Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Third Man by Graham Greene

published 1950


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES






[Post-war Vienna: a multi-national police team has come to arrest Anna]

There is a lot of comedy in these situations if you are not directly concerned. 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 Russian, you see, refused to leave the room while Anna dressed: the Englishman refused to remain in the room: the American wouldn’t leave a girl unprotected with a Russian soldier, and the Frenchman – well, I think the Frenchman must have thought it was fun. Can’t you imagine the scene? The Russian was just doing his duty and watched the girl all the time, without a flicker of sexual interest; the American stood with his back chivalrously turned, but aware, I am sure, of every movement; the Frenchman smoked his cigarette and watched with detached amusement the reflection of the girl dressing in the mirror of the wardrobe; and the Englishman stood in the passage wondering what to do next.

I don’t want you to think the English policeman came too badly out of the affair. In the passage, undistracted by chivalry, he had time to think, and his thoughts led him to the telephone in the next flat.



observations: In a recent Guardian piece on character names, I discussed the main character of this novella, Rollo Martins, whose name was changed to Holly (or Holley, according to Greene) for the noted 1949 film. I described him as a tough guy, and a comment on the piece argued with that. But I think that, although he is a figure of fun, and comes over as rather foolish, he does have pretensions to being a tough guy, and is described as ‘Drinks too much and may cause a little trouble.’ He is attractive to women, and – it turns out – handy with a gun. It would be more reasonable to object to my comments on his name: Graham Greene wanted him to have an absurd name, so perhaps it was not my business to complain.

The novella itself – a form of novelization of the film screenplay – is a short, rattling good read, and of particular interest when compared with the film. There are a few marked differences: in particular a very different ending. The last few minutes of the film are legendary, and still heart-stopping, and pretty much everyone agrees, including Greene, that this is a better ending than the story. Greene thought it wouldn’t work – his preface to the book is full of such fascinating facts, concerning a film that is mythical already, with the Orson Welles connection (he appears on screen for a very short time, but is wholly charismatic, you can’t take your eyes off him for every second he’s there) and the various rumours about the writing and direction.

As a thriller The Third Man is excellent, and also as a work of literary fiction. Greene was such a good writer:
We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us.
[He] walked up and down underneath the little windows. He felt, he said, rather like a Romeo who wasn’t sure of Juliet’s balcony.

[At the hilarious literary talk] A number of names were simultaneously flung at Martins – little sharp pointed names like Stein, round pebbles like Woolf.
Great lines, and all relevant to the tight story. And the film is still well worth watching too.

Film and book both mention a black market in the artificial sweetener saccharine – this is something that crops up in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, and is still rather hard to imagine.

For more Graham Greene on the blog, click on the label below.

The picture is by Willhelm Gallhof, from Wikimedia Commons.

12 comments:

  1. Moira - I always think it's fascinating when the author of a book comments on his views about the screen version. You sometimes get a very interesting view of how the author wanted both the novel and the film to go, And you are so right i think about Greene's writing style. Combine that with a suspenseful plot and how can you lose?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Margot - yes winner all round. And Greene's preface to the book is fascinating, funny and self-deprecating.

      Delete
  2. Replies
    1. Col, Puzo comment hasn't come through, have checked all the usual places at *@*!@ blogger and can't see it. Can you re-post...?Cheers

      Delete
  3. I would like to read this novella (and watch the movie again). This movie is more a favorite of my husband's than mine. I have read only one book by Graham Greene and I would like to read more. Will have to work on that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. After I re-read this, I had to watch the film again straight away (I love it that it's so easy to do that nowadays) - so good.

      Delete
  4. This is such a good film, one of the great mystery classics. I just saw it again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree - I watched it before writing the piece, and it has survived really well. The Vienna locations are amazing.

      Delete
  5. I haven't read a Greene novel for ages. You've reminded me how good he is. The Third Man is one of my favourite films. That ending . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So agree with you, Christine - that ending has to be one of the best ever. Greene thought no-one would stay till the very end, and if they did they wouldn't like it, but said later that he was wrong.

      Delete
  6. The movie is such a classic, probably the ultimate post-War Old World noir. Actually I think Rollo is somewhat tougher than Holly, so maybe the movie got it right. Holly was a guy who fancied himself a tough guy but the absurd name implied otherwise.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think of Rollo as being a very English name - do you think that's right? Anyway he's an excellent character, maybe not heroic, but very real. And one of the great films, one that will live forever.

      Delete