The Third Man: Seeing Greene

In The Third Man, Holly Martins, an alcoholic American writer of “cheap novelettes” (Oklahoma Kid and The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, among others) and a man who was “born to be murdered,” arrives in the Vienna of 1949 to take up a job offered him by his childhood friend Harry Lime. Within an hour of his arrival in a city that has been, as Carol Reed narrates at the film’s outset, “bombed about a bit,” Holly discovers that Harry has been killed in a car accident; also that he had been strongly implicated in a black-market drug racket.

Being broke, with little else to do with himself, and with Harry’s ex-girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, to divert his wandering eye, Holly resolves to clear up one particular inconsistency in the witness accounts of his best friend’s death that are given to himself and the police. Were there two men who came to Harry’s aid while he was in extremis or were there three? The quest for this elusive third man becomes Holly’s reason for remaining in Vienna, when everyone else seems to want him to go home to America, in what is without doubt one of the greatest British films ever made.

A tremendous amount has been written about The Third Man. Lots of people will tell you what it’s about, but the chances are you probably have a pretty good idea yourself. So let me say right away that, as far as I’m concerned, The Third Man is not about Orson Welles or Harry Lime or Holly Martins or postwar Vienna or the film’s director, Carol Reed, or Harold “Kim” Philby or the nature of friendship. In my opinion, it’s about none of these things—it’s about the screenwriter who wrote it, perhaps more than any other film in cinema history. That screenwriter was Graham Greene, and he was quite probably Britain’s greatest postwar novelist. He was a pretty good screenwriter too. The Third Man is his cinematic masterpiece.

I can’t think of another film that provides us with a better argument against the auteur theory of cinema as espoused by François Truffaut et al. in Cahiers du cinéma—a piece of high-pitched but influential French esprit de contradiction that asseverates that the film director is god—or in support of Irving Thalberg’s assertion that the writer is the most important person to a film. (Never forget that lime is a shade of green.) Greene’s involvement came about like this: Alexander Korda was a distinguished film producer, based in London. After the Second World War, he found he had some money stuck on the continent and decided that the best way of using it was to spend it making a film on location. To this end, he asked Greene to go to Vienna to begin research for an original screenplay. Greene, who knew the Austrian capital well from before the war, agreed, went to Vienna, met lots of people useful to his purpose, and wrote a distinguished novella, and then Korda’s screenplay, which Carol Reed directed with some distinction.

No director ever served a screenwriter as well. But it’s still Greene’s picture. You may not see him in the film, but Greene is always there, lurking in every shadowy, bullet-scarred doorway, watching the action with a raised eyebrow and a cynical smile. A ubiquitous piece of zither music by Anton Karas may have helped to brand the film (such was the film’s success that it did indeed establish an early version of that modern Hollywood obsession, the screen franchise), but it’s Greene’s cooler, harsher tune that we’re dancing to. His top-line melody may sound like an atmospheric story of love and friendship and betrayal, but lying just underneath the plinky-plinky-plinky-plink, rubble-strewn surface is a counterpoint that uses a darker theme of moral hypocrisy.

Watch, for example, the iconic scene where Harry meets Holly on the Ferris wheel in Vienna’s Prater Park (still one of the city’s main attractions). “Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Holly asks Harry. “Victims?” says Harry, chuckling. “Don’t be melo­dramatic. Look down there.” He points through the window, at the people moving like black flies at the foot of the wheel. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money?”

In this scene, Greene questions our right to judge Harry’s crime at all in the wake of a world war that has just left millions of similar “dots” dead, bombed from Royal Air Force Lancasters and American B-17s flying high in the night skies above Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, and, of course, Vienna. None of those pilots and bomb crews ever saw their victims—many of them children, like the ones in Ward 3 of the Vienna General Hospital, where Major Calloway takes Holly when he wants to shock him with the results of Harry’s alleged depravity—any more than Harry does. And Greene seems to be asking us how morally reprehensible it is for one man to sell a few tubes of dodgy penicillin when others, such as Churchill and Sir Arthur Harris, had so recently ordered the saturation bombing of Dresden, to say nothing of what America had inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “They have their five-year plans, and so have I,” says Harry.

He’s quite right, of course. That’s what I mean by moral hypocrisy. What’s the difference between what he’s done and what they did? The only person who understands this is the grieving Anna, because she’s been through it herself. She’s a Sudeten German Czech pretending to be an Austrian, and the daughter of a Nazi war criminal. Anna knows the fate that’s awaiting her at the hands of one of Vienna’s four occupying powers, the Russians. She’s just a dot waiting to stop moving, and she knows it. Anna’s nothing if not pragmatic. She has been used by Harry—is still being used—but she’s realistic enough not to expect anything better of him or anyone else. Who in the world she knows has the right to judge Harry? Certainly not a British major. Nor, indeed, a fool like Holly Martins.

