THE THIRD MAN (1950) by Graham Greene

Greene_Third-Man_panPublished after the release of the popular film of the same name, this book by Graham Greene is slightly unusual – it is not a screenplay (and indeed it varies from the finished film in many ways) and it is not a novelisation either. It is a genuine novella that Greene wrote before embarking on his screenplay, though it was not originally intended for publication. It is a gripping thriller, superbly told, and in Harry Lime created an immortal anti-hero …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen.” – Greene, from his forward

Graham Greene is probably my favourite 20th century author and I have re-read most of his impressive corpus several times over the decades (and yes, some reviews of his books and films are coming to Fedora quite soon). Famed for his religious themes, he also made great use of the thriller formula and had an uncanny ability to foresee upcoming political hotspots and then use them as background for his ultra topical subjects for his books – best of all, he remains indelibly linked with the creation of an original and distinctive mind-space location dubbed ‘Greeneland.’ My affection though also stems from the markedly cinematic qualities of his work, from his highly visual presentation of people and places that in some cases even seems to replicate movement in the style of tracking shots and standard editing patterns. Indeed, I would argue that he was more involved with the cinema than any other major novelist of his generation. In the 1930s while establishing his literary reputation he was also working in parallel as a screenwriter and as a film critic – ultimately practically all of his novels and short stories were adapted for the screen. In a career spanning sixty years, of his twenty-six full-length fiction books (with the necessary exclusion of Rumour at Nightfall and the Name of Action, the two titles he Greene_Third-Man_penguin2suppressed and refused to have republished or to sell the film rights to), all but three were adapted for the screen: It’s a Battlefield (1934), A Burnt-Out Case (1960), possibly my favourite of his books, and his final novella, The Captain and the Enemy (1988). That’s an amazing batting average, especially when you consider that most of his short stories were adapted too, leading to such fine films as Went the Day Well? (1943) and best of all, Fallen Idol (1948). It was the success of the latter, made in collaboration with director Carol Reed, that led to The Third Man, which reunited writer and director and which they developed together before Greene wrote a full prose version as a short novel on which his screenplay was eventually based.

“One never knows when the blow may fall”

Dozens of films and TV shows have been adapted from Greene’s work – and some, including such major works as Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, have all been filmed more than once. Perhaps predictably, more commercial ‘entertainments’ like A Gun for Sale have been filmed many, many times (at least 6 versions exists according to IMDb). Greene’s ‘entertainments’ are not necessarily that easy to discern from his weightier novels but undeniably those that use the thriller formula have been among the most popular. Most people know the basic outline of The Third Man, perhaps still his best-known single work: Harry Lime is thought dead and his best friend Holly (originally named Rollo in the novella) Greene_Third-Man_penguincomes to Vienna and sets out to discover who killed him; he falls for Lime’s old girlfriend Anna, and finds out that his friend isn’t dead at all but hiding out due to his involvement in illegal smuggling, leading to a memorable chase in the sewers at its climax. This prose version, which in print is usually accompanied by Greene’s short story The Basement Room (the basis for Fallen Idol), is told from the point of view of Colonel Calloway (later a major as played by Trevor Howard). A number of incidents, like Anna being kidnapped by the Russians, were ultimately never shot, while other sequences were embellished on set, such as Welles’ celebrated line about cuckoo clocks (which Greene graciously and readily admitted the actor wrote).

“Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had five-hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”

Beautifully shot on location by Robert Krasker in full expressionist mode with heavy use of weird angles and looming shadows backed by Anton Karas’ distinctive if often rather oddly undramatic zither score, this is also a wryly humorous tale in which Holly blunders around trying to find out why Lime was killed while everyone tries to stop him making a fool of himself. This is seen at its best in the scenes in the film with Bernard Lee (a sergeant who it turns out is a fan of Holly’s westerns) and when the writer is apparently kidnapped but is in fact only being delivered to a lecture he has agreed to give at a literary event organised by an organisation like the British Council (they mixed him up with another, more literary, writer). This then turns sinister in what ultimately seems a rather similar sequence to the stump speech adventure in Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps. This is a story that cannily plys with our expectations time and again. We assume that Holly / Rollo and Anna Welles_The-Third-Manwill end up together because that is the logic of the movies, but the naive American just doesn’t understand either the political complexities of the situation in Vienna nor the depth of Anna’s feelings for Lime, no matter how big a villain he turns out to be (and make no mistake, he’s a charmer but also a dangerous cynic and utter, utter bastard). But Greene’s strongly ironic plot and fine characterisations and Carol Reed’s exceptional feeling for mood and place make this a classic movie and the novella is one of the most purely entertaining of Greene’s self-styled ‘entertainments’ – if you haven’t read it, or the seen the movie, you really should.

“We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us”

The film was deservedly a smash hit (the theme tune alone was a genuine phenomenon, even inspiring a dance, the ‘Harry Lime Two-step’) and was later spun off into a popular TV show starring Michael Rennie. Perhaps more surprisingly, Welles later revived his role for radio in the prequel The Lives of Harry Lime (aka The Adventures of Harry Lime), all 52 episodes of which of are available online for free from the Internet Archive. It’s a pretty decent show actually, and makes good use the Karas zither music – and all begin with the memorable intro from Welles, after the sound of a gunshot:

“That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in a sewer 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. And I can recount all of them. How do I know? Very simple – because my name is Harry Lime”

The Grahame Greene ‘Entertainments’

  • Stamboul Train (1932)
  • A Gun for Sale (1936)
  • The Confidential Agent (1939)
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943)
  • The Third Man (1950)
  • Loser Takes All (1955)
  • Our Man in Havana (1958)
  • The Tenth Man (1985)

If you are interested in learning more about Greene’s involvement with the cinema, I recommend Gene D Phillips’ Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction and Quentin Falk’s Travels in Greeneland, along of course with Norman Sherry’s monumental, three-volume biography of the author. I’ll be reviewing more of Greene’s novels here at Fedora soon. For a really detailed look at the film, you should head over and read Colin’s fine review at his Riding the High Country blog.

DVD Availability: There are plenty of DVDs and Blu-rays out there as this is a film that has always looked good on home video and has been easily available – just take your pick, you won’t be disappointed.

The Third Man (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art Direction: Vincent Korda, John Hawkesworth, Joseph Bato
Music: Anton Karas
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfred Hyde-White

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Set outside the US and UK’ category:

Vintage Golden Card-Marked-xi

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Film Noir, Five Star review, Graham Greene, Orson Welles, Vienna. Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to THE THIRD MAN (1950) by Graham Greene

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Isn’t it lovely to be able to profile a favourite author who’s also superbly talented? Interesting that his eye for the visual is apparent both in his novels and stories and his screenplays. Some people do have the gift of translating that visual into words and he was one of them. I like his writing style too. Nice to be reminded of his corpus.

    • Thanks Margot – I discovered his work in my early teens and it has never lost its grip for me – not sure he would have approved of the Jesuitical simile but ……

  2. Colin says:

    Ah, that’s all around lovely. Listen, I want to say thanks first of all for the link back to my place – very gracious of you, as ever.

    As you know, I love the movie and the novella, which I came to later, is fine in itself. I liked your comments on Greene here. I haven’t read all his stuff myself, although I’ve worked through a fair bit of it over the years. Of the “entertainments” I’ve yet to get round to Loser Takes All and, if I’m going to be honest, quite forgot about it. Any comment on it would be welcome.

    • Thanks for the very kind words Colin. I might do a swift post on Loser Takes All soon but it is an amusing ironic tale but is, admittedly, probably the most featherwight of his ‘entertainments’ and is also fairly brief (about 130 pages as I recall).

