Friday, July 16, 2004

The Third Man -- the script

The script of The Third Man was written by Graham Greene, and in his fascinating book In Search of the Third Man, Charles Drazin gives a detailed account of how the original story developed in Greene's mind.

By 1948, Graham Greene was already a novelist with an established international reputation. He had also worked successfully with Carol Reed on a previous film, The Fallen Idol. So Alexander Korda commissioned Greene to write a story set against the Four-Power occupation of post-war Vienna.

Greene duly took off and spent two weeks in Vienna, soaking up the atmosphere; this period of research was followed by eight weeks in Italy, which was probably a great deal more comfortable.

Drazin devotes many pages to analysing the origins of The Third Man storyline, and anyone who is interested in the creative process could usefully read the book for the details.  Suffice it to say here that Greene was a complex character. During the second world war he had worked for British intelligence, where he was a close colleague of Kim Philby. And Philby, many years later, proved to have been a Russian spy, working at the very heart of the British counter-espionage service! Drazin speculates that Harry Lime was at least partly based on Philby. Both men, the real one and the fictional one, seem to have been amiable and personable, and yet totally untrustworthy.

Once a draft script was available (and even before), the American producer, David O. Selznick, began to meddle with the story.
Selznick is chiefly famous, I suppose, for having produced Gone with the Wind. Over forty years ago I was told a scandalous story about him, and even now I cannot find it on the internet so I will not repeat it here. I will only say that the story portrayed him as utterly ruthless and quite brutal, ready to take any steps to get his own way. And, not surprisingly, since he had invested money in the project, Selznick had plenty to say about the story of The Third Man.

The European talent seem to have regarded Selznick as an unmitigated nuisance. Greene and Reed were required to fly to America for story conferences, of course, and they were obliged to sit through endless 'suggestions'. Even when they were back in Europe, the flow of memos continued. Their technique for dealing with Selznick seems to have been to nod sagely at everything he said, and then to ignore him entirely.

Strangely enough, however, I find myself sympathising with Selznick. One thing is obvious: Selznick understood perfectly the nature of the relationship between materials and effects. And he also knew his audience. Selznick is often portrayed as a vulgar showman, catering to the lowest taste of the great American public. But Drazin's account of his interventions in the scripting of The Third Man reveal that he was always thinking of how the film would look to the average Joe.

To give but one illustration. Harry Lime's first entrance, when his face is unexpectedly lit up in a doorway, is one of the great moments in movie history. But Selznick wanted to know what Harry Lime was doing in the goddamned doorway in the first place. This is not at all an unreasonable question.

Over and over again, Selznick's memos reveal an underlying concern with one important question: what is going to be the emotional effect of this scene on the average member of the public?  And that, as I may conceivably have mentioned before, is what the whole business of making movies is all about.

Selznick worried about the character of Harry Lime. Why does Harry have to be such a shit? And if he had to be such a shit, did he have to be American?  Joseph Cotten's character, another American, wasn't a shit, but he was a fool.  Meanwhile the Brits, Trevor Howard and his sidekick, were out and out good guys. This didn't seem right to Selznick, and he tinkered endlessly with this and that. In the end, everything stayed pretty much as Greene and Reed wanted it.

It is worth recording, perhaps, that Greene was interested in the glamour and attraction of evil. With Hitler and his cronies still warm in their graves, this was a theme of some significance. And what, Greene asks us, is our proper moral response to evil but attractive people, who may, after all, be our friends? The answer Greene gives is that, however regrettable the necessity, it is our duty to hunt them down and kill them.

No one fathers a failure, but (not suprisingly) a great many people later claimed to have made vital contributions to what was the enormous international success of The Third Man. Chief of these was Orson Welles.

Welles, it seems, made one modest suggestion about the script. He proposed that Harry Lime should say something along the lines of the following:

'In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

This suggestion was incorporated into the script, and the lines later became famous. And in interviews, many years afterwards, Welles was happy to allow this one-off suggestion of his to drift into a generalised statement that he had 'written his own part'. Which demonstrably was not true. Every other line spoken by Welles (and there weren't many) was pure Greene.

The Swiss, incidentally, are still pretty damn sensitive about Harry Lime's sneer. Only recently a spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in London said very firmly that cuckoo clocks do not come from Switzerland. They originate in the Black Forest region of Germany. So there.

David O. Selznick was another one who seems to have been inordinately proud of his many 'suggestions' for the improvement of the film. And Graham Greene seems to have made it clear, in his own interviews after the film's release, that in his opinion Selznick had next to nothing to do with the quality of the script. Word of Greene's attitude inevitably got back to Selznick, and he ordered one of his assistants to write to Greene and say that he, Selznick, had been hearing that Greene was making 'derogatory remarks' about him.

Greene wrote back to Selznick's minion as follows: 

I suggest that you tell Mr Selznick that he should pay as little attention to these stories as I pay to the American stories that Mr Selznick was responsible for writing the script of The Third Man.

My word, they were a touchy lot. It's amazing that the film ever got made at all.


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