The Third Man
😀 😀 😀 😀
Rollo Martins is a writer of Western novels, which are reasonably successful but not particularly lucrative. So when he is contacted by an old school friend, Harry Lime, offering him a job in Vienna he jumps at the chance. But when he arrives, he is met with the news that Harry is dead, and his funeral is arranged for that day. Rollo goes to the funeral and meets Colonel Calloway, who had been investigating the scheme that Harry was involved in – a scheme that showed Harry to be morally repugnant, if true. But Rollo doesn’t believe it – he knows Harry sailed close to the wind and wasn’t above scamming and cheating people, but the scheme as described by Col. Calloway is too cruel, too inhumane. So Rollo sets out to do his own investigation, in reluctant cahoots with Calloway but with a different motivation. But has Harry carried out a bigger scam than any of them suspect? And what will Rollo do when he finds out the truth?
There’s an interesting introduction from Greene in which he explains that, when asked to write a “film play”, he finds it necessary to first set the story out in novel form, before condensing it for the screen. Then he gets together with the director – in this case Carol Reed – to hammer out the changes needed to make the story work on screen, taking account of casting and locations, etc. Greene tells us that we should not therefore think that the eventual changes were made by the director – they were all things agreed to and sometimes suggested by Greene, and worked by him into the final screenplay.
Effectively, therefore, this is a first draft, and it shows. The story is there, substantially as it will finally remain. But there’s not the usual depth in the setting and characterisation of most Greene novels – clearly he has left much of the nuance to be brought out by director and actors. I did, however, feel that the basic plot is much clearer in the book – I’ve always found the film to be a bit murky as to what Harry Lime’s scheme actually was.
In the film, Orson Welles’ wonderful performance lights up the screen, lifting a good film into great territory in the last half hour or so when he finally appears. This also has the odd effect of throwing the viewer (this viewer, anyway) rather onto Lime’s side, despite his supposed nefarious actions. In the film also, Joseph Cotten makes an attractive and reasonably heroic Holly Martens (the name changed because Cotten is American, not English as Greene originally envisaged the character, and Carol Reed felt the name Rollo would sound silly for an American. Weirdly, he didn’t seem to feel the same about the name Holly!) In the book, Rollo/Holly is a drunken womaniser with few redeeming qualities, his loyalty to his old school friend being about his only likeable feature. And Lime is much more clearly a money-grubbing opportunist with zero conscience or compassion.
The setting of post-war, partitioned Vienna gives both book and film a noir feel and an atmosphere of danger and tension. In the book, however, Greene makes much use of snow, and of the city full of buildings still damaged by bombing, some to the point of ruin, to add to the atmosphere. The film, presumably for technical reasons, omits the snowy winter element, and while Reed does show some shots of damaged buildings I didn’t feel this was quite as prominent as in the book.
The film, however, is better in many ways. The music, of course! The girl Anna – Harry’s girlfriend and soon to be Holly’s love interest – is so much better in the film. Reed has taken Greene’s limp rag of a man-dependent female and given her a strength and moral core she simply doesn’t have in the book. The performance by Alida Valli is one of the film’s major strengths – I felt she and Welles completely outshone Cotten, although he is the nominal hero. And the end of Anna’s story is changed entirely for the better – to use a fashionable term, she is given “agency” which she lacks completely in the book.
The short comedy interlude, where Holly gets roped into giving a talk to a group of people who think he writes heavyweight literature rather than Westerns, is better in the film, though still out of place in both book and film in my opinion. The scene in the sewers is a marvel of film-making – it’s in the book, but not nearly as effective, and Reed gets a truly emotional element into it that the book doesn’t quite achieve. Welles – what can I say about Welles’ performance that hasn’t been said before and better? Nothing, so I’ll limit myself to saying he makes the film. Without him, it wouldn’t be a classic.
So overall, the basic story is the same but there are some significant differences and, in the end, the book is good while the film is great. And, as Greene tells us in the introduction, that was the plan all along.
The Fallen Idol
This is another story later adapted into a screenplay by the pairing of Greene and Reed, this time for a film I haven’t seen. A young boy, Philip, is left in the care of the butler and his wife while his parents go away for two weeks. (Already my credibility meter is in overload.) He witnesses something that he only half understands, and by revealing it, inadvertently betrays the butler, whom he saw as a friend. His confusion, the betrayal and the impact on Philip’s future life are all portrayed well. However, the depiction of the two women characters in this is so deeply misogynistic that the whole thing left a bad taste (and explains my temporary reluctance to read more Greene till the effect wears off) – I can only hope these characterisations too were improved in the process of making the film. Interesting to learn of Greene’s process for writing for the screen, but I wouldn’t recommend this one at all in its written form.
This was the People’s Choice for April (I’m still so behind with reviews!) and a good one – I enjoyed both the reading and the watching, and learning about how the original story was developed for the film. Thanks, People!