      • Colin says:

        Thanks. Somehow I managed to neglect that one and was just curious.
        Greene was one of the most readable and accessible “literary” authors I’ve come across and his work is pretty well represented on my shelves. I think your post here highlights that accessibility very well.
        I’ve read to read Confidential Agent mind even though I have a copy here. And it’s been ages since I watched the film, which I also have, partly perhaps since I remember being a little underwhelmed by it.

        • The movie version is a bit frustrating as it is fairly faithful to the book (which I really like by the way) but which suffers from poor casting and awkward pacing and yet hat much to recommend it and is not the disaster some people make it out to be.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I really need to watch it again but I remember some parts – those with Katina Paxinou and Peter Lorre I think – being very effective. I never could warm to Charles Boyer though and that hurts the movie for me.

            On other Greene works, I don’t know well regarded either one is but I really liked both the book and movie adaptation of The Comedians.

          • Interesting you pick The Comedians because that is one of the few that I have not re-read probaably since the 80s (I blame the movie) – I did like the book (very few by Greene I am barely lukewarm about frankly, maybe Travels with My Aunt) but the movie made very little impression – sounds like a good opportunity for a re-evaluation! Coming up at Fedora are reviews of some of my favourites, including Ministry of Fear, The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul.

          • Colin says:

            I don’t know, it just clicked for me. Of course it’s been a few years now.
            Lots of good stuff coming there, although (shamefully) I’m not that familiar with The Honorary Consul. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the film and think the book was one I started and didn’t finish, something rare for me.

          • I am really looking forward to re-reading Cocul as it is the book that Greene, towards the end of his life, thought was his best. It made a big impression on me at the time so i want to see if it stands up – and I just got the German DVD of the film (thankfully anamorphic), co-starring the late Bob Hoskins so I am prioritising that one.

          • Colin says:

            Sounds good.

            Just to return to The Third Man, if we could just get a nice complete box set of the Michael Rennie TV series I’d be a happy man.

          • I have only seen a few snippets on YouTube and until recently hadn’t realised that it ran for quite as long as it did (weirdly I got it mixed up with the FOUR JUST MEN series) – it would be great to see these in good nick – one gets spoiled when shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, JOHNNY STACCATO (and NAKED CITY) can be made to look so good on disc of course but ,,,

          • Colin says:

            I continue to hope we’ll get them eventually. I love those kinds of shows and frankly can’t get enough of them.

          • My Twilight Zone Blu-rays are among my most treasured items on the format – even if I know the story backwards I can just revel in the exquisite rendering on disc that shows off the production values to such great advantage. Having said that, Space 1999 looks amazing on Blu but I can;t pretend I crack that set open very often …

          • Colin says:

            There’s something about the late 50s and early 60s B&W stuff that’s just so attractive to me. Sure some of it can be formulaic at times, but I love the look and feel of it all so much.

          • I completely agree – some of it is purely a question of aesthetics and some of it just the implicit older worldview which, for whatever subtle and more obvious reasons, always seems a lot more intelligible than the current one 🙂

  3. TracyK says:

    This is a book (novella) that I want to read. Have read very little Graham Greene so I have lots to try out. My husband is very fond of the film.

  4. Jose Ignacio says:

    Great post Sergio. You have encouraged me to reread Graham Greene

    • Grazie Jose Iganico! I am of course completely biased as I believe him to be one of the greats of 20th century literature – I know not everybody feels that way …

      • Jose Ignacio says:

        I will not argue with you about that, Sergio. Don’t know if he’s the greatest one, but sure he had made an impact on me and I would say on my generation.

        • For me I think it also made a difference that when I first got hooked on his work he was still publishing – I was always dreamed of writing to him and maybe getting a response …

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Greene’s a wonderful writer, and I read this last year for the first time and loved it. Such an atmospheric book – it made me reluctant to revisit the film because the book was so good!

