Tuesday, May 3, 2011

721. The Third Man by Graham Greene

Genre: Mystery
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: The Modern Library New York 2002

A recreation of post World War 2 Vienna, occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. Lime is involved in the black market, but Martins believes his childhood friend is innocent and is determined to clear him.

First chapter:
The first chapter is very short (2 pages only) and I fell back on looking for formulaic questions. I think this approach suits this novel given that Greene was writing it as the basis for a film script and he needed the novel to offer sign posts for the movie script:
• Who is Rollo Martins and what should he have told us from the beginning?
• Who is telling the story and why is he important?

I was intrigued with the idea of The Third Man as a parody of post World War 2 Europe through the medium of a Western novel. A far more interesting approach than viewing it only as the plot and characters for the movie of the same name.

What are the broad ideas, messages or morals to be found in westerns?

The western looks at a society that isn't organised around the strict rule of law. Rather, the cowboy hero with an innate code of honour wanders from place to place fighting villains of various kinds; boiled down really as a fight between “good” and “evil”. Frequently, the hero rescues damsels in distress, although the women tend to fall into either the prostitute with the heart of a gold or the love interest (or she could be both). The harshness of the struggle is stressed by the arid, desolate landscape. The setting is often the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, stable and jailhouse. The saloon offers a number of moral dilemmas and often the place for action: music (raucous piano playing or shows), women, gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting.

How are these themes adopted, mocked or challenged in The Third Man?

British writer Rollo Martins (a hack who writes "cheap paper-covered" westerns under the name Buck Dexter) arrives in Vienna, a city destroyed during World War 2. Martins was invited by school friend Harry Lime, "the best friend he ever had" (p14), but he arrives on the day of Lime’s funeral. The man Martins travels back from the funeral with is really a British policeman, Calloway, who tells Martins that Lime "...was about the worse racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city." (p16) And it was pretty bad, selling doctored penicillin responsible for the deaths of children. Martins sets out to investigate Lime’s death with a view to clearing his friend’s name and learns that a neighbour saw the accident that killed Lime and observed three men carrying Lime’s body from the scene. Only two have been identified because the third man has vanished; and the mystery, and the name of the story, is now established.

So far the story has all the hallmarks of a good Western. The once beautiful Vienna is the lawless Wild West. The historic centre of Vienna was administered by the four nations to emerge from the World War II as victors: Russia, France, Great Britain and the United States. But the initial co-operation: "... between the Western Allies and the Russians had practically, though not yet completely, broken down." (p73) Security, rather than the rule of law, is provided on a rotational basis by the four countries, lawlessness can be seen in the flourishing black market which everybody participates in, and by the ease with which the underground sewers are used to make their escape. The story even seems to have a sheriff in the guise of the narrator, British policeman Calloway: Martins tells Calloway: "I have to call them [policemen] sheriffs". (p17)

We accept Martins view of himself and Lime as the heroes.  Martins mentions his book the "Lone Rider of Santa Fe" twice (p22 and p28) and describes the plot of the story as a lone rider whose best friend is shot unlawfully by a sheriff, and who hunts the sheriff down; definitely shades of Calloway claiming Lime was the bad guy with Martins planning to clear his friend's name: he tells Calloway I promise to "... make you look the biggest bloody fool in Vienna." (p18) The token woman, Anna, forms the love interest for the two heroes Martins and Lime. And finally the bad guys, the black marketeers, of whom the worst are the sellers of watered down penicillin.

But the people assigned to each role are not as they seem. Neither Martins or Lime are heroic. Rollo Martins' perception of his friend Harry Lime and himself as heroes parodies the cowboy hero with an innate code of honour fighting villains of various kinds. Harry Lime turns out to be one of the worst of the bad guys, the leader of a penicillin racket that causes the death of innocent adults and children. Further, Martins has no innate code of honour; his view of his friend is blinkered and unrealistic:
• he never saw that he was the mug Lime could use to take the rap over and over again: when Lime and Martins were kids Martins "was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his [Lime's] plans.", and Martins "... was always the one who got caught." (p15), and
• he never considered that Lime might have been guilty or listened to the warning by Lime's friend Kurtz: "Has it occurred to you," Kurts said gently,"that youmight dig up something - well, discreditable to Harry?"(p27)

Martins only comes to understand Lime's true nature at the end, including Lime's intention to cut Martins into the racket: "I've never kept you out of anything, old man, yet." (p85), making Martins part of the “evil” he didn't believe Lime was part of. The extent of Harry's lack of repentance and ruthlessness is revealed in the views he expresses to Lime in the fairground, when he talks about the dispensability of human life: "Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving - for ever?" (p 86) But despite his villainy, Lime has devoted and loyal friends.  His Vienna-based friends stage a fake accident to protect him from prosecution and go to great lengths to cover up the truth of his disappearance.   His girlfriend, Anna, despite his own lack of loyalty to her (p86) remains loyal to him even after she is informed of the sordid details of his blackmarketeering: "I told you - a man doesn't alter because you find out more about him. He's still the same man." (p70)

Martins has elements of the heroic, such as his effort to clear his friend but his attempts are dangerous and result in not only the death of Koch, the man who saw the third man, but of Lime himself. The perception of Rollo's heroic fantasies as absurd is reinforced by Lime.  Lime tells Rollo "Don't be so melodramatic." when Rollo asks him whether he's "... ever visited the children's hospital? Have you seen any of your victims? (p86)

The closest Greene comes to the portrayal of a hero is Anna. At first she appears to be the love interest, but she's "not much of an actress at the best of times." (p89) and not a token. Her strength and independence are in evidence several times, as is her commitment to Lime whatever she hears about him: "... we've got to remember him as he was to us. There are always so many things one doens't know about a person, even a person one loves - good things, bad things. We have to leave plenty of room for them." (p69) She also belies Martins’ assumption, and the role of women in a western, that she would turn to him, for support, once her lover was dead: she "... walked away without a word to either of us (Martins or Calloway) down the long avenue of trees ..." (p98)

The most important thing I got from The Third Man is the idea that viewing anything—people, nations, novels—superficially should be avoided. Everything should be questioned, no matter how small or trivial because heroes are not always heroic, the girl is not always empty headed and needing support (she might even be the hero at times), and the bad guy might have qualities deserving loyalty or respect. Good advice I think, and a good way to approach life.

No comments:

Post a Comment