Second #3162, 52:42, Image © Studio Canal
The British Cultural Centre in Vienna has arranged a lecture by Holly Martins, yet Crabbin—the esteemed head of this cosmopolitan organization—is only now realizing his mistake: Holly is a self-professed scribbler of dime novels, not the literary artiste his audience expects. Compared to a murderous gang of shady racketeers, Holly’s current predicament may not be too life-threatening, but it’s still hard to watch Holly unsuccessfully try to evade the literary-theory questions that are flung in his direction. Crabbin’s head-in-hand demeanor says it all: Holly Martins is an embarrassment.
Asked his opinion on “the stream of consciousness,” Holly simply stammers until the audience starts filing out of the exit doors; asked which writer influenced him most, he mentions the pulp Western writer Zane Grey, which Crabbin assures the audience is simply Holly’s idea of a joke. The last straw, apparently, is a question about James Joyce (a name Holly doesn’t seem to recognize at all), and it is at this point that Holly is put out of his misery by the sudden arrival of Popescu. Initially, Holly had assumed that his taxi ride from hell had been courtesy of Popescu and his gang, perhaps to escort him somewhere that a body could be easily disposed of; after Holly’s brief (and unpleasant) stopover at his literary lecture, Popescu and his assassins have caught up with the adventure-loving American after all.
There’s a lot of gentle satire going on in this scene, but towards whom exactly? Is screenwriter Graham Greene poking fun at Holly’s literary ineptitude, or at the cultured attendees who bombard him with highfalutin questions? It’s hard to tell since Greene himself is positioned at the crossroads of critical respectability and popular appeal: he wrote thrilling suspense and mystery novels that were as prescient and complex as they were exciting. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1961 and deemed “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety” by William Golding, Greene himself often separated his works into two categories: thrillers or “entertainments” (albeit often with philosophical subtexts, such as Ministry of Fear) and literary works (The Power and the Glory, for example). Yet critics often noted that it was difficult to distinguish between the two, and Greene apparently agreed by the 1970s (after which time he no longer used the label “entertainments” to describe any of his works).
The Third Man, while an original screenplay, was transposed from a novella that Greene wrote in 1949 as the “raw material” that would give the screenplay its shape. According to Greene, the entire idea sprung from one sentence he conceived from the outset: “I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, amongst a host of strangers in the Strand.” That tone of droll, macabre uncanniness is an apt precursor to the film itself, which finds plenty of dark humor as well as nightmarish intensity in its story of death, greed, and corruption.
Greene’s novella differs from the finished film in some fascinating ways. The line written above is actually courtesy of Major Calloway, who acts as the story’s narrator in the novella (the voiceover that opens the film, supplied by Carol Reed, is actually a snippet of Calloway’s narration from the book). Furthermore, both Harry and Holly are British in Greene’s original treatment, while the villainous Popescu (a Romanian in the film) was originally an American named Cooler—which makes you wonder if these particular alterations were made in order to secure a wider American audience. (The movie was, after all, intended as a diplomatic collaboration between David O. Selznick’s Hollywood production company and Alexander Korda’s London Film studio.) The novella also reveals the insignificant but wonderful fact that Holly’s nom de plume as a Western writer is Buck Dexter.
Most interesting in my opinion is the difference between the endings: originally, in the novella, Greene has Holly and Anna end up together, walking off into the sunset with arms entwined, while the movie ends on a considerably bleaker, unhappy note (we’ll save those specifics for when the time comes). There was much dispute during production on which ending the film would employ: Greene actually wanted the movie to retain his original happy ending while Reed and Selznick adamantly refused to end the movie on an artificially positive note. (Obviously, the producer and director won out in the end.) Usually when it comes to film adaptations it seems to be the other way around—with the producers pushing for a crowd-pleasing happy ending and the author fighting to retain a darker or more ambiguous conclusion—but Greene’s desire for a happy ending points out his nimble combination of escapist entertainment and morally ambivalent social commentary.
