Review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

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The Third Man by Graham Greene book cover
The Third Man (1950) by Graham Greene is a short novella, produced originally as a preparatory document during the writing of the screenplay for Carol Reed’s iconic film. Here the story is narrated by Colonel Calloway, a law enforcer mixed up in the story. Englishman Rollo Martins, a writer of cheap Westerns, arrives in post-war Vienna – a city still bearing the scars of war and split into four sectors: British, American, French, and Russian – to meet his friend Harry Lime, a charismatic but mischievous man. However, on arrival Martins learns that his friend has perished in a traffic accident and aspersions are cast, by Calloway, on Lime’s character. Unsettled and suspicious, Martins attends the funeral and, setting out to investigate Lime’s death, learns from a witness that three men were seen carrying Lime’s body from the accident that killed him. Two of these men have been identified, but the third has vanished. Martins’s pursuit of the man sends him on a thrilling chase through crumbling Vienna where he tangles with many people who have stories to tell of Harry Lime, not least his girl, Anna Schmidt, who Martins takes quite a shine to. Will this distract him from his task and is he prepared, anyhow, for the secrets he might uncover about his friend?

As becomes clear very quickly, The Third Man is not simply a thriller but there is an added depth to the story. Indeed, it is concerned not only with Cold War politics and the remnants of war – perhaps the most clear themes – but with a turn from modernism and idealism towards something less ordered and more conflicted. There is a recurring use of Westerns – the genre of fiction that Martins writes – to satirise the idea of heroes, hero worship, and the individualist loner fighting the system. Here, with strong women and weak heroes, old myths and ideals are easily shed. Post-war Vienna is not a place for sentimentality and yet Martins views everything through his own lens as a writer of Westerns, narrativising his story so that Vienna becomes a surrogate for the Wild West (an updated take on east versus west), police men standing in for sheriffs and Martins himself the loner seeking justice for a fallen friend. In this way, Martins’s need to understand his situation within the framework of narrative becomes satire on the pervading human need to draw on well-established archetypes and understand / interpret the world in relation to them. As the post-war world was still grappling with Big Ideologies, this was certainly prescient, and without taking sides Greene undercuts the idea of both Western and Communist ideology. Like many of the characters who blindly support Harry, it becomes clear that mindless loyalty to a Big Idea, as to a person, is futile.

It’s virtually impossible to read The Third Man without feeling the presence of Carol Reed’s film; with each turn of the page there is, in the words, a fresh reminder of beautifully captured scenes from the iconic film. Greene himself said that The Third Man was “never written to be read but only to be seen” and the reader’s imagination is hardly strained as it conjures up shadowy Viennese alleys, perhaps even hearing Anton Karas’s faint plucking of zither strings echoing somewhere in the recesses of memory. For all that the story was turned into a famous film, however, it stands in its own right as a fine noir novella. It is, undoubtedly, a skeletal story, but Greene’s literary instincts and ability to tell a spare, engaging story bring the hundred or so pages to life and make The Third Man, although not as satisfying as the film, a sharp thriller.

The Third Man represents a growing trend in fiction - at the time of its publication – towards realism following the modernism that held sway between the World Wars, and mixes this greater realism with a cinematic and stylised vision of the world that approaches the post-war move towards existentialism in many art forms. Harry Lime encapsulates this move towards a more hopeless cynicism when he says to Martins, "We aren't heroes, Rollo, you and I. The world doesn't make heroes outside your books."

The images of Vienna as a wasteland recall T. S. Eliot’s poem, and there is a similar sense of impending but ominous revelation in The Third Man as in “The Wasteland”. Here, though, Greene undercuts the Modernist idea of the writer as a regenerative force; the discoveries that Martins makes proving to be a resurrection only in the hollowest sense. Indeed, Martins is no artist of high ideals – he is no saviour – and one of the most amusing scenes in the book sees him arrive at a literary talk only to discover he has been mistaken for another writer – one of significantly higher literary reputation. In this scene, Martins’s refusal to bow to the pompous snobbery of the talk’s organiser and audience, too, signals a refusal to elevate authors to any great height, a turn away from the Modernist ideas around salvation and order through language (itself pointing back to Shelley’s notion of poets as legislators of the world).

Martins’s inner narrative fails to establish any great literary order to his story – he and Harry are not heroes, Vienna is not the Western badlands – and equally his investigations fail to empower him in a more real sense. Ultimately, there are forces greater than either he or Harry that dictate the story that is their lives: there are no individualist heroes here. Instead, the new world – of large indifferent ideologies looks at people as no more than ant-like dots, a price attached to each one:

“Victims?” he asked. “Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there,” he went on, pointing through the window at the people moving like black flies at the base of the Wheel. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving – for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

It’s probable that most readers will come to the novella via the film and, in truth, the film is the more complete vision of Greene’s story. However, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to enjoy in the book: the end is perhaps a little too neat and conventionally moral – a fact improved upon in the film – but the thrill is certainly in the chase here, and as the conclusion rolls into sight the reader has already had their fill of old Vienna. The Third Man is an intelligent, taut thriller and an interesting accompaniment to the film.

At just about a hundred pages, this is a sharp, short thriller. Enjoyable and interesting to read in relation to the film.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Third Man on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Third Man on Amazon (US)

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2 comments:

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great review Matthew and I think you are quite correct in locating the novella's strength in its transition to the moral greyness of the Cold War era as opposed to the more sharply delineated WW2 period.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks very much for stopping by, and for summing up far more succinctly than I could have the book's position in relation world events, moral thought, etc.