The Third Man

By Graham Greene


The Third Man started life as scribble on the back of an envelope: 'I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among a host of strangers on the Strand.' The book was never intended for publication. Greene's ultimate aim was to write a film script but this, he said, he found impossible without first writing a story:

'... a film depends on more than a plot, on a certain measure of characterisation, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have more material than one needs to draw upon.' (The Third Man, Preface - see Further Reading for editions)

In the transfer to script, and hence to film, many changes were made - by Greene, by the director, Carol Reed and by the actors themselves. Joseph Cotton refused to accept the name 'Rollo' which was subsequently changed to 'Holly'; Orson Welles was responsible for the famous 'cuckoo clock' speech. There are other more substantial changes - or rather, differences: The book is Calloway's account of the whole affair and, as such, provides not only a factual account but a running comment on the narrative as well. One of the most powerful devices that arises from this arrangement is the 'dual identity' of Rollo/Holly Martins:

'There was always a conflict in Rollo Martins - between the absurd Christian name and the sturdy Dutch (four generations back) surname. Rollo looked at every woman that passed, and Martins renounced them forever.' (11)

'Rollo wanted to hit out, but Martins was steady, careful. Martins, I began to realise, was dangerous. I wondered whether after all, I had made a complete mistake: I couldn't see Martins being quite the mug that Rollo had made out' (21)

This is but one example of the extra 'material' upon which Greene draws in the process of remodelling his story as a film script. It is present in the character of Holly Martins but less explicitly. It is therefore useful when studying The Third Man to read both book and script. I shall refer to both: quotations from the book will be made in normal type with page numbers in round brackets referring to the 1972 New Windmill Series edition; quotations from the script will be made in italic type with scene numbers in square brackets referring to the 1988 Faber and Faber edition.

In terms of plot, this guide follows the story of the film because this is the ultimate product, as Greene himself declares: 'the film is... the finished state of the story'. It is the culmination of a creative process that involved not only Greene but also Carol Reed, Orson Welles and Alexander Korda. Another influence that must be acknowledged is the location. The ruins of Vienna lend a vital realism to the film. Andrew Sinclair, in his introduction to the Sight and Sound special edition of the script writes that,

'It set a particular style for British films, a combination of realism of background and penetration of character, based on the two main qualities of British wartime cinema, a feeling for documentary detail and social purpose. Carol Reed explained the success of the film, shot in 1949, by saying that it was one of the first British films allowed to be made chiefly on location. Until that time, making films in studios falsified and glamorised all. In this film, the brooding labyrinths of ruined and occupied Vienna express the traps and ambiguities facing people there, the harsh and shifting choices forced on survivors of war.'

Ironically, whilst making the film on location helps to impress the harsh reality of post-war Vienna, it was of considerable benefit to Anton Karras, a zither player. It is his music that can be heard as the theme music to the film, arranged and played by him. The enterprise left him considerably richer and he bought the café outside which he had sat for years as a poor busker.