  6. 282daniele says:

    Grande film. Lo possiedo. La musica di Karas ti resta nelle orecchie. Grandissimo Cotten!
    Dì una cosa, Sergio, sei tu quello che su Google + Ha lavorato presso BUFVC e
    Ha frequentato London School of Economy? Perchè prima di aggiungerti come amico, voglio sapere se sia tu, il barbuto.

  7. I’m a big Graham Greene fan and THE THIRD MAN is one of his best books. It turned out to be a pretty good movie, too!

  8. 282daniele says:

    La vorrei avere io una barba come la tua! Smbri più inglese che italiano 😉

  9. Richard says:

    I remember reading BRIGHTON ROCK as a high school assignment, and not really understanding it, just writing a “book report” summarizing the story. When I read it again twenty years later it was as if it was new to me. The film of THE THIRD MAN is striking in it’s cinematography. There has been a debate about how good the film is, as opposed to how good it was filmed, but the newest version is really nice to watch on all counts.

    • Hi Richard – Third Man is certainly strikingly shot but together with the music and fine performances and the clever script I think it’s a great film all round, one that provides all the requisite thrills of a mystery movie but something that digs a little deeper – and a lot of that does come from Greene I think, most notably in its unconventional ending.

  10. John says:

    If, as Greene says, THE THIRD MAN was never meant to be read why then did he bother writing an altered version of the movie? How soon after the movie came out did he write it and when exactly was it published first? I’ve never seen a copy of this ever. Never knew such a thing existed! Guess, I’ll have to go to the library and find Greene’s biography for all those answers.

    MINISTRY OF FEAR is a very odd movie, isn’t it? I read the book long ago but recall little about it. The images from the movie, however, stick firmly in my memory. Why not add THE FALLEN IDOL to your list of future Greene posts? I was powerfully affected by that movie when I saw it for the first time only two years ago. In some ways I think it’s superior to THE THIRD MAN.

    THIRD MAN Trivia: There is a play by Paula Vogel called The Baltimore Waltz that borrows heavily from Reed’s movie. There are three characters: Anna, Carl and “The Third Man”, an actor who plays all the people the siblings meet in their whirlwind tour of Europe while searching for a possible cure for Anna’s terminal illness. It’s one of the many AIDS allegory plays that was being produced in the early 90s. Clever, funny, at times ridiculously silly, but in the end very moving.

    • Thanks for the info about the Vogel play John, I had not heard of it. With regards to Greene, sorry if I was a bit vague in my post – Greene, before writing the full screenplay, wrote a prose treatment, which was his standard practice. This was then published as an afterthought when the movie became such a gigantic hit. Greene makes it clear in the intro to the book (which is where I was quoting from) that while he had no special problem publishing it, it was never written with than in mind and was just part of his own process in creating an original screenplay. I do love Fallen Idol – the only reason I haven’t posted on it is that it’s an adaptation of a short story but that’s not an especially good reason, i grant you, except that I have usually been trying, where I can, to match my film reviews to book reviews as part of Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge (or have I mentioned that a few times already 🙂 )

  11. Yvette says:

    A film I’ve seen a couple of times but for whatever reason always think I haven’t. (It could be that old lady thing again…) One thing I never do forget though, are the scenes in the sewer. Anyway, another wonderful post, Sergio. Liked learning about the novella aspect too. I’ve read only a few Graham Greene books, MINISTRY OF FEAR, THE END OF THE AFFAIR and one other whose title escapes me. MINISTRY OF FEAR is one of my all time favorite movies and I’m been meaning to buy the dvd to add to my small collection of ‘comfort’ movies.