Make no mistake about it, Holly Martins may be the hero of the movie, but he is also, very definitely, a fool. We can see the screenwriter’s contempt for his lachrymose hero in the harder eyes of Calloway and Anna. We see it in everything the hapless Holly does. The way he gets drunk and falls over, a lot (if Alden Pyle can be called the quiet American in Greene’s novel of the same name, then perhaps Holly Martins deserves to be thought of as the clumsy American). The way he reduces Crabbin’s audience at the CRS lecture to a state of bored stupefaction. The way he gets himself bitten by a parrot, of all things. The way he can’t even bring himself to kiss his leading lady. The only person who seems actually to like Holly is a man who punches him, Sergeant Paine; but even he’s there to remind us that Martins is nothing more than a hack: “I like a good western,” he says. “Pick them up and put them down anytime.”

Greene’s admiration for the unscrupulous Harry Lime, who in the novella is English, is altogether sneakier. (Let’s not forget that the producers originally wanted Cary Grant and Noël Coward as Holly and Harry.) It is well documented that the Soviet spy Kim Philby—a man much admired by Greene—was the model for the seductive Lime. Much has been written about this already, and I don’t intend to go over all that again.

It is not yet understood, however, just who Holly Martins was based on. Just who was this clumsy American? Was he, perhaps, like Lime, based on someone real? In his excellent biography of Greene, The Man Within, Michael Shelden makes a strong case for Greene’s having based the character on Peter Smollett, a journalist (born Hans Peter Smolka) who lived in Vienna and who, like Greene, knew Philby from before the war. Certainly it was Smollett who supplied Greene with his story line of black-market penicillin being sold by a gang that uses Vienna’s system of sewers to move around the city in secret. I remain unconvinced by Shelden’s case, however. Smollett was nobody’s fool. He may even have been a Soviet spy himself. Nor am I convinced that Greene based Martins, in part, on someone Philby knew from his time at Westminster School, a man called Tim Milne. No. This portrait of the clumsy American seems much too deliberate, too spiteful, too specific for it to have been based on any Englishman.

As Shelden himself reminds us, Greene’s trail is always “superbly difficult to follow.” Moreover, Greeneland is full of traps for the unwary. In spite all of this, I am taking the liberty of these notes to Criterion’s new DVD package to advance my own theory as to the real identity of Holly Martins.

For four years, Greene was the film critic at the Spectator. Bad American films and musicals—and even quite a few good ones, like Top Hat—tended to provoke his annoyance. He especially loathed films that depicted a wholesome, apple-pie, white-picket-fence version of America. As Shelden remarks, “For a novelist with valuable film rights to unload, he was uncommonly eager to spit in Hollywood’s face.” His article on the film mogul Louis B. Mayer was scurrilous and anti-Semitic. Often a vindictive man, Greene conducted a long campaign of vilification against London Film producer Alexander Korda, to the extent of basing a rather unpleasant character in his book The Confidential Agent on the Hungarian-born, Jewish producer. Using his writing to settle scores and deliver coded insults was very much Greene’s style. Commendably, Korda’s generous response was to offer Greene employment on a number of films and, in the process, to make him rich.

The Confidential Agent
is not one of Greene’s best books. Nevertheless, the novel was bought by Warner Brothers and made into a film, in 1945. In a letter to his agent, Laurence Pollinger, Greene later described the film as “trash.” It seems unlikely that he would have held himself responsible for any of the film’s failings. But I strongly suspect it was a different story for the film’s producer and screenwriter, Robert Buckner. I feel certain that Greene must have nursed a grievance against Buckner, or the idea of Buckner, at least enough to use The Third Man to get some revenge. True, my evidence for all this is circumstantial. But judge for yourself. The circumstances are as follows.

Buckner’s most famous screenwriting effort was the Oscar-nominated Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a film that Greene would certainly have considered hideously vulgar (I myself like it very much). More importantly for our purposes, Buckner was also the screenwriter of many westerns, including The Oklahoma Kid, Dodge City, Virginia City, and Santa Fe Trail.

Those paying careful attention during The Third Man will notice Baron Kurtz carrying not just a little Chihuahua dog but a copy of Oklahoma Kid, by Holly Martins. “It’s wonderful how you keep the tension,” says the baron. “Tension?” asks Holly (even he sounds surprised). “Suspense,” replies the baron. “At the end of every chapter, you are left guessing what he’ll be up to next.”

Greene’s script never misses an opportunity to damn Martin’s oeuvre with faint praise and, I believe, by extension, Buckner’s also. Watching the movie, poor old Buckner must have seethed. He might even have sued. Luckily for the rest of us, he didn’t.

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