One brief sentence in Greene’s novella may or may not provide a shorthand for decoding some of The Third Man‘s themes and styles: Major Calloway’s narration tells us that this is “an ugly story if you leave out the girl: grim and sad and unrelieved, if it were not for that absurd episode of the British Council lecturer.” Apparently (if Calloway is speaking for Greene), The Third Man was originally conceived as an ugly, grim, sad, unrelieved story, disguised by a happy romantic union (a respite the movie doesn’t offer us), some jarring absurdity, and an undercurrent of droll world-weariness. But if the crux of the story (the “spirit” of it, as Greene might say) is primarily bleak, the focus seems to be the spiraling, damning repercussions of war, the bitter sting of lost friendship and betrayal, the moral fickleness of human beings, and the prioritization of economic security above all else. Fortuitously, this quote also brings us back to today’s scene, the “absurd” episode of the British Council lecturer, which is allegedly meant to relieve some of the story’s underlying tension. It is, in other words, Greene the comedian coming out, providing a comic interlude while self-reflexively satirizing some of the hangups of the literary world to boot.
Obviously, then, Greene is neither Holly Martins’ escapist hack nor a stream-of-consciousness-loving James Joyce acolyte (his brilliance lies partially in his rapprochement between these two extremes), but I’ll close with some revealing linkages between Greene and Joyce, since both authors influenced twentieth-century literary fiction in wildly different ways. Based on their texts there seem to be almost no similarities between the two writers—except, perhaps, an interest in vividly evoking their settings, whether it be the meticulous (if cryptic) recreation of Dublin and its surrounding areas in Joyce or the gritty description of exotic locales from Vienna to Vietnam, Panama to Sierra Leone, in Greene. Biographically speaking, though, there are uncanny parallels. In addition to both writers’ affinities with cinema (Joyce launched Ireland’s first cinema in 1909 and strived to become a filmmaking magnate in the early 1910s), both writers also had brief run-ins with psychoanalysis (a topic that hovers over The Third Man, as it’s set in the city of Freud): Joyce was diagnosed with schizophrenia by none other than Carl Jung himself (a diagnosis supposedly based primarily on Jung’s reading of Ulysses), while Greene was sent to London for six months of psychoanalysis in 1920 (when the treatment was still radically new) after suffering severe depression and attempting suicide numerous times at boarding school.
In addition to both authors’ psychological turmoil, they were plagued by questions of religion and faith. This was even the ostensible subject of the literary lecture that Holly was supposed to give: “we want you to talk on the Crisis of Faith,” Crabbin had told him. Joyce’s grappling with Catholicism is well-known: though he served in the Sodality of Our Lady while at the Jesuit boarding school Belvedere in Dublin, Joyce purportedly abandoned Catholicism by the time he was 16, and even refused to pray at his mother’s bedside while she was dying, comatose, in 1913. (Whether or not Joyce ever reconciled his faith is a subject for debate; some critics claim that he never actually abandoned it and that many of his works are testaments to his guilt for having wavered in his commitment to Catholicism.) Greene, meanwhile, though initially an agnostic, converted to Catholicism in 1926 in order to marry; though tentatively pious at first (primarily due to his distress regarding the possible nonexistence of God), he became more devout over time. (He explained of his newfound faith after converting to Catholicism, “I had to find a religion to measure my evil against.” I wonder if this quote would give Harry Lime any consternation, if he were aware of it.)
Broadly, then, we can say that both Greene and Joyce were plagued by doubt, in both their lives and their writing: doubt concerning the workings of the mind, the moralism of the physical world, and the existence of an eternal afterlife subject to a divine judgment. If The Third Man is, as Major Calloway sees it in Greene’s novella, suffused with ugliness and sadness, maybe this is why: it is overwhelmed by moral uncertainty, unsettled (like the numerous canted angles in the film) because of a dawning awareness that faith-based strictures regarding human morality (justice, benevolence, mercy, honor, loyalty, etc.) have no bearing in a world governed by war and greed. We have no codes, no schemas, no structures telling us how to live and behave. Still Dots #52 offers a telling image: the scene it’s taken from is comedic and lighthearted, but looking at the facial expressions of both men in the frame, all we can see is fatigue, frustration, and uncertainty.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.