Thriller of the Century: The Third Man

Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I was just getting started. I’ve got more awards to bestow for Bests of the Century. I was just warming up last month when I named Pale Fire Best English Language Novel of the Century. In this column, I’m going to address a category I’m particularly fond of: the Best Film Thriller of the Century. Actually, to be honest this just might be a handy excuse for me to test out a couple of theories I have about my choice, which is The Third Man , written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed and starring, among others, Orson Welles as the sinister but charismatic Harry Lime. I’m not going to waste my time trying to convince you, if you’re not convinced already that the film’s sinister charisma should earn it Best Thriller status. If you haven’t seen it, rent it, and if you’re still not convinced, perhaps The Talented Mr. Ripley is more your speed and you’re welcome to it. Instead, I’m going to devote this column to exploring what I believe are some unappreciated depths of The Third Man , particularly the surprising literary origin and the haunting afterlife of the title phrase, “The Third Man.”

You recall of course the significance of “the third man” in the film itself, which was released in 1949. It has to do with the way Harry Lime faked his death. We’re in Vienna, the bomb-devastated Austrian capital whose streets and homeless shelters shaped and twisted Adolf Hitler. The city that embraced Hitler with love and flowers when he marched in, back in 1938. The city that later tried and failed to convince the gullible that Hitler had “conquered” it, when it fact it swooned over him like a lover. A city that is, as the film opens in 1946, suffering the consequences: divided into four zones–British, French, American, and Soviet, its fabled Inner City ruled by uneasy joint patrols of all four powers. According to Graham Greene, Alexander Korda, the flamboyant Hungarian-born British producer was fascinated by this Byzantine arrangement and commissioned Greene to set a screenplay there. Although in Greene’s story (available in novella form in a Penguin edition) the divided city becomes a metaphor for the divided soul.

An American innocent, a hack writer of sagebrush westerns named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, in the film), comes to Vienna to take up a job offer from his schoolboy friend Harry Lime. No sooner does he get to Lime’s apartment than he’s told Lime has been killed, run over by a truck. He gets to the grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetary just in time to see the coffin lowered into the frozen ground, to gaze upon a beautiful woman mourner obviously still in love with Lime–and to be given some disturbing information about his friend by an intrusive British military security officer. Major Calloway informs Martins that Lime was a notorious, even murderous black market operator who’d been hunted by the authorities before he turned up dead. Martins can’t believe it about his old friend. He begins looking up the men who were with Lime when he was run over and comes upon a curious conflict: They tell him there were two men with Harry Lime when he was struck dead. But the porter in Lime’s building says there was a third man. And then the porter turns up dead.

Ultimately, Martins discovers two truths about Harry Lime: He faked his death and he faked his life. He faked his death by killing one of his racket associates and getting him buried under Lime’s name, while he haunts Vienna, appearing and disappearing from entrances to Vienna’s vast vaulted underground sewer system. And he faked his life, at least to his friend: He wasn’t working for some international relief organization, he was, in fact, more than just an ordinary blackmailer. He had been profiteering in black market penicillin, peddling fatally diluted versions of the precious antibiotic to a city full of wounds turning gangrenous. Among the horrific victims of Lime’s bad penicillin are hundreds of children suffering from meningitis who either died in great pain or had their brains burned away to a husk by the infections so they’d survive in a sightless living death. Harry Lime is a phantom of the sewers not just of Vienna but of human nature. In a way, he’s the spirit of Hitler’s city (in some sense the spirit of Hitler himself, another figure of sinister charismatic charm who was peddling brain-infecting poison–his ideology–to wounded people in the guise of a cure). Lime of course is the corrosive chemical, quicklime, used to hasten the decay of human corpses. And in the film Lime’s ghastly corrosive spirit infiltrates every dark alley, flickers and glitters wickedly in the gaslight, the Lime-light of the nightmarish urban wasteland that is Vienna.

Speaking of Vienna as wasteland, let’s turn to The Wasteland , because I believe there is an important overlooked relationship between the film and the poem, between the portrait of spiritual devastation and fragmentation in the T.S. Eliot poem and the portrait of spiritual devastation in the fragmented Vienna of the Graham Greene film. And the link, its most obvious manifestation, anyway, can be found in the haunting title image, in the notion of the phantasmal “third man.”

I haven’t seen this pointed out elsewhere: Consider the strange seven-line passage in the fifth and final segment of Eliot’s Wasteland :

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

–But who is that on the other side of you?

It’s a spooky moment in a particularly spooky section of The Wasteland , a section that depicts a tormented pilgrimage through a desolate rock-strewn waste (“After the agony in stony places …”). A pilgrimage intended by Eliot to evoke the approach to “the Chapel Perilous” in the legend of the Holy Grail.

In his famous footnotes to The Wasteland (my favorite part of the poem), Eliot discloses that this haunting “Who was the third?” passage was “stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions … [in which] it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.” One more member: Who was the third?

