The Third Man was not the first screenplay Graham Greene ever wrote, but it was the first one not based on preexisting material. He had previously adapted his own work (his story “The Basement Room” became 1948’s The Fallen Idol, also directed by The Third Man’s Carol Reed), as well as the work of other writers (1940’s 21 Days Together, based on John Galsworthy’s play The First And The Last). But The Third Man would mark the first time Greene began with what he called “the dull shorthand of a script.”
He didn’t like the format. In the introduction to the novella version in Viking’s The Portable Graham Greene, the author commented: “To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form.” The Third Man “had to start as a story before those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another.”
The film doesn’t reference the novella in his screenwriter credit. (The novella was originally published in 1950, after the film’s 1949 release.) So while Graham did write the shooting script that would eventually be filmed, that script is technically the adaptation of a work of prose, a work that was written specifically to be adapted. As Greene stated: “One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on” for a screenplay.
The novella serves as a “director’s cut” for Greene’s tale of black-market corruption in post-war Vienna. Given that one is a narrative blueprint for the other, the storylines unsurprisingly match nearly beat for beat, with a few revealing exceptions. Also not surprisingly, the book is expository where the film is expressive, the former more concerned with the political workings and police procedures of its divided city, while the latter probes the mood and morality of the destroyed Austrian capital. The production famously shot on location amid bomb craters and piles of rubble.
Despite Greene’s claim that the book has an excess of material, the film ends up saying more, with the places it goes that the book doesn’t, as well as in the pervading atmosphere of the story. Both start with a man named Martins, a writer of “cheap novelettes,” who arrives in Vienna at the behest of Harry Lime, an old school chum who has promised him a vague job in a charity he supposedly runs. (He’s Rollo Martins in the book and Holly Martins in the film, played by Joseph Cotten.) Almost immediately after arriving, Martins learns that Lime is dead, hit by a car in what at first appears to be a tragic accident. Questions arise once Martins learns of a “third man” present at the scene who is not accounted for in the official explanation.
Graham, who had worked in the British Secret Intelligence Service, begins both versions by quickly sketching out the complicated structure of post-war Vienna. The region was divided into four zones, with a different power (Russia, Britain, America, France) controlling each. All four share control of the Inner Stadt at the center of the city. This is all explained by Major Calloway—the British police officer investigating Lime—whose first-person perspective the book takes, and who provides the film’s sole instance of voice-over narration. The book and film iterations of the speech serve the same purpose and differ little in execution, though the film version comments on the visuals it speaks over (for example, a shot of a dead body in a harbor coincides with the reference to black-market amateurs) and has a more flippant tone. In this iconic Third Man moment, here the prose supersedes its cinematic equivalent.
Here’s the book version:
I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm; to me it is simply a city of undignified ruins which turned that February into great glaciers of snow and ice. The Danube was a grey flat muddy river a long way off across the second bezirk, the Russian zone where the Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, on the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundation of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away, the frost-nipped weeds where the snow was thin. I haven’t enough imagination to picture it as it had once been.
This is familiar ground for Greene, who elevated his thrillers with his muscular prose and focus on the moral decay of political corruption.
Here’s the voice-over version:
I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.
I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but, well, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional.
Now the city is divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the center of the city that’s international is policed by an international patrol. One member of each of the four powers. Wonderful! What a hope they had! All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German.
Good fellows on the whole, did their best, you know. Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit.
Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him, some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job.
Anyway, there he was, poor chap. Happy as a lark and without a cent.
The cinematic intro is similar to the book, but goofier, especially as it’s accompanied by Anton Karas’ famous zither score, which is used to great effect throughout the film (the aural equivalent of someone faking a smile) but is a bit too jaunty here. The tone of the dialogue matches Calloway’s personality (played by Trevor Howard), but it delays the scene being firmly set until the narration ends and Martins realizes his friend is dead.
In the book, Lime’s apparent death is a crushing blow. Martins sobs uncontrollably at the funeral and throughout the story talks about his love for Lime. There’s no implication of romantic longing, but he clearly reveres Lime as a hero as much as a friend, the Bart Simpson to his Milhouse. In the film, Martins takes the death more or less in stride, nearly as concerned with where he’ll stay and find money as he is consumed with grief (and, soon enough, suspicions about the circumstances of the death).
IMDB reports that producer David O. Selznick wanted Robert Mitchum for Martins but couldn’t get him due to the actor’s marijuana arrest. Although a great actor, Mitchum inevitably would have pushed Martins even further away from the grief-stricken man the book depicts. Cotten, meanwhile, plays him as thoughtful and sensitive, but with a fairly narrow emotional range. He does not weep like his on-page equivalent, and he’s far more respectful of Anna Schmidt, Lime’s paranoid and bitter lover, who he soon seeks out. Cotten’s Martins cares for her but isn’t a ladies’ man like his character in the book, who is pleased to be in Vienna as it offers some distance from the “incidents” (i.e., clingy women) he left behind in other cities.
