Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Looking for the Third Man"

London Films.
1949. 93 or 104 minutes.
". . . the story of turning The Third Man into film stands as a classic case-history of what can happen when in the great arena of contemporary culture the armies of finance, art and politics clash by night."
THE THIRD MAN is a classic and justly praised film, and we won't belabor the point. How it came about is a fascinating story in itself, as this well-researched article shows:
WHEN YOU WRITE a mystery story whose villain is a faceless man involved in double-dealings and international crime in post-War Vienna, you should not be surprised if strange things happen to your text. Political pressures may exert a deforming influence; nameless interests may carve away at it for their own obscure purposes; you may find that the hero is not quite the man you thought him to be, or that someone is protecting the villain. "One never knows when the blow may fall."
All these things have in fact happened to Graham Greene's celebrated thriller, The Third Man, whose publishing and cinematic history has some of the elements of international intrigue that made the story and film so exciting. — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, "Looking for the Third Man: On the Trail in Texas, New York, Hollywood," ENCOUNTER (June 1978)
Graham Greene, the originator of the story (he did, in fact, prefer the term "thriller"), held a "somewhat ambiguous" attitude towards it:
. . . despite a long career in the cinema and the happy experience of working closely with Carol Reed [the director] on the film of The Third Man, Greene takes pains to describe his approach as primarily that of a novelist.
"To me," he says, "it is impossible to write a film play without first writing a story." Characterisation, mood and atmosphere "seem to be impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a conventional treatment . . . one cannot make the first act of creation in treatment form."
And although he tells us that many of the subsequent changes from story to film not only met with his approval but were often his own suggestions, he insists, "The Third Man, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story rather than a treatment, before I began working on what seemed the interminable transformations from one screenplay to another." — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, op. cit.
Changes during a film's production are to be expected, but they aren't always welcome:
Typical of the transformations that so irritated Greene and made him long for his old job as novelist ("that one-man business where I alone bear full responsibility for failure") are the many changes in names, nationalities, and status of his characters. Scarcely one of them remained the same. — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, op. cit.
Originally, we learn, the film was to have a happier denouement:
The ending, Greene tells us, was the cause of "one of the few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself." Greene's Story had finished happily with Anna [the girl in the middle] and Martins [ostensibly the "hero"] walking arm in arm away from Lime's [the villain's] funeral. — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, op. cit.
But the matter of the cat and its affections could well exemplify the complexities and ambiguities built into the characters:
The altered ending does more, however, than just make the audience linger and let the final impact of the film sink in. It has a subtle side effect on characteri-sation as well.
The Anna who walks away leaving Holly behind her is a more valid character than the one in the story who capriciously slips her hand through his arm. She remains faithful to Harry Lime, and his figure, in consequence, becomes larger and more difficult for the audience to contend with.
Even such a seemingly innocuous change as the addition of Anna's cat, used to increase suspense in the sequence where Lime is first seen, has its secondary effect. The cat has no interest in Martins; like Anna, it only cares for Lime. When we see it sitting at Harry's feet, its loyalty, too, increases Harry's human quality for us.
If we look closely we see that many changes apparently made for cinematic reasons also stress the story's theme of divided loyalties, soften Harry's crimes and make him more human. — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, op. cit.
But more changes were to come. According to Adamson and Stratford, an American print version of Greene's story had at least 120 alterations:
At first sight it appears that the chief motive for the rewrite was political—that some editor had received instructions (from what third man?) to remove any parts of the story referring to tensions between East and West except those absolutely necessary to the plot; for not only were many of Greene's acid observations on American mores expurgated but, more surprisingly, most of his nasty references to the Russians were also eliminated. Rather strange politics to follow at the height of the Cold War and on the eve of the McCarthy era. And the rewrite not only emasculated the story politically but did some injury to it artistically as well. — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, op. cit.
As for the changes demanded by the film's American co-producer, David O. Selznick:
Selznick left them 40 pages of suggestions for changes. With Korda's [the British co-producer's] complete approval, says Greene, Reed put the document in a drawer and they never looked at it. — Judy Adamson & Philip Stratford, op. cit.
Read the full article HERE.

- The IMDb listing is HERE.
- The Wikipedia article about the film (with SPOILERS) is HERE, while information about Graham Greene is HERE.
- The book is available in print, audio, and Kindle versions HERE; the DVD is available HERE.
- An article by Greene, " 'The Third Man' As a Story and a Film" (The New York Times, March 19, 1950), is reproduced HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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