Monday, 28 May 2012

The Third Man

Watching Carol Reed’s superb 1949 film The Third Man again, not long after reading Eric Ambler’s novel of ten years earlier, The Mask of  Dimitrios, I was struck by the similarities between the novel and Graham Greene’s screenplay. Both feature an apparently dead villain whose story is sought after by a rather naive popular novelist, and the two story-lines develop (despite many differences) in a broadly comparable way.

There can be little doubting Ambler’s influence on Greene, yet The Third Man remains a distinctive and enjoyable piece of work, and it is, I think, a very good example of how one story-teller can properly borrow from another, and yet still make his work very much his own. 

The setting in post-war Vienna is highly atmospheric, and of course the famous sewer sequence, as well as the scenes shot near to the Wiener Reisenrad, which long pre-dates The Millennium Wheel, are intensely memorable. The cinematography is complemented by Anton Karas’ zither music, and “The Harry Lime Theme” became an international hit.

Greene’s narrative has plenty of pleasing twists and turns, as well as a downbeat ending, and he and director Carol Reed are extremely well served by the cast. This includes those British stalwarts Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee and Wilfred Hyde-White, as well as Joseph Cotten and, best of all, Orson Welles. It is, at heart, a story about friendship and betrayal, and is a first rate example of how a tale that is very much of its time can nevertheless stand the test of time.


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Oh, that's one that I've always wanted to see and simply haven't. Thanks for the reminder.

Sarah said...

'The Third Man' is one of my favourite films because so many elements come together - great acting, clever use of the location, the music etc. I also like the ending which seems so un-Hollywood.
I hadn't noticed the similarities with the Eric Ambler book although I can see it now. I like the story especially the Greek connection and can see Ambler's influence on modern writers such as Alan Furst.

Sextonblake said...

It is a corker! Carol Reed directs this so well that it does feel strange that he didn't become a director of the stature of Hitchcock. Forties stuff like ODD MAN OUT , NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH and THE WAY AHEAD is absolutely magnificent, whilst the stuff afterwards generally tends to be a bit dull (which may be one reason).

There's no doubt that the two stories are very similar, although the Greene story is the one that has become the best known. Harry Lime went on to become a roguish hero on radio and TV, even though he is seen to be totally evil in the original story. It's always seemed to me that the hero of the original story is neither Lime nor Martins, but rather the two soldiers played by Howard and Lee in the movie (the original Greene novella is narrated by the army officer, if I remember correctly).

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, definitely a must-watch!
Sarah, thanks and a good point about Furst.
SB - interesting. I must try to find the novella.