Perhaps few twentieth-century writers in English were as bankable in the long-run as Graham Greene. I am not speaking in the mass-market/pulp-paperback sense of the word, nor in the high-literary James Joyce/Ernest Hemingway/T.S. Eliot sense, either. But somewhere between these two, Graham Greene gouged a niche—make that a ravine—and filled it with an international-experience (and dozens of books) that made even well-travelled writers like Ezra Pound and Robert Creeley look like homebodies.
Greene lacked certain aspects of formal innovation. His fiction, autobiographies and travelogue—and even children’s books and short-stories—nearly all follow the same set-up (not unlike Wallace Stevens’s poetry) and moved towards you-can-definitely-see-it-coming-endings. Further, he more than made up for with a YOU ARE THERE feel that was derived from his getting out of the office and into foreign climes of all sorts: From Franco’s Spain (Monsignor Quixote) to the dubiously “neutral” Switzerland (Dr. Fischer of Geneva) to Monaco (Loser Take All) to more far-flung places such as Papa Doc’s Haiti (The Comedians), war-ravaged Mexico (The Power and The Glory), war-torn Vietnam (The Quiet American), a couple of trips to Africa (A Burnt-Out Case and The Heart of the Matter) and pretty much everywhere else (Travels with My Aunt), Greene knew the world by direct experience. And he brought it to his readers in generally two forms for which he is famous: his novels (The End of The Affair is perhaps his most fully realized tear-jerker) and his self-proclaimed “Entertainments” (Our Man In Havana, which is still hilariously funny, is a personal favorite).
But Greene also wrote for directly the screen—like his more famous and Nobel-prize-winning contemporary William Faulkner—and this year we celebrate the 65th birthday of his famous novella The Third Man. Though set in devastated and occupied post-war Vienna, which is geographically perhaps at the centre, or at least the crossroads, of Europe, it is a Vienna administered in 1946 by the Four Powers: The United States, the United Kingdom, France and their always tenuous ally, the U.S.S.R.
This is a Vienna few of us have ever seen, let alone known and even fewer of us remember. So it is good that Greene got it down on paper. And his partner in crime, so to speak, Carol Reed, got it down on silver: The Third Man was from the beginning a book born for the screen. Indeed, Greene is credited for the screenplay.
In the pantheon of great film noir-based on books, one has to rank (if one has to rank anything) The Third Man right up there with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s (via William Faulkner) The Big Sleep. However, The Maltese Falcon (which went through at least three earlier redactions before John Huston got it just right in his directorial debut) can only intimate and only suggest the homosexual-triangle of Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and the “gunsel” Wilmer, and The Big Sleep conceals Arthur Geiger’s real trade (pornography). By contrast The Third Man is largely what was written by Greene: a story of the black market. Further, what The Third Man lacks in ensemble-cast star-power (no Humphrey Bogart, no Sidney Greenstreet, no Elisha Cooke, no Peter Lorre, no Lauren Bacall), it more than makes up for with a one-two punch of Joseph Cotten and, in one of his greatest roles, the inimitable Orson Welles.
Furthermore, unlike the other film noir supra, which both take place in California, The Third Man is a truly multinational affair in a now-defunct capital of the world: Vienna, a city so ancient it makes an American’s mind reel with history; Vienna, a city so changed over the first half of the twentieth century—when it went from being the Emperor’s co-capital of a crazy-quilt of Austro-Hungarians (many of whom were neither Austrian nor Hungarian) to a prostrate German doormat. Indeed, the Empire, which was on its last legs, without even knowing it, collapsed so fully and completely that it morphed quickly into a sort of Venice: a living museum and lauder of its own past. Worse still, the city left itself open—as Rome had in Italy—for a new despot to replace the old Emperor. So when Hitler made his triumphant, bloodless return in March 1938 to the city where he had lived as a homeless artist, Austrians neatly stitched swastikas into the center of their red-and-white flags.
In The Third Man, Greene, who had lived through the horror of both World Wars, gives us an unblinkered view at what the closed city of Vienna felt like: the best that can be said for it is that it maintained an amazing sewer system, not unlike Paris. And then there’s a tetra-headed keystone-cop-esque police-force that speaks three different languages in a country that speaks a fourth which provides if not protection, at least a lot of redundancy. And, of course, the in-fighting.
The book gives us a lasting dark testament of Communist-controlled Austria (though it must be said, Austria got off relatively easy compared to the disaster area that was Berlin in particular and the remains of East/West Germany in general). But The Third Man gives much more: For all its film noir mannerisms (the femme fatale, the classic “Cuckoo clock” quotation that Wells famously ad-libbed—all film noir must have a quotable line that everybody knows) the novella still has undeniable gravitas. Without being preachy or didactic, The Third Man is relevant in that it shows what can happen when a once great capital city, rife with long-deniend dry-rot, falls to invaders. It makes one think of the lines from Eliot’s poem The Waste Land:
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
The Third Man, then, brilliantly captures Vienna not as we know it now—a museum housed inside The Ring—but as it was re-becoming the capital it is today: gelded but gilded, girt with great performances at the Staatsopera, the home of Wittgenstein (who had the good sense to get out), the site of the stunning cathedral Stefansdom, and, strangely, the home of Red Bull, perhaps the last great global beverage phenomenon which (aside from Formula One Grand Prix-racing three-time champion and legend Nikki Lauda) is Austria’s most commonly recognized contribution to Western Civilization during the peace that followed the Second World War—a modern match for Switzerland’s cuckoo clock.
[Editor’s note: The lines spoken by Harry Lime (Orson Welles) referred to in Mr. Di Camillo’s article is as follows (with Well’s modification of the script in bold): “There’s nobody left in Vienna I can really trust, and we’ve always done everything together. When you make up your mind, send me a message—I’ll meet you any place, any time, and when we do meet old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police. Remember that, won’t ya? Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said—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.”]