I’ve always loved that–both the passage in the poem and its footnote. The way they resonate and illuminate each other, disturb each other’s gravity like moon and planet generating some third entity, a duality that is an emanation of the sum of its parts. Who was that third, the phantasmal ghostly member, the hooded Holy Ghost of that trinity?

And who was that third in The Third Man ? A ghostly figure, the phantasmal third man carrying a dead man to his grave, a corpse that will be dug up again when it’s revealed that the phantom occupant of the grave, Harry Lime, has in effect engendered his own resurrection under a different identity. (Lime, dissolver of corpses.) Again one can’t help thinking of another passage in The Wasteland , one in the first section. The narrator cries out to a friend he spots in the crowd of the living dead flowing over London Bridge:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden …

O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

Again a dim and distorted reflection of crucifixion (“… and with nails”) and resurrection. A grave left empty, like the tomb after the crucifiction. It seems evident to me that Graham Greene, a fiercely tormented recent Catholic convert, was meditating on the images in The Wasteland when he wrote The Third Man . For those skeptical of this conjecture consider the clue I regard as the clincher. If you go to the now 70-year-old edition of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems , the most common form in which The Wasteland would be found when Greene was writing The Third Man , you note that when you come to the very last page of The Wasteland , to the final footnote, there facing it, on the following page is the epigraph for the poem that follows “The Hollow Men.” An epigraph (from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ) that reads: “Mistah Kurtz–he dead.”

Those familiar with the film will recognize the significance of the reference to Kurtz, Conrad’s phantasmal embodiment of the endpoint, black hole of European civilization, Kurtz the grotesque expression of the implicit savagery at the heart of Europe’s genocidal “civilizing” mission in Belgian Africa (where the number of those slaughtered by King Leopold’s minions approached or exceeded the millions of corpses heaped up by Hitler and Stalin).

So that’s Kurtz in Conrad, that’s “Mistah Kurtz” in Eliot’s epigraph facing the end of The Wasteland . Is it just coincidence that the name of the Baron in The Third Man , the Baron who, in an attenuated way represents if not the savagery then the complicity of European civilization is Baron Kurtz? I’d argue that Greene was prompted to use the name Kurtz, not just by its position opposite the end of The Wasteland in Eliot’s Selected Poems . But as an homage, a way of conjuring up something else The Third Man shared with The Wasteland : a debt to Joseph Conrad. He was “the third”; the third man in the triangulation of the three works, the ghostly progenitor of both the Eliot poem and The Third Man .

Need further evidence? Greene’s biographer Norman Sherry tells us in the second volume of his Life of Graham Greene that Greene had begun his career as a novelist under the powerful influence of Conrad, and suggests that Greene saw Conrad through T.S. Eliot’s eyes: Greene “took T.S. Eliot’s phrase to heart: ‘Most people are only a very little alive; it is only when they are so awakened that they are capable of real Good, but that at the same time they become first capable of Evil.’ Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness ,” Mr. Sherry goes on, “Greene took risks with his immortal soul.”

And certainly there’s a way in which you can see The Third Man is modeled upon the classic quest structure of Heart of Darkness : Holly Martin’s journey into the nightscape underworld of Vienna in search of Harry Lime is much like Marlow’s nightmarish journey up the Congo River in search of Kurtz (the sewers of Vienna even supply the riverine analog). Of course you don’t have to follow this train of allusions. You can take the obtuse point of view adopted by Bosley Crowther, film critic of The New York Times , back in 1950 when The Third Man came out in America (his review has recently been reprinted in a book called The 1,000 Best Movies Ever Made ). Crowther seemed deeply threatened by the idea that there might be more than superficial entertainment value to the film and wrote, “For all the awesome hoopla it’s received … it’s just a bang-up melodrama.” He’d probably call Heart of Darkness just a game of hide-and-seek.

But I think a case can be made that The Third Man is an expedition into, an examination of, the post-Hitler European heart of darkness. The visual texture of the film is itself almost an experiment in darkness, in just how much of the screen can be filled with just how many shades and depths of shadow and night. Even the daylight scenes are seen through a glass darkly. Never has light seemed to flicker so weakly and insubstantially, a poisonous phosphorescence at best in a universe where the forces of darkness are so dominant they permit light only to pay tribute to the night. Of course it’s not the external darkness so much as it is the darkness within, the darkness of the heart The Third Man evokes.

But I want to shift now from the origins to the afterlife of the phrase, “The Third Man.” I want to shift to Graham Greene’s relationship to the real-life Third Man, to the man often referred to as the Spy of the Century, Kim Philby.

Two years after The Third Man film was released, two high-ranking British diplomats disappeared from London and eventually turned up in Moscow where it was revealed they had been double agents, moles, spying for the Soviets for 20 years in the innermost counsels of Her Majesty’s government. Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, Cambridge-educated blue bloods, were dubbed “the spies who betrayed a generation,” their treachery to their nation and to their class a source of mystery. But they left behind an even greater mystery: Who was it who tipped the two of them off to flee just before they were about to be arrested? Who was “the third man,” as their mysterious protector, a mole still burrowing within the secret services, came to be called?