In the book, a key component to Martins’ investigation stems from a night when he gets drunk and heads to Schmidt’s apartment, merely because he’s lonesome and she’s the only woman he knows in Vienna. At first he’s disappointed that she still has feelings for the man she loves who died but a few days prior, but then—suddenly and for no reason—Martins falls deeply in love with her. This plotline is downplayed so much in the film that Martins arguably doesn’t fall for Schmidt as much as gravitate toward her as the one person who cared for Lime as much as he did.
Schmidt doesn’t have much of a personality in the book. She loved Lime and supports Martins’ investigation into the death, but not to the point where her tenuous immigration status will be threatened. In the film, as played by Alida Valli, Schmidt’s loyalty to Lime is so strong it hijacks the climax of the movie. These changes all enhance the cinematic version of her character.
The big twist of both versions is that Lime did not actually die in the car accident, but faked his death to avoid persecution for selling stolen and watered-down penicillin, which resulted in countless deaths. As Lime, Orson Welles’ performance is so iconic he feels like the film’s star despite only having one scene with ample dialogue. (Criminally, his performance wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, though it’s hard to find much fault with that year’s winner, All About Eve’s George Sanders.)
Once Lime is revealed to be alive, the question driving the story shifts from who Lime’s possible murderers were, to whether his sins are so great as to break Martins’ loyalty to him. Certainly Lime has no guilt about any deaths he indirectly caused. In Lime’s big scene, he and Martins ride a Ferris wheel. Lime’s appearance at the Ferris wheel in the film is actually inferior to the book, where he announces himself with his whistled theme song, a melody he claims to have written but actually stole from a famous and unnamed composer. In the movie, Lime just shows up. He notes how all the people look like dots from that height. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” he asks. “If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax: the only way you can save money nowadays.”
At the end of the Ferris wheel scene, Lime makes another argument in favor of dysfunction: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” This speech, likely The Third Man’s most famous dialogue, is credited to Welles and does not appear in the book. In both monologues, Welles manages to make Lime a combination of sympathetic and sinister, as well as conniving and charming (dig that crack about income taxes).
After confirming Lime’s murders and his lack of remorse, Martins struggles with whether he is, to paraphrase Casablanca, more loyal to his friend or his country. The book describes his rude awakening as the end of a world, “a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years before,” the destruction of which taints his memories “like the soil of an atomized town.” He’ll eventually agree to act as bait in a sting operation designed to lure Harry into capture. In the film, Martins doesn’t agree to the operation until he visits the children’s ward of a hospital and views firsthand the horror of what Lime’s forged medicine wrought (we don’t see any dead or deformed children, just Martins’ reaction to them). This scene doesn’t appear in the book, but it’s needed to counter Welles’ anti-heroic charisma, especially absent Calloway’s interpretation of Martins’ internal deliberations.
From here, the book and film diverge significantly. In both cases, Lime goes to meet Martins at a cafe, realizes he’s in a trap, and flees to the sewers, where Martins will join the police chase and eventually kill his friend. Both versions end as they began, with a funeral for Harry Lime.
The differences are slight but critical: In the book, Lime is tipped off when he arrives at the meeting place and sees Martins on a phone, and realizes that he’s talking to the police. In the film, Schmidt shows up at the rendezvous point and calls Martins an informant. Lime overhears this as he enters the cafe. When Schmidt sees him, she screams at him to run, definitively siding with him over Martins (and choosing loyalty over morality).
In the sewer system, Lime shoots a police officer before getting wounded himself. As Lime is unable to escape and in pain, Martins’ eventual killing of him could be seen as an act of mercy. In the film, though, the two share significant nods before Martins pulls the trigger, a complex gesture that you can take as Lime giving him permission or asking for forgiveness. In the book, Lime says “Bloody fool” for his last words, but Martins can’t decide if they referred to him or if Lime was speaking to himself in an act of contrition.
The biggest difference between the book and film comes in the final moments. After Lime’s real funeral, Calloway drives Martins out of the cemetery. When Martins sees Schmidt walking, he asks to be let out of the car and waits for her on the side of the road. In the film—in one of the great closing shots of all time—she coldly strides past him, her loyalty to Lime intact. In the book, they walk along together and soon her arm is in his, a forced happy ending that Greene and Selznick fought for but were rightfully defeated. Since the movie downplays Martins’ romantic feelings for Schmidt, this snub is more than a repudiation of him personally, but a wholesale rejection of his moral worldview.
