GRAHAM GREENE – The Third Man. Novella. Viking Press, US, hardcover, 1950. First published in the UK; included in The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Heinemann 1950). Novelization of the screenplay.

THE THIRD MAN. British Lion Films, 1949. Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee. Director: Director: Carol Reed.

   Carol Reed’s film of THE THIRD MAN surfaced on my to-be-watched-again pile, so I decided to do a thorough job of it, and re-read Graham Greene’s novel (written at the same time as his screenplay) and Charles Drazin’s study of the film, IN SEARCH OF THE THIRD MAN (Limelight, 2000).

   Drazin’s book recounts the events in 1948-9 surrounding the making and marketing of THE THIRD MAN, and it reads like a novel, with director Carol Reed as the hero, writer Graham Greene as his weak-willed sidekick, producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda as comic relief, and Orson Welles as the villain of the piece.

   Reading this, one is surprised at how much of the film was simply a mater of convenience: Selznick, the prestigious producer of GONE WITH THE WIND, had money tied up in England that had to be spent there, so — with appropriate flourishes and ballyhoo — he formed a partnership with England’s Alexander Korda, a filmmaker of approximately equal splendour, who had money tied up in central Europe and needed a hit.

   Korda had known some success with Carol Reed and Graham Greene (FALLEN IDOL, 1948) and prevailed upon Reed to write a screenplay set in contemporary Vienna so he could spend his money there. For his part, Graham Greene had a story idea sitting around — something about a man probing the murder of a friend and getting some nasty surprises — and he saw a trip to Vienna as an excellent opportunity to cheat on his wife, so he was only too happy to accept the assignment.

   While Greene was in Vienna learning about sewers and Ferris wheels, Korda and Selznick spoke often and loudly to the press about their forthcoming masterpiece, hinting at a cast that might include Cary Grant as Harry Lime, Jimmy Stewart as his duped friend, and Ingrid Bergman as the woman they loved. Or Jennifer Jones. Or Ralph Richardson. What Selznick ended up putting out was two contract players he was paying anyway, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, while Korda financed the logistics by selling rights to release his old pictures in post-war Europe, found Orson Welles in need of money for OTHELLO, and signed him up — whereupon Welles proceeded to behave as obstreperously as possible (according to Drazin) showing up weeks late in Vienna, then refusing to act in the sewers, or much of anyplace else, really, requiring extensive use of a double on almost all the location shooting.

   So what you had here was a much-heralded mega-film made on hand-shakes, promises and pretense, and the wonder is that it turned out so damgood. Greene’s script is sharp, suspenseful and cleverly turned, the performances are real and moving — particularly Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee as a couple of weary MPs — and there’s a fascinating visual tension between Carol Reed’s carefully-composed images and the riotous look of a city that has been “bombed about a bit.”

   Characters go about dressed in elegant scraps of ill-fitting apparel, walking past palaces and rubble, and the dichotomy extends even to the memorable scene on the Ferris wheel, where Orson Welles speaks of death, taxes and heartburn while Joseph Cotten prepares himself to sell out or get sold.

   As for the book itself, it was planned by Korda and Selznick to be marketed in conjunction with the film for added publicity, and they thought that a rather neat trick in those early days before merchandising and product placement. And again, the wonder is that a book written as a matter of convenience should turn out so readable. Greene’s prose is crisp, witty, and not a bit rushed, and though the crux of the story is in no way original, he handles it well enough to make it seem fresh.

   I should note there’s an important difference between the ending of the book and the movie. Without giving it away, I may say Korda and Selznick thought the heroine’s action unrealistic for a woman who had been through what she had. They were wrong. As I read THE THIRD MAN I was impressed by the recurring theme of characters who have survived a war trying to put their lives back together, and Greene’s ending seemed to me a rather touching tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. And heart.