  12. 282daniele says:

    Quella bambina con i capelli biondi è tua figlia Sofia?
    Molto bellina. Deve esserlo anche la madre, visto che il padre beh.. insomma…
    Ma è il destino che condividiamo. Anche mio figlio è molto carino e quando mi dicono: che bel figlio che hai: da chi ha preso? Dalla madre ovviamente!, rispondo io.
    Devo dirti che io però ho paura a pubblicare le immagini dei bimbi su internet.
    Che sappia, tu, conosci qualche testo che io non conosca, dove c’è una qualche Locked Room Lecture, oltre il libro The act of.. di Adair, un Lovesey che ho recensito tempo fa, Gammal ost di Durling (ma è veramente poco) e una cosetta che mi ha dato Pugmire, sconosciuta da noi in Italia, di Murphy? Ovviamente anche eccetto tutto il reswto che ho menzionato negli altri articoli da me pubblicati sul tema, nel blog del Giallo mondadori.
    Questa volta però, dopo averlo compilato, vorrei procedere a farmi un e-book, magari gratis, tanto per farmi conoscere.

  13. 282daniele says:

    Io l’ho visto perchè ti ho messo nella mia cerchia di amici su Google +. Ho cercato un po’ di gente (Curtis, John Pugmire, etc.. e ho cercato anche te e ti ho trovato, con l’immagine tua, barba rossiccia, un pullover a giro collo di colore sembra verde, giacca marrone chiaro, mi sembra, non mi ricordo bene, e poi tra loe foto, quella di questa bambina che io ho pensato fosse tua figlia. E invece è tua nipote. Strano. Non vorrei che tu avessi un fratello gemello e invece di mettere il suo nome avessero messo il tuo. Mah.. che devo dirti.
    E per il resto che mi dici?

    • Strano sai deve essere un cosa fatta da Google e no da me (io no use Google + ma mi sa che devo proprio dargli una guardatina).

      Effectivammnente riesco a pensare solo a a Anthony Boucher che in in NINE TIMES NINE e Rawson che in DEATH FROM A TOP HAT discute camere chuise, etc, che poi tu hai appunto discusso sul tuo sito – se no mi dispiace perche effectivament non riesco a pensare ad altro

  14. 282daniele says:

    No guarda che qualcuno che ti ha fatto la foto l’ha condivisa pubblicamente. La data della condivisione è l’8 luglio 2013.

  15. Todd Mason says:

    All very useful, for the Angelini online tracking department…we’ll have these Anglo-Italian angels all sorted out in no time!

    Atop all else, it’s always a joy to watch Welles digging into a role…and to read Greene’s prose. It’s well withing the purview of FFB, at least, to have dealt with the short story at the heart of FALLEN IDOL..instead of or along with THE THIRD MAN (cue zither).

  16. Sergio, I’d absolutely no idea that an astonishing twenty-three of Greene’s twenty-six novels were made into films. TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT was the last book I read and that was eons ago. He was friend and mentor to India’s celebrated writer, the late R.K. Narayan, as a result of which I read a fair bit about Greene in newspapers. I look forward to reading your reviews of his other novels, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – not all of the films were good of course, but the majority were surprisingly faithful and accomplished so I am really looking forward to revisiting the books and the film adaptations.

  17. I really enjoyed reading that Sergio – Graham Greene is one of my favourite writers too, and I think he stands up well. I read him a lot when I was younger, and have recently been re-reading and been very impressed. I only found out recently about the two very early novels that he suppressed – I thought I’d read everything! I was in Vienna a couple of years ago, and was pleased to visit a street where one of the key scenes of Third Man was shot… I didn’t go down into the sewers though.

    • Stay out of the sewers Moira! Actually, there are organised movie tours that include it, right? The only 2 books of his I have not reads are Rumour at Nightfalll and The Name of Action but how bad can they be, they’re Greene – we are definitely being gypped!

  18. Pingback: May 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  19. Matthew ( says:

    Really interesting post! Greene’s writing is so fast-paced and vital that I think it lends itself to the big screen almost effortlessly. A fun fact that I also learned about Greene the other day, was that in a recent survey, his books were found to be the ones most likely to be stolen in UK prison libraires. Guess the immediacy of the prose and the general escapism into action works for those who are incarcerated particularly!

    My review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

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