Despite the fumbled arm-in-arm ending, the book mainly hews very close to film. So why is it is so minor (even outside its not-intended-for-publications status), while the film is one of the towering masterpieces of cinema, residing at the top of the British Film Institute’s top 100?
To oversimplify it, the book tells a complicated story in a simple way, while the film tells a simple story in a tremendously sophisticated way. Calloway’s first-person account in the book follows Martins but lacks the insight to know what he’s thinking or doing at all times. Greene shuffles the chronology a bit, delivering exposition in police-interrogation scenes that lead into flashbacks. All the twists and shifts in allegiance are readily explained and easy to follow.
Downplaying Calloway, the film plays like a textbook for how to convey a character’s frame of mind (Martins’) through directorial choices. The Third Man’s cinematography rightfully won the 1951 Oscar (when separate categories existed for color and black-and-white films); it’s second only to Welles’ own Citizen Kane in visual brilliance. In addition to generating some stunning imagery, especially in the expressionist sewer sequence, it fully places the viewer in Martins’ head. Almost every shot is held at an angle, suggesting his confusion and underlining how this world is not on the level. There’s a lot of German dialogue with no subtitles; Martins is at as much of a loss as we are. When the police await Lime’s appearance at the cafe, the shadow of a man stretches across a building facade, showing how completely Lime hangs over the city, even if the shadow ends up belonging to a harmless balloon vendor. The Third Man is an iconic film, and the things that make it great are expressly cinematic: the cinematography, the score, the “cuckoo clock” speech, the ending. None of these elements have an equivalent in the book.
Take the most famous moment of the story, when we learn that Lime is still alive. Here’s how it plays in writing. Martins has just left Schmidt’s apartment, annoyed that she still loves Lime. Walking down the street, he sees an oddly familiar figure against a wall:
It was not the face that was familiar, for he could not make out so much as the angle of the jaw; nor a movement, for the body was so still that he began to believe that the whole thing was an illusion caused by shadow. He called sharply, “Do you want anything?” and there was no reply. He called against with the irascibility of drink, “Answer, can’t you,” and an answer came, for a window curtain was drawn petulantly back by some sleeper he had awakened, and the light fell straight across the narrow street and lit up the features of Harry Lime.
That’s not embarrassing prose, but it’s hardly memorable. Here’s how it plays in the film, in what Roger Ebert called “the most famous entrance in the history of the movies.” (This was one of his favorite films; he called it the one that “most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”)
Right before this clip begins, Schmidt says that the cat only liked Lime, which generates suspense before the reveal, as the cat rubs up against the shoe before Martins even leaves the apartment. The framing of the long shot as Martins hollers in the street conveys the wrecked beauty of the city, along with an uneasy sense of danger though the use of strategic darkness. The famous spark of light reveals the sudden appearance of Orson Welles, who does more with that cryptic smile than most actors do with whole roles. Carol Reed cheats a bit, as the car passes and Lime escapes through an edit as much as cunning. But just this tiny glimpse causes Martins to chase this shadowy figure.
The book does offer a valuable opportunity to delve into The Third Man’s characters even deeper. Through Calloway, Greene considers the two sides of both main players. Calloway wonders if Rollo Martins is really two people: “Rollo,” who “looked at every woman that passed,” and Martins, the Gallant to Rollo’s Goofus, who “renounced them forever.” When Martins pays his booty call on Schmidt, “Rollo was in control.” (That Martins at times goes by his pen name adds even another possible side to his character.) At the end, Calloway speculates that “Harry” is the one fleeing to the sewers, not “Lime.” This intriguing idea doesn’t really get developed. Presumably, it evolved into the film’s motif of characters messing up each other’s names (Schmidt calls Holly “Harry”; Martins calls Calloway “Callahan”).
The book also contains more details on Vienna’s political arrangement, which is likely what Greene was principally referring to with his “more material to draw on” method. The film is a better showcase for its setting, offering small details like a car chase that passes a man eating garbage, a small detail that highlights the contrast between Lime and the people he’s hurting. The book also claims the most potent image of either version: At one point, Martins questions a man whose house is filled with religious artifacts. Marveling at some bone fragments labeled as being from the bodies of saints, he learns they’re simply animal bones with fake labels. An animal masquerading as a saint? That’s Harry Lime.
Start with: The film, no contest. Removing Greene’s writing from the film’s imagery is akin to taking it off life support, and the implied relationship between Martins and Schmidt at the end is a false note to go out on. There’s a reason this book isn’t widely discussed in even extended analyses of Greene’s work. Those interested in him would be better off seeking out The Power And The Glory or The Quiet American, which also has an exemplary film adaptation. But for The Third Man, accept no substitutes.