Saturday, December 01, 2007

Graham Greene: The Third Man

Graham Greene in his introduction to the novel version of The Third Man says that it was never meant to be read as a story on its own. He wrote it only because he found it impossible to write the screenplay without first writing the story to capture all the moods and atmosphere without which he couldn't imagine the characters or the events and that he himself prefers the film version more because in essence it is "the finished state of the story." He is also effusive in showering praise over Carol Reed, crediting him with many ideas and changes that were made in the film version, most significantly the ending, which he didn't approve at that time but which, he says, have proved "triumphantly right after all these years."

The book is actually quite good, certainly worth reading on its own. One major difference and indeed one of the main weaknesses of the book is the choice of the narrator. The film has an opening monologue by an unnamed narrator, which was later excised in the American release, ("I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better") but for the rest of the time it stays close to the perspective of Martins, he is in almost every scene of the film. The book however is narrated by Major Calloway, he is a very interesting character no doubt, excellently played by Trevor Howard in the film too but because of this choice the whole structure of the story becomes a little awkward because even here it is Martins who is at the centre of the narrative. He does mention in the beginning that what follows is based on his own investigation and what Martins told him but still it requires a bit of a leap of faith and "trust" in the author-narrator. On the positive side, as a result of this, the book is a bit funnier than the film. Calloway repeatedly heaps scorns and makes fun of Martins who he portrays as a sentimental and naive fool. The book is also peppered with his witty, cynical and hardbitten observations - "I am not a religious man and I am always a little impatient with the fuss that surrounds death" - he says, at the funeral in the opening scene of the book.

There are quite a few changes in the film. Some minor, like the first name of Martins was changed from Rollo to Holly, because first, Joseph Cotten didn't like the name and the second in quite a few scenes Anna confuses Holly with Harry, thus embarrassing and humiliating Martins. Anna's nationality is changed from Hungarian to Czechoslovakian, I didn't understand why. May be it had something to with the producer Alexander Korda who was a Hungarian? More significantly the nationality of Martins is changed to American from British, giving a political edge to the story by turning it, to some extent, into a portrait of American naivete and cluelessness. Because of this the whole subplot of Martins (who is an author of cheap pulp westerns) getting mistaken for Great English author Dexter (which Greene says, he modeled after E M Forster) is not there in the film. The film does however keeps the hilarious literary discussion in which poor Martins is asked questions about the "Crisis of Faith in Modern Man," "the technique of contemporary novel" and that where would he "put James Joyce." The scene in which the Russians try to kidnap Anna was removed from the film because Greene and Reed felt that it could potentially be used as a propaganda tactic in the still nascent cold war and that they didn't want to "move people's political emotions." And the ending scene of course. In the original version, though still ambiguous because no words are spoken, Anna and Martins walk off hand in hand. Reed felt it would be too "cynical" just after the funeral and not in line with the characters. He rewrote the scene with the famous long shot of Anna walking off the frame without even looking at Martins.

One other major aspect of the film missing in the book is the use of German dialogues. In the film since we are shown everything through the perspective of Martins, the German dialogues are never subtitled and at least for those who don't know German, the feeling of bafflement, disorientation and mystery experienced by Martins comes across very easily in those scenes which are actually very important aspects of the story. One of my favourite scene for example is with the kid convincing the people that Martins is the murderer. Or the scenes with Anna's landlady cursing the policeman in her German with her blanket all over herself. The landlady is absent entirely and the kid scene doesn't leave as much impression as in the film.

There are also great descriptions which add to the experience of watching the scenes on screen. For example, this when we see Harry Lime's fingers coming out of the manhole:
"Thirty feet above his head was the manhole, but he wouldn't have the strength to lift it, and even if he had succeeded the police were waiting above. He must have known all that, but he was in great pain, and just as an animal creeps into the dark to die, so I suppose a man makes for the light. He wants to die at home, and the darkness is never home to us."

The celebrated Harry Lime entry scene is there in the book too, almost as it is, though it works better in the film. I will end with Major Calloway's description of Harry Lime. (No wonder why Reed was so insistent on casting Welles in the role! I think the "smooth scoundrel" bit was another of those changes because as portrayed by Welles, Lime is nothing but a "smooth scoundrel")

"Don't picture Harry Lime as a smooth scoundrel. He wasn't that. The picture I have of him on my files is an excellent one: he is caught by a street photographer with his stocky legs apart, big shoulders a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, on his face a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world's day."


Madhuri said...

I did begin the movie once, but dozed off within the first half hour. It may have had something to do with the fact that I had started watching it at 2 in the night, but I have never picked it up since. Seems like I should!

Alok said...

God, No. It is one of my all-time favourite films. The novella is quite readable as well.

This time take a cup of tea-coffee when you start!