There seems to be a whole business about The Third Man which is still going on in Vienna long after the release of Carol Reed's movie based on a script by Graham Greene. A very peculiar sort of script: this novella.
If you walk around the majestic Viennese Ring or through the polished, Charlotte Russe-like Innere Stadt of today, you will come across a "Third Man Museum", could join a "Third Man Tour - in the footsteps of Harry Lime", get the chance of watching the actual movie at the Burg Kino and will certainly meet a busker guitarist, playing the Harry Lime Theme at some corner. Not to mention the merchandising of t-shirts, teacups, dishes, key-rings with the face of Orson Welles or his silhouette at the end of a dark tunnel printed on them popping up from many souvenirs shops.
I've been there myself quite recently and somehow managed to resist to The Third Man's call. The greatest temptation I renounced to was the purchase of dusty old copy of Der Dritte Man, the German translation of what Graham Greene wrote. I don't read German and I guess I will never do it. But, look, a dusty old, apparently neglected book to nurse and cradle in my hands is always a stroke of love.
Anyway, a few months later this last Viennese trip and back to the UK, I bought a copy of The Third Man / The Fallen Idol in one of those ubiquitous charity shop of Oxford and surroundings. May Calliope, Clio and Erato bless them! And here we are with this Third Man.
(My apologies, fans of The Fallen Idol, but there is no room in this review for it).
Graham Greene wrote a brilliant spy story with a perceivable coldness and discomfort feeling in it. Vienna looks stunning here in a way that is completely forgotten nowadays. It's a grim, hunger-stricken Vienna still under the postwar domain of four powers: Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union. It's a Vienna where it's easier (and cheaper) spending half an hour with a tart than with a slice of Sachertorte, a dark town where everything felt apart, rubble fills the streets and the blackened tumbledown façades of the Habsburg-age palaces hang on the bystanders and the racketeers. To put it into Greene's words:
"The Danube was a grey flat muddy river a long way across the Second Bezirk, the Russian zone where the Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-round like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away, the frost-nipped weeds where the snow was thin".
Well, what a contrast with contemporary wealthy and greeny Vienna, I say!
This is a Vienna caught at the end of World War Two and looking like London during the Blitz (a beloved novel set for Greene) or Berlin during the same period: a town on its knees where the local currency has no value and only foreigners can get goods and commodities thanks to their status.
The mysterious disappearance of Harry Lime - a British spy - and his chasing through Vienna by a childhood friend, Rollo Martins (Holly in the movie) makes a good plot with a pleasantly noir touch, but what I liked and sympathised with here is actually the city of Vienna rather than the characters.
Personally, I do think that Greene was far more talented a novelist than a screenplay writer (all the things he changed from the original novel for the first movie adaptation of Brighton Rock are a black stain in his literary career) and although The Third Man is technically a novella, there is something missing here. However, this book stands out as an important and clever one among its author huge literary production.
I would just say that there are better examples of Greene's mastery around. But this one will not disappoint you either.