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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

From a Scribble to Best-British

The Berkeley Circle’s 2023 so far is all in one movie, The Third Man (1949), that touched all our interests. The movie is European without ignoring what’s beyond Europe. It came from an Italian breakthrough, unrolls in contrasted British and American English and shows how writing is turned into film, a question pored over in two Circle meetings. They were held while the media talked up a German, all-action and noise war-film for Oscar honours in Hollywood. But The Third Man had said everything about war without special-effects fireworks and tomato ketchup spread over battlefields. The aftermath of conflict was revealed, cities ruined along with the morality of those who by chance escaped death.

The British director Carol Reed would not have filmed The Third Man in the ruins of Vienna if Italian Neo-realist filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica had not shown the power of movies shot on location. Scenarist Graham Greene’s story, touched by many hands, finished by being about two Americans, one evil, the other ‘good’ but naive, in a never spiteful duel with a worldweary, clued in, ‘good,’ British officer. Two versions of spoken English are neatly on show.

The story of the screenplay taking shape is as fascinating as the situations it dramatises. Greene, strolling in London, had a thought. What if he saw a man in the crowd whose funeral he had attended the week before? Jotting the idea down, he continued on his way to other thoughts and in time a meeting with Sir Alexander Korda. The Anglo-Hungarian producer had been behind The Fallen Idol (1948), a movie Reed made from a Greene story. Now Korda asked Greene to write a script for Reed. The novelist couldn’t think of a subject till he remembered what he scribbled on a used envelope.

Not that Greene hadn’t thought hard about script writing:

“To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterisation, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.”

So Greene’s way was to tell himself a story, to daydream and imagine a world, a fiction he never meant for publication but that would furnish elements for a screenplay. It was very much a novelist’s approach although the novel was never written.

Korda wanted to take British cinema out of its backwater with a story about the four-power occupation of Vienna. Drama smouldered there after the Second World War when Austria was occupied from 1945 to 1955 by the four victorious powers. America, Britain, France and Soviet Russia, each controlled its own zone with a central city area policed by all of them.

Cinema politics called for a similar four-power approach to making The Third Man. Korda, in mogul style, did the big thinking. Reed, the sly director, provided along with his inexhaustible ingenuity, a determination to make a film about people and not geopolitics. The writer Greene demonstrated his flexibility but refused to be dragooned into Cold-War jingoism. His political independence would bar him from entry to McCarthyite America. He never condemned his friend Kim Philby who spied for Soviet Russia and who, incidentally, had alerted Greene to the theatrical possibilities of the Vienna sewers. David O. Selznick, Mr Hollywood, sat far from devastated Europe in L.A., fretting over numbers. He co-financed the film with Korda. Having produced Gone with the Wind (1939), Selznick made so much money he was blind to anything but how to make more.

Above these earthly powers a plump, supernatural figure polished his nails, the evanescent Orson Welles. Selznick—“The horror! The horror!”—had wanted Noel Coward for the role of Harry Lime. But Reed, slyness abetting, side-stepped Hollywood taste and scored for acting immortality. Welles would tease the powers-that-be (anyone giving him orders) and duplicate Lime’s elusiveness by a refusal to be tied down to a shooting schedule.

Greene wasn’t flummoxed by having the idea that came to him on the Strand in London parachuted to postwar Vienna. It was only his screenplay’s first change on a long start-and-stop journey. He made Harry Lime at first the product of an English public school and Martins a Canadian in Britain. That, he thought, would explain Joseph Cotton’s American English. But there was something wrong in proposing the Wisconsin-born Welles, however good he was at accents, as a former British schoolboy. Greene thought again and made them both Americans, Canada being pushed off the map. The schooling of the two now American boys was left vague but still reflected British public (private, non-state) boarding schools with Martins subservient to the bully Lime in the fagging system. Cotton found his character’s name, Rollo Martins, insufficiently macho and Greene changed it to Holly Martins.

There were more problems with Martins’s nationality. Holly ended as the author of trashy cowboy novels, his literary knowledge limited to Zane Grey, a veteran of the genre. This figured in several of the screenplay’s jokes. But the only one of the characters who had ever heard of Martins’s books was Sergeant Paine, a cockney soldier who knew him as Greene had first conceived him, a British author for British readers. One script-laugh came when Martins was confused by the British Council people in Vienna with a famous avant-garde author and fell down with derision when implored to give a lecture.

