of his fellow racketeers, just more charming, and this is certainly the effect of Welles’s boyish and bouncy performance in the movie. And it’s clear in the story – the movie has other preoccupations – that we must come to see Harry through the lens of Martins’s disappointment. When he associates his old hero with evil, this is ‘the first time … Martins looked back through the years without admiration,’ and when he leaves him after their chat high above Vienna on the Great Wheel, ‘it was like the whole past moving off under a cloud.’ Here is Calloway’s comment on what he sees as the effect on Martins of the proof of Harry’s racketeering:

If one watched a world come to an end, a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and 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 … was simultaneously tainted, like the soil of an atomised town.

Greene had recently worked with Reed on The Fallen Idol (1948). He liked the film but was scathing about its title, which he said was ‘meaningless … for the original story’ and not much better for the movie. What’s striking today is how apt a title ‘The Fallen Idol’ would have been for the later story, and how close the films are to each other if we are flexible about settings and the ages of the protagonists. Of ‘The Basement Room’/The Fallen Idol Greene noted: ‘The subject no longer concerned a small boy who unwittingly betrayed his best friend to the police, but dealt instead with a small boy who believed that his best friend was a murderer and nearly procured his arrest by telling lies in his defence.’

In the film The Third Man, Martins wittingly betrays his best friend to the police, because he believes that friend to be a murderer, and becomes part of a posse to procure his arrest. Lime is still a fallen idol for Martins but that is no longer his main role. He becomes part of the film’s and Martins’s manoeuvres around questions of crime and conscience. Martins agrees to lure Lime into a trap in return for Anna’s freedom – her false papers have brought about her arrest. He has managed to persuade himself that deceit and betrayal are not only virtues but chivalrous. What’s more, he can’t let things play out on their own, he has to watch the outcome of his heroism. Anna, already on the train for Paris, papers in order, ticket in hand, spots Martins lurking in the station restaurant. She realises at once what has happened, and leaves the train to accost him. Her suspicions confirmed, she tears up all the paperwork and says: ‘If you want to sell your services, I’m not willing to be the price.’ Now it takes the hospital and the teddy bear to get Martins back in line, and he sheepishly says to Calloway: ‘I’ll be your dumb decoy duck.’ It’s not at all clear what his actual motivation is: it doesn’t seem to be continuing dismay at the fallen idol, it’s no longer chivalry, and however deep the moral shock at the results of Lime’s penicillin racket it wouldn’t necessarily turn a man into a stooge.

The story is kinder and clearer than the film in this respect. Martins can’t abandon the ruins of his hero-worship, but he is able to shoot Lime a second time in order to help him to die. At Lime’s second, final burial, Martins refuses a lift from Calloway and walks down a long avenue of trees with Anna. ‘It was like the end of a story,’ Calloway says, ‘except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm – which is how a story usually begins.’

Drazin calls Reed ‘the cinema’s greatest orchestrator of chance’, and chance rather than choice seems to dominate the moral confusion – even perhaps moral defeat – the end of the film portrays. The screenplay says that Martins ‘is divided in mind, between the sight he saw in the hospital … and the consciousness of the role he is himself playing, of decoy to his friend’. After Lime’s second burial, Martins now accepts a lift from Calloway, but when they pass Anna walking down the avenue, he gets out of the jeep to wait for her. The shot of her walking towards us – Calloway is leaning on a cart to the side of the screen – seems to take for ever. And then takes a little longer, since she walks past Martins without pausing, and the film ends.

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen,’ Greene said of his published story. And then: ‘The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture … The film, in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.’ By contrast, ‘The Fallen Idol … was not written for the films. That is only one of many reasons why I prefer it.’ This separation of powers is categoric and sensible. But ‘The Third Man’ is the title story of the reprinted volume under review, and we are reading it. Some of us, while respecting Greene’s own preference and his many reasons, may well prefer it to the earlier story. Prefer it as it is, I mean, in a book, no longer waiting to become a famous film that has a life of its own.

The most interesting remark in Greene’s preface concerns the very idea of writing a story when you’re already working on a film with the same name and theme. ‘To me,’ he says, ‘it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story … One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form.’ The shift from ‘me’ to ‘one’ is pretty fast, and of course one can ‘make the first act of creation’ in all kinds of forms, including scripts. Thousands have done it. But we have only to ignore the negative prescriptions (‘impossible’, ‘cannot’) to see the power and attraction of the idea. Many writers and directors have seen them, and I think in particular of the English director Maurice Hatton, who long ago got me to read Greene’s comments, and converted me to the idea of the movie treatment as a possible work of fiction in its own right. What Greene calls the finished state is a different state, a place arrived at by a different road, and by travelling in a different vehicle.

I don’t think the story ‘The Third Man’ offers any serious competition to the wonders of the film. But it no longer serves as a draft or a blueprint, and it holds its own very well among Greene’s or anyone else’s short stories. It’s waiting for us, asking us to read it, and reread it, even if it was initially supposed to disappear into the machinery of movie-making, like Harry Lime slipping off into the sewers of Vienna.