The process of transmuting a novel from the page to the screen unavoidably involves some measure of diminution, often drastic, of the source material. The Third Man is one of the rare exceptions to that rule, taking as its point of departure one of novelist Graham Greene’s lesser tales and turning it into one of the supreme achievements of postwar film noir. A certain amount of credit is due to Greene himself, who wrote the screenplay, but the author has acknowledged that director Carol Reed’s handling of the material (including some creative differences in points of plot development on which Reed prevailed) was decisive. Also, Orson Welles, whose character dominates the picture all out of proportion to his actual screen time, contributed some of his own dialogue, including the memorable, oft-quoted “cuckoo clock” speech.
A little historical background might be in order here: At the beginning of the nineteenth century, “Germany” consisted of, oh, three or four hundred pissant little kingdoms and principalities (I exaggerate for effect here), plus half a dozen bigger ones, the most powerful of which was the Kingdom of Prussia. In the 1870s, Prussia’s gifted and overbearing statesman Otto von Bismarck oversaw the unification of these disparate components into the German Empire, with the Prussian king as emperor (or “Kaiser”) and Bismarck as the Empire’s first Chancellor. Left outside of this amalgamation was German-speaking Austria, which was already the center of its own empire, then known as Austria-Hungary, and which included in its subject territory large swatches of president-day Hungary, Poland, Romania, the former Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia, and little bits of Italy. Fast forward fifty years, and after being on the losing side in World War I, Austria is shorn of its empire, thereby freeing a lot of its former subjects to go back to their former pastimes of burning one another’s homes, violating one another’s womenfolk and cutting one another’s throats, a social dynamic toward which it sometimes seems as though our own unhappy fractious imperium is latterly tending. Austria, once a big, honking (albeit ramshackle) polyglot multi-ethnic empire, is now reduced to a smallish, mainly German-speaking country (I trust you’re taking notes: there’ll be a quiz afterward). Fast forward another decade or so, and neighboring Germany, under the dynamic leadership of, by golly, a transplanted Austrian, seems to be going great guns compared to its still-demoralized southern neighbor:
Springtime for Hitler and Germany,
Deutschland is happy and gay!We’re marching to a faster pace:Look out, here comes the master race!
The way the Austrians prefer to remember it, Hitler rolled into Vienna in 1938 and forcibly incorporated it into Germany (or the “German Reich,” as they were styling themselves by then) in what became known as the Anschluss. To much of the rest of the world, it didn’t even meet the “date rape” test, and when the Third Reich went to war with the other major powers of the world the following year, the Austrians were not found wanting by their cousins in martial zeal. Hitler’s project ended badly from the Nazi standpoint in 1945, and although Austria had its national identity restored, it was subject like its senior partner to occupation by the victorious belligerents, France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, with each power governing a section of the country. Vienna, the capital, was likewise subdivided, and it is against this backdrop that the story of The Third Man is laid. Here endeth the historical digression.
Holly Martins is a writer working the lower end of the literary food chain: he pens cowboy novels of the mass-market paperback variety, and although he appears to have a devoted following among the lower socioeconomic strata, he’s not doing so well that he can afford to turn down an invitation to join his old pal Harry Lime, who has set himself up as a successful businessman in occupied Vienna. Precisely what kind of business Lime has been engaged in is not initially made clear, and in any event, the clueless Martins comes to the rather knocked-about city with his head planted securely up his arse, where it remains for much of the movie, and is shocked to discover that Harry has been tragically killed in a traffic accident. Arriving just in time to attend the funeral, Martins attracts the notice of a world-weary British military policeman (a starchy Trevor Howard, with an affect of acerbic disdain he does not trouble to conceal from the American), who advises him to go home. Instead, the writer undertakes his own investigation into the circumstances of Lime’s death, in the course of which he forms an attraction toward his friend’s mistress (she regards him with the sort of affection and esteem in which you and I might hold something we were obliged to scrape from the soles of our shoes), and discovers some very uncomfortable truths about the nature of Lime’s enterprises. Fun factoid: Penicillin had been produced in limited quantities during the war, and for military use only. It did not become available for civilian use in the United States until almost the end of the conflict and was direly needed, and extremely hard to come by, in war-ravaged Central Europe throughout the latter 1940s.
Stylishly photographed (an industry colleague jokingly sent director Reed a spirit level afterward, so that he could set up his cameras straight) and highly atmospheric, and not without its moments of levity, as when the hapless Holly Martins is mistaken for a “serious” novelist and hauled before a literary audience to give a lecture, The Third Man is among the greatest English-language films produced since the last world war, and it’s a little surprising that it isn’t better known. The usual qualifier applies that the pace of editing, although brisk for its time, may be a little downtempo by the reckoning of anyone born since 1980. Some people have found the movie’s once-famous zither music an intolerable annoyance. Final fun factoid: the director’s stepdaughter, Tracy Reed, was the only woman in the cast of Dr. Strangelove (as General Turgidson’s “secretary,” and as “Miss Foreign Affairs” in the Playboy centerfold seen in the B-52 in that film).
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