A fortuitous mixture of beautiful cinematography, flawless screenplay, and, in Orson Wells, one of the screen’s greatest actors at the top of his game, The Third Man defines the term ‘lightning in a bottle’. Topped off by Anton Karas’ iconic zither music, Carol Reed‘s noirish direction perfectly complements the post-war European setting of Graham Greene‘s screenplay. By 1949, many of Greene’s novels and short stories had already been adapted into film, including ‘A Gun For Sale’ as This Gun for Hire, starring Alan Ladd, ‘The Basement Room’ as The Fallen Idol, and perhaps best of all, the 1947 gangster thriller Brighton Rock.
The Third Man shares many of these films’ preoccupations with crime, morality and urban decay and it is arguably the most artistically successful Greene adaptation. It is also the most fundamentally cinematic, right down to its roots as a short story. In his preface, Greene explains that after Carol Reed approached him to write a screenplay for a film set in post-war Vienna, Greene wrote his short story essentially as an exercise to figure out the story:
To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script.
Moreover, Greene suggests that it is the film, not the short story, that is the most complete version:
‘The Third Man’, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before those apparently interminable transformations from one treament to another […] To the novelist, of course […] he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning [their work] into a film; but ‘The Third Man’ was never inteded to be more than the raw material for a picture […] The film in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.
To find out how Greene adapted his story for the screen, read the full article over at Thresholds.