It seems ridiculous to say that until now I had neither read The Third Man nor seen the Carol Reed film, which, like the book, appeared in 1949. Apart from the fact that they are both masterpieces of their particular genres, they are so much part of the zeitgeist of their time I am amazed at how I have come to miss them. And yet, so deeply is the name Harry Lime and the haunting Anton Karas score embedded in the cultural psyche of the nation, had you asked me, I would have assured you that I knew precisely what both book and film were about. I would have been wrong.
In the light of the themes that the novella does explore, such a reaction on my part isn’t exactly inappropriate. On the surface, Harry Lime is stationed in post-war Vienna, working for the International Refugee Office. However, the British Colonel, Calloway, who narrates the book, is certain that Lime is not all that he seems and that his job is a cover for a particularly nasty form of black marketeering: one which leads to madness and death in young children. Rollo Martins, a friend of Lime’s from schooldays, suspects none of this when he comes out to Vienna at Lime’s invitation. He, like me, thinks he knows all about Harry Lime. Like me, he is wrong. Mind you, I think I have a better excuse because Rollo has always been Harry’s dupe.
‘Was he clever at school?’
‘Not the way they wanted him to be. But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.’
And so, having arrived to find that Lime has been killed in an accident with a car, Rollo sets out to prove that Calloway’s suspicions about his friend are wrong. He tracks down and questions the people who were with Lime when he died and visits the young Hungarian actress, Anna, with whom Harry had apparently formed a relationship. But what he discovers is disquieting and gradually he is forced to accept that perhaps Harry had become involved in nefarious dealings. Was the ‘accident’ actually a set-up? Was he killed to keep him quiet about what he knew? And who was the mysterious third man who helped to carry the body away from the crash site? (So that’s where the tile comes from. Who knew?)
The theme of people not being who we might think they are is developed through the characters of Rollo, Anna and Calloway as well as Lime himself. Calloway dresses in civvies, hiding his military rank. Anna conceals her nationality for fear of being deported. And Rollo, well he lives all sorts of double lives. He makes his meagre living by writing cheap paper-covered Westerns under the name of Buck Dexter, but having arrived in Vienna, he is mistaken for the literary novelist, Benjamin Dexter, and plays up to it only to then find himself the centre of attention at the sort of cultural gathering he most despises. Most importantly, however, there is a duality at the very heart of his nature. Rollo looked at every woman that passed, and Martins renounced them forever. The tussle between Rollo and Martins for the direction of this central character’s thought and actions is critical to the novella.
I loved this book. The story gripped me from the first and it was all the more intriguing for not being what I had expected. It is also, as you would expect from Greene, beautifully written. Passages such as
so back they drove through the heart of a forest where the graves lay like wolves under the trees, winking white eyes under the gloom of evergreens
repeatedly stopped me in my tracks as I savoured them over and over again.
In terms of focusing my thoughts on 1949 what it did most strongly was remind me just how close to the end of World War II this was. Because I didn’t live through those years, that war has always seemed like history to me. Well maybe it was, but it was very recent history and for many, especially on the Continent but in England too, its aftermath was still a daily living reality. Vienna is not only a city ravaged by its years under occupation, but now also a city divided between wrangling forces who are supposed to be allies. The foundations of what would become known as the Cold War are clear for all to see.
As Greene explains in a foreword, the novella was written in order to work out in his own mind how the film might be scripted, and in his opinion
the film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished stage of the story.
Inevitably alterations were made when the script was written, not the least of these being the changing of the final moments and Rollo’s name being altered to Holly, and normally I would actively avoid any film of a book that I have enjoyed as much as this. In this instance, however, and given the circumstances under which The Third Man was written, my next purchase is obvious. I am going to have to hunt down a copy of the DVD as soon as possible.