The Third Man and The Fallen Idol | Sunday Observer

The Third Man and The Fallen Idol

The Third Man and The Fallen Idol comprises one novella and a short story by Graham Greene, a well-known British author. The book was first published as one book in Great Britain by William Heinemann in1950. As Graham Greene describes, “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen”and “The Fallen Idol’ unlike The Third Man was not written for film.”  

The Third Man is Greene’s brilliant recreation of post-war Vienna, a city of desolate poverty occupied by four powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless in Vienna to visit his old friend and hero Harry Lime. Harry is dead, but the circumstances surrounding his death are highly suspicious, and his reputation, at the very least, dubious.  

Graham Greene said of The Third Man that he “wanted to entertain [people], to frighten them a little, to make them laugh” and the result is both a compelling narrative and a haunting thriller. The Fallen Idol is the chilling story of a small boy caught up in the games that adults play. Left in the care of the butler, Baines, and his wife, Philip realises too late the danger of lies and deceit. But the truth is even deadlier.  

As Newsweek magazine said, this is a book written by “A master storyteller, one of the first to write incinematic style... razor-sharp images moving with kinetic force.”  

In his introduction to ‘The Third Man’ Ian Thomson writes, “Graham Greene’s darkest entertainment, The Third Man’, ends with a shoot-out in the sewers of Vienna and the death of the racketeer Harry Lime. A convert to Catholicism, Greene had found an appropriate image for man’s fallen state in the city’smurky underground. And Lime, with his alleyrat amorality, is a familiar Greene character. Greene’s literary interest was not just in shabby crooks and other compromised characters; he wanted to dissect their morally ambivalent worlds.”  

He further writes, “Vienna provided Greene with a perfect setting for his tale of double-dealing and opportunist loyalties. The city stood on the border between the Soviet empire and the capitalist West and,on one level, The Third Man may be read as a Cold War allegory. Greene wrote it in 1948 when the tensions between West and East began to emerge after Stalin blockaded Berlin that summer. It is tempting to see Harry Lime as the fictional counterpart of the British spy Kim Philby, who had betrayed fellow agents to the Soviet Union. Greene knew Philby well during the war when he worked for him in British Intelligence, and he stayed in touch with his former chief long after he had been exposed as a Russian agent in 1963. Philby had helped Communists to escape through the Vienna sewers in 1934, newspapers later dubbed him ‘The Third Man’. Yet it would be a mistake to read too much into the idea of Lime as Philby. The racketeer is a compound of many men whom Greene had known. His surname suggests not only ‘Graham Greene’ (lime green) but the quicklime in which murderers were said to be buried.”  

As mentioned earlier, The Third Man was first written as a film script and the film was released in 1949,one year before publishing the book. The film, The Third Man was directed by Carol Reed, and starring Joseph Cotten, AlidaValli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. The atmospheric use of black-and-white expressionist cinematography by Robert Krasker, with harsh lighting and distorted ‘Dutch angle’ camera technique, is a major feature of The Third Man and it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, celebrated for its acting, musical score and atmospheric cinematography. In 1950, it won the Best Cinematography - Black and White (Robert Krasker) award in Academy Awards and in British Academy Film Awards, it won the Best British Film (Carol Reed) award. More importantly  

it won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (Carol Reed) at the Cannes Film Festival. Many years later, in 1999, the British Film Institute voted ‘The Third Man’ the greatest British film of all time and in 2011 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it rankedthe second best British film ever.   About the short story, Fallen Idol Greene writes in his preface to the book, “FallenIdol unlike   The Third Man was not written for the films. That is only one of many reasons why I prefer it. It was published as The Basement Room in 1935 and conceived on the cargo steamer on the way home from Liberia to relieve the tedium of voyage.The Fallen Idol is, of course, a meaningless title for the original story printed here, and even for the film it always reminded me of the problem paintings of John Collier.  It was chosen by the distributors.”  

However, in this compiled volume, one can have a good knowledge of Graham Greene’s art of fiction as well as how to write a novel from a film script, and also how to write a classical thriller. This is important because in Sri Lanka we see so many writers venturing into writing detective fiction and fiction based on scripts.  

To highlight the significance of the book, I take an excerpt from Ian Thomson’s last paragraph of his introduction to the book:  

“In their different ways, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol reflect an awareness of sin and human wretchedness that can be termed ‘Catholic’. Green’s gift in these novellas was to locate the moment of crisis when a character loses faith, religious or otherwise, and life is exposed in all its drab wonder. Not surprisingly, the unsparing bleakness of his vision has influenced a number of contemporary writers, fromMuriel Spark to the Irish novelists Brian Moore and Ronan Bennett. However, Greene remains inimitable.  

Few novelists have fathomed with such intensity the suffering and dark places of this earth. And Harry Lime, the shabby Catholic compromised by greed and self-deceit, has become part of popular culture.”