Greene’s punishment of the British Council threatened to get out of hand in an early version of the screenplay. The real-life background was that Greene had once delivered a lecture for it and had never been paid in full. He took his writer’s revenge by inventing two witless British Council officials in Vienna, Carter and Tombs. Prevailed upon, Greene agreed to make the two incompetents into only one, Crabbit, played by the vaporous Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Avoiding national stereotypes would be impossible for Greene. The nature of his story made them its subject. He goes easy on his compatriots. Major Calloway is unctuously fair, humane and reasonable. Sergeant Paine, a London plain-man hero, is unselfish enough to give his life to save Martins’s. On the other hand, Americans in Greeneland are outlandish, evil or lovably naive. One of them named Tyler, a sinister criminal in earlier versions, later becomes a picturesque Rumanian, named Popescu, perhaps at the request of Selznick. Central Europeans and anyone with -ski at the end of his surname tend to have grotesque charm for British novelists. Consider Baron Kurtz or Dr. Winkel. Lime’s mistress, Anna Schmidt, played by the Italian Alida Valli, was an Estonian for Greene but became a Czech to underline Iron-Curtain melodramatics.

A scene from an early Greene script touches all the bases of national stereotypes. Soldiers from the four powers have roused Anna from sleep in her bedroom. The British M.P. is polite and discrete: “I’m not staying here. Let the girl dress by herself.” The American M.P. says, “You can’t leave a little goil alone with Rusky here. I’d better stay.” He and his accent do stay. Greene says, “he is restless and keeps his back chivalrously turned and takes a bit of chewing gum.” The Russian M.P. “is just doing his duty and watches the girl closely all the time without sexual interest.” The French M.P. “thinks it fun, lights a cigarette and watches with detached, amused interest the attitude of the other two.” Alas, Reed cut this corny anthology piece and in the movie let Anna leave the room to get out of her nightdress.

Sight and Sound published Greene’s finished film play carefully noting the bits Reed left out and what he used instead in the completed film. Its perusal is an excellent lesson in script writing. We can judge what Reed thought of Greene’s scene settings or locales by what he used of them. Those he ignored, though often intriguing, slowed the pace of the story or repeated information already delivered. For instance, Greene gives us Scenes 47 to 52: Anna’s room at night with her in bed, come dawn a patrol car passing in a deserted street, Tyler-Popescu making a phone call from his room, Dr. Winkel with brief case leaving his own house, Kurtz in his flat adjusting his toupée and Kurtz again, walking, with the ruined quays, the Prater wheel, a Russian zone notice and the Danube in the background. Reed reduces all that to four quick shots: Tyler-Popescu, before leaving his house, saying into his phone,“He will meet us,” Kurtz closing his own front door, and Dr. Winkel mounting his bicycle.

Reed will often abbreviate Greene’s dialogue. In Scene 131, Greene’s speeches and settings run for a full page and a half. But we are at a suspenseful moment and Reed simplifies to, Martins: “You should have gone. How did you know I was here?” Anna: “from Kurtz. They’ve just been arrested. But Harry won’t come. He’s not a fool.” Martins: “I wonder.”

At times Reed adds touches. In one instance, Greene has Calloway say, “Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins.” Which strikes the director as too solemn. He adds sarcasm from Martins: “Mind if I use that line in my next Western?”

But the most memorable lines of the movie belong to neither of Greene nor Reed. They are Orson Welles’s contribution in the mouth of Harry Lime:

“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.”

While dark and disquieting, The Third Man, does reveal a bright side of filmmaking. Money grubbing ceos may have made greed into an exact science and calculated to a decimal the lowest common denominator of public taste. Chance flashes of genius, however, can still upset their applecart of plastic fruit. Reed wandered into a Viennese bar and heard some curious music. Anton Karas was collecting tips playing an instrument like a small harp straddled by a guitar. He called it a zither. Reed found the sound “gritty and dirty” but was absorbed in finishing his movie. He forgot about watching among wine fumes fingers flicking over a board of stretched strings.

It was only when the movie was finished and a score called for that Reed remembered Karas. He brought him to London, showed a zither being played in the titles for The Third Man and had it plucked, building pace, for the next hour and forty-four minutes. When the movie opened, it was the zither and Harry Lime theme that were the stars. Imagine the dismay of Greene, Welles and Reed at having been upstaged by a wine-house busker. Karas, to the delight of Princess Margaret’s circle was invited to play at Buckingham Palace and was soon off to Rome to entertain Pope Pius XII.

The boom in the obscure instrument would like any fad be milked until its udders were as sore as a zither player’s fingers. Commerce caught up to Karas and knocked out a song under his signature, conveniently in English for the world market. It’s endless verses begin in schmaltz:

“When a zither starts to play

You'll remember yesterday

In its haunting strain

Vienna lives again

Free and bright and gay

In your mind a sudden gleam

Of a half forgotten dream

Seems to glimmer when you hear the third man theme”


Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man, Robert Krasker cinematographer, voted the “greatest British film of all time” by the British Film Institute, was digitally restored in 2015.

A relevant documentary by Frederick Baker, Shadowing the Third Man (2004)) can be found on Netflix.

Faber & Faber published in 1973 for Sight and Sound the finished Graham Greene script with Carol Reed’s emendations and an introduction by Andrew Sinclair.

Although Greene said the backstory he thought up for The Third Man was not meant for publication, his publishers, Heinemann Ltd., could not resist issuing in 1950 a version of their author’s imaginings.

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