I regularly buy the London Review of Books. So I was somewhat mystified by their email that I hadn’t been opening the regular postings. Did I wish to continue?
But of course.
However, featured on the associated web-page was Michael Wood’s review-essay on the republication, last year, of Greene’s short-stories. So I immediately acted (via Amazon) on his recommendation of:
Charles Drazin’s excellent In Search of The Third Man (Limelight, 1999)
That, of course, mainly features Carol Reed’s film, still ranked #2 in Time Out’s 100 best British films of all time. And only that because it is — unfairly, in my mind — demoted below Losey’s Don’t Look Now. It’s the sex wot dun it.
A long while ago I had to fulfil the GCSE~task of finding a reputable 20th-century British writer to put before less than motivated (and mainly male) students. Recognising the concentration span of the intended audience, and the need for a bit of blood-and-gore, I went for Greene.
Another factor was Greene’s even shorter story The Destructors had sold well with the same audience, a year younger. I defy any teacher not to recognise total success (yeah!) when the class sits expectant, and awake, that the denouement of that tale achieves.
I remember reducing the whole critique and exam-preparation to a single A4 page, albeit 4 sides reduced to print both sides. Those were the Thatcher years — and teachers had their phot0-copying severely rationed. Shades of Philip Hammond’s nice gesture of little extras.
Were it not for impermeable electronic media (3.5-inch floppies — lost and gone forever), I’d happily reproduce those works of educational e-genius.
Come the presentation, the first barrier was Carol Reed did the business in monochrome. The young have innate resistance to anything not in color©. I’m not sure to this day how effective my disquisition on film-development, post-WW2 stringencies, and Nino Frank‘s film noir went, or would go today with a similar audience.
Anton Karas quickly breached that barrier — I had a surge of inner warmth as the hardest man in the class exited on the change-of-lesson bell, humming the theme:
Now, in sequestered retirement and two hundred miles north of East London, I have time and opportunity to consider.
Just what was going on with Greene and Reed and British literature in the late 1940s?
One thought has to be profound scepticism.
I cannot claim to have been ‘aware’ of the change at the time. Yes, my first political memory is Dear Old Dad fiddling with the Cossor radio to pick up American Forces Network, out of barely-unoccupied Germany, for the (4 November) 1952 Presidential election. Down the road, at Sculthorpe, the USAF would soon be basing their RB-47 nuclear-capable Stratojets. My generation grew up aware, only too aware, of urban bomb-sites, the nuke threat, international crises (Trieste, Korea, etc., but above all, Berlin), the abominable legacy of Nazia and the Holocaust.
Only older, if not wiser, did realisation grow: the ‘Modernist’ phase of Anglo-American culture was over and done for ever. Yeats had caught the start of that with his The Second Coming:
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats, in his near-dotage, was elbow-deep in extremist politics. Pound, Wyndham Lewis, TS Eliot — even DH Lawrence — were to one extent or another complicit.
Greene began publishing in the 1930s. At first he was heavily debating with himself where his Roman Catholicism took him in the contemporary world. The up-side of that was a wider vision than the little Englanders. He was, in those age, a Modernist.
Then we turn to the novella that is The Third Man.
There’s a theme there (largely unrecognised in the movie) of a personal debate of where fiction is going. Holly Martins has made a precarious living as the author of pulp-fiction Westerns. Such works, however trite, have a stern moral code — the white hats versus the black hats. Martins finds the wild frontier of post-War Vienna where the hats are interchangeable.
The monologue that opens the movie has all this:
l never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.
l really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course, a situation like that does tempt amateurs … but, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional.
Now the city, it’s divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power — the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the center of the city, that’s international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers.
Wonderful ! What a hope they had, all strangers to the place … and none of them could speak the same language, except a sort of smattering of German.
One of the filmic mysteries there is who is talking? In the British release it’s Carol Reed, in one generally-accepted account because the production had run out of money. In the American release, I gather, it was re-recorded by Joseph Cotten. Neither makes too much sense: the bitterness, the cynicism belongs to Orson Welles as ‘Harry Lime’:
Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we ? They talk about the people and the proletariat. l talk about the suckers and the mugs. lt’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, and so have l. You used to believe in God. l still do believe in God, old man.
Or even Trevor Howard’s ‘Major Calloway’, the soldier who has seen it all, and is somewhere between the Greek Chorus and the deus ex machina of the piece. Or Bernard Lee, rather more than a mere spear-carrier, as ‘Sergeant Paine’.
Back to Michael Wood’s essay for his volta.
Lost you there, did I?
When I taught the Shakespeare sonnets, I evolve a scheme for my students. It invited them to look for the ‘conceit’, the essential thought, which would usually be seen in the repeated image of key words. And then to locate the ‘tuning-point’, or volta, most likely leading into the final couplet
Wood locates the film’s volta in the excruciating scene where Martins is shown the consequences of Lime’s penicillin racket:
In the film Martins witnesses some of the results in a children’s hospital. We know that, as Calloway says, the lucky children are dead, and the film doesn’t show us a single sick or damaged surviving child. We see Martins seeing their beds, and get an excruciating close-up of an unharmed teddy bear. Nothing like metonymy when you’re at the movies: the next-door object rather than the thing itself. And Karas’s zither music at this point is worse than the bear: schmaltzier and cheerier than ever, the alienation effect at its uncosy best.
And then there’s the ending — which Carol Reed vastly improved. We see Martins waiting in the cemetery for Anna Schmidt. She walks past, not acknowledging him, He lights his cigarette.