WRITERS ON SCREEN: THE THIRD MAN – The Question of a Happy Ending, Pt 1

I am my books. – Graham Greene

ThirdManUSPosterA man is knocked down by a hit and run driver on a dark rain-slicked street in front his apartment building. Three men are seen moving him from the street to the pavement where he succumbs. Two of the men happen to be friends of the victim. They identify his body. The other man in question seems to have disappeared into thin air. Who was the third man?

This question loomed large in author Graham Greene’s life, as well as in the film, and may be the impetus for entitling his novella and screenplay, The Third Man. Like so many British authors (W. Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming and John le Carre, to name a few) Greene was a spy for the UK Secret Intelligence Service commonly known as MI6, and his tour of duty would inspire and inform many of his novels. Graham Greene’s boss at MI6 was the infamous Kim Philby.

Philby turned out to be the most notorious man in the history of British espionage, filtering top secret information, including the names of British field agents, to the Russians during the Cold War. When it was revealed that there were three double-agents known to be operating within MI6 Philby assisted two agents, who had only been under suspicion up until that point, in their disappearance and repatriation within the former Soviet Union. The BBC interviewed Philby and asked him flat out – was he the third man? He never answered, and Graham Greene never really answered the question: Was Harry Lime Kim Philby?

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Graham Greene at work

Graham Greene, was a revelation to me when I was younger, I can still recall the intensity of feeling I experienced reading his later political novels, especially The Comedians and The Quiet American. His short story collection, Twenty-One Stories was an education and also a bit of a discouragement. I just gave up any idea of writing short stories after that, but I’ve done the same thing after reading Chekov and James Joyce and still I soldier on.

Childhood is the bank balance of the writer. – Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s work focuses on the tormented and the outcasts as well as the proximity of Hell. He was plagued by depression all through his life and even played Russian roulette once as a youngster on the grounds of the school he attended where his father was headmaster. Graham Greene and I share having converted to the Catholic faith in adult life, but in all honesty I find his devotion to the faith as expressed through his work somewhat morbid (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair).

Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotten and un-credited extra, The Third Man (1949)

I also find it odd,  amidst all this angst that Greene could have written up a character like the writer Holly Martins. Martins (played by the superb, yet underrated Joseph Cotten) is ebullient, charming and well,  just so gosh darned American, the complete antithesis of the antagonist of The Third Man, Harry Lime ( the perfectly cast Orson Welles).