Friday, August 13, 2010

Forgotten Books: THE THIRD MAN -- Graham Greene

I'm not at all sure about the history of this one. I do know that the film came first and that Greene says that this book is really just the treatment for the movie. I'm not sure I believe that, since he also says that his original ending was an upbeat one but that the director of the film, Carol Reed, suggested another one. The downbeat one is in the book.

Whatever the history is, the book's very short, 116 pages in the edition I have, which I bought back in 1963 or so. The narration is a lot like a film voiceover, and you can see it playing out as the Scotland Yard man, Calloway, tells his part and then fades into the third person for the story itself.

Rollo Martins shows up in post-WWII Vienna to see his old school friend, Harry Lime, only to discover that Lime has died in an auto accident. There are a couple of witnesses on the scene who load him into an ambulance, and a third man sees the events from a window above. His story is different from the one the others tell, and indeed he mentions another third man, one at the scene of the accident. Martins is determined to find out the truth, and pretty soon people start to die.

The movie was such a big success that it spun off a radio prequel, The Lives of Harry Lime, with Orson Welles playing Lime as he did in the film. The idea was that Lime, who was quite the villain in the movie, wasn't so bad earlier in his life, more of a hapless conman than someone with the heartless, cynical view that he later developed. In the intro to the show (I've heard a few episodes on XM), Welles gives away the ending of the movie.

Later on there was a TV series, The Third Man, with Michael Rennie playing a thoroughly rehabilitated Lime. He's more or less a legit businessman, far more sympathetic than the character in the book and movie.

But back to the book. Would The Third Man be published today? Up until the end of the novel, almost all the action is off-stage. The narration is odd, as I've said. The first two paragraphs take up more than two pages, so it's obviously not in the current thriller style. Lots more emphasis on character and setting than action, though the final chase through sewers is a good one. In the end, though, I really don't think this one would be much to the taste of anybody over thirty. As for old-guy me, I had fun re-reading it.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

You need to go to Vienna (even though it's not 1950 anymore) and go to The Prater at night after reading this one. We went on the giant ferris wheel and I only wished we could have gone on a chase through the sewers.

I was never totally clear on which came first, the script or the novel, but they're pretty much the same as I remember. Definitely worth a read.

Jeff

Bill Crider said...

We didn't get to Vienna, but I hear they're famous for their sausage.

We did spend a week in Innsbruck, and I wrote a story about their sewers. With gator. Okay, it was a croc, but still . . . .

Anonymous said...

But was it like NIGHT OF THE TOY DRAGONS, a classic of the genre?

Jeff

Fred Blosser said...

BANG! "That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in the sewers beneath Vienna -- as those of you know who saw the movie, The Third Man." Yes, that was the end of Harry Lime, but it was not the beginning. Harry Lime had many lives..." The Mutual station in my hometown ran (or probably re-ran)the Orson Welles series in the early '60s. For some reason, Welles' sonorous opening lines still stick in my memory. I may not have the words exactly right, but I bet they're pretty close.

Bill Crider said...

Jeff, the story's a fantasy about a pirate captain who's looking for the croc that bit off his hand.

Fred, that's darned close. I heard an episode a month or so ago, and I couldn't do any better.

Fred Zackel said...

I love Harry Lime! Always wanted to use that "character" in a story. Oh, I listened to most of the old radio shows, but could never reconcile that radio character with the tainted medicine sleazeball of the film. Ah well. Oh, and apparently orson Welles arrived late for the filming of the movie, which is why they used so many shadows and such during the shot. Welles just wasn't there! I also believe that Welles had been told there was a different ending, which is why he was startrled & flinched at the gunshot. Lastly, Joseph Cotton was told the woman would be stopping the jeep at the cemetery at the end and picking him up. But I may be wrong. Love me. love my zither.
Do-de-do, de-do...

Fred Blosser said...

If I'm not mistaken, two of the future M's from the Bond movies appear in the film -- Bernard Lee and Robert Brown.

Great scene at the Cultural Center where someone in the audience asks Martins, "what author has chiefly influenced you?"

"Grey."

"Grey ....?"

"Zane Grey."

Bill Crider said...

That's a very funny scene in the book, too.

Bill Crider said...

By the way, in the book Martins is a Picadilly Cowboy, not an American as he is in the film.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, I suspect with a Brand name at least as important as Greene's, the book would have no trouble being published today, even if it wasn't a good novella. At least Greene earned that respect, unlike some, then and now.

Anders E said...

I have an old Pan paperback of this with a preface by Greene himself and according to this the novel was basically the first draft of the movie script.

"To me it's almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends more on 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 the 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 the sense of more material than one needs to draw on. THE THIRD MAN, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another."

The book is in itself a good read, and if one takes into consideration that it was banged out quickly just to have something to base a film script on, it's pretty amazing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Not many writers are better than Graham Greene. And more versatile. Vienna is amazing. That Germanish architecture puts you in your place.
And the movie is just great.

Anders E said...

The movie is one of the very few that I consider flawless. And btw, using a single guy plonking away on a zither as the entire musical score is pure genius.

Dan said...

Hey BILL! I read the book back in High School. The one you show the cover of,that book. And it had the slightly-more-upbeat ending.

I can only say "hunh?"

Bill Crider said...

Maybe it depends on what we mean by "upbeat."

Richard R. said...

I'm reading Greene now, too. It's kinda been slow going for some reason, it's a short story collection and I find that I really have to be in the right mood for it. So it will pop up as a FFB one of these days. As for THE THIRD MAN, it's a good film but I don't remember - it's been a long time - liking it enough to want to see it again. I haven't read the book.

Anonymous said...

Well, in the book, Martins is walking faster to catch up with the girl, with the implication that he might make it. The movie ends with her defnitely passing him by.

Bill Crider said...

Obviously I was confused, or thinking of the last line of the book.