Suspicion fell on Kim Philby, a Cambridge schoolmate of Burgess and MacLean, one of the top men in MI6 (the British equivalent of the C.I.A.), a man who’d once been in charge of spying on the Russians, now suspected of spying for them. Philby denied the charges and hung on under a cloud of suspicion for another dozen years, before he, too, turned up in Moscow and acknowledged he had been the notorious Third Man. (Ultimately, it turned out there was a Fourth and Fifth Man in what became known as the Cambridge “Ring of Five.”)

The choice and the resonance of the phrase “Third Man” obviously derived from the popular currency the Graham Greene-written film had given it a couple years earlier. But there was, it has only recently emerged, a deeper connection between Graham Greene, The Third Man and “Third Man” Kim Philby.

I touched upon the Greene-Philby relationship in a piece I wrote about Philby a few years ago (“Kim Philby and the Age of Paranoia,” The New York Times Magazine , July 10, 1994), about the way Graham Greene, who had served under Philby in M.I. 6 during World War II, had stayed in touch with Kim even after Philby’s flight to Moscow, how Greene had defended Philby by analogizing his loyalty to Stalin as akin to that of a secret Catholic loyal to the Pope in Elizabethan England. And how, till the end of his life, Greene felt Philby was still a kind of mystery to him. Like Harry Lime to Holly Martins, one might say. Is it a coincidence that Kim Philby’s real first name was Harold, i.e. Harry, as well?

New evidence that has subsequently come to light in Norman Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene suggests a reason why it might not be happenstance. Mr. Sherry addresses a minor but persistent mystery about Graham Greene’s Secret Service career. Why, in 1944, when his boss Kim Philby was promoted to head of wartime counterintelligence and Philby offered Greene a promotion–to head the Iberian desk in M.I. 6–did Greene refuse the promotion and instead resign, transfer out of the Secret Service entirely?

It’s a mystery not just to historians of espionage and literature, but a mystery to the Third Man himself: “For Philby,” we’re told by Mr. Sherry, who corresponded with the Third Man, “Greene’s resignation remained a deep mystery which still troubled him 34 years after the event.” Mr. Sherry offers a fascinating speculation about this mystery: “Perhaps Greene, always intuitive, resigned because he suspected that Philby was a Russian penetration agent. Greene once told me that if he had known that Philby was a Soviet counterspy, he ‘might have allowed Philby 24 hours to flee as a friend, then reported him.’ If Greene did suspect Philby, it would be just the kind of thing that would catapult him out of the service rather than share his suspicions with the authorities. And he would have had to contend with his own credo, established during his painful school years.… As a schoolboy Greene had betrayed to his father the identity of his tormentor.… He was not going to do that again.”

If in fact Greene was undergoing just such an inner struggle over Kim Philby in 1944, he may well have been writing about the dilemmas of conflicting loyalty to friend and country, friend and conscience, in the story that became The Third Man in 1949. In the film, Holly Martins ultimately betrays Harry Lime, agrees to set him up for the police. In the novella, he sets him up but also, at the last minute, tries to spare him: “It was not Lime, the penicillin racketeer, who was escaping down the street; it was Harry; Martins hesitated just long enough for Lime to put the kiosk between them; then he called out ‘That’s him,’ but Lime had already gone to ground.”

Martins is then doing the equivalent of what Greene told Sherry he might have done if he’d known about Philby: “allowed [him] 24 hours to flee … then reported him.” Holly Martins in effect reports Lime and then allows him the equivalent of “24 hours to flee,” enough for him to “go to ground.”

If Greene was working something out in The Third Man about his suspicions of Philby, his conflicted loyalties; if, as Sherry suggests, he had his suspicions but kept them to himself to protect his friend, perhaps, in a sense, the film The Third Man was a kind of warning–the 24 hours to go to ground–to Philby. A warning not to trust Greene to keep his secret forever. Perhaps it also expressed Greene’s torment and his remorse for keeping quiet about the betrayal: The harrowing descriptions of Harry Lime’s victims, the children driven brain-mad by bad penicillin, make it clear Greene was aware there were consequences, men betrayed to their death by his Harry Lime, Harold Kim Philby. It makes The Third Man more than a mere thriller but a reflection of the ambiguities and consequences of a shattering historical betrayal. Beneath the surface of The Third Man , the great spy novelist of the century is wrestling with himself over the great spy of the century.

“What a strange world unknown to most of us lies under our feet,” Graham Greene writes at the close of The Third Man novella. He’s describing the cavernous vaulted underworld of the Vienna sewers the novel follows Harry Lime down into as it heads to its climax.

What a strange world unknown to most of us lies underneath The Third Man .