Rollo Martins, a scribbler of Western tales that earn him little money and even less esteem, comes to postwar Vienna at the summons of an old school chum, Harry Lime, who has some scheme going in which Martins might play an unspecified part. Lime, it seems, has always had some kind of scheme going. Now, though, the scheming has presumably ground to a halt: Martins arrives in the bomb-scarred Austrian capital just in time to attend his friend’s funeral. There, he encounters Colonel Calloway, an investigating officer in the British occupation forces whose questioning of Martins spurs the hack writer to become a sort of hack detective. Officially, Lime died from injuries suffered in a jeep accident. But how “accidental,” really, was that death?
Greene tells the story of Martins’s quest for truth and justice not in the man’s own voice, but through the icily sardonic narration provided by Calloway. That device disorients the tale in exactly the right way, rendering it at once darker and more comic than the standard sleuth-driven thriller. Written not be be read, but rather to form the basis for a screenplay, this brief, delicate, and yet dense work of fiction—the literary equivalent of a thin, rich slice of Viennese torte—benefits from the forced compression of its unusual genre. The result, like the landmark film that emerged from it, is a classic short work in which scene after scene beautifully conveys both casual realism and symbolic urgency.
[ADDENDUM: The movie version of The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and starring Orson Welles as Harry Lime and Joseph Cotton as Holly (not Rollo) Martins), departs from Greene’s novelized treatment in ways that are few but intriguing. In the short novel, the Lime and Martins characters are not American, but Englishman. That’s a bit of a surprise, in light of Greene’s well-known penchant for attributing a certain destructive innocence to Americans: Together, the characters played by Welles and Cotton seem to prefigure the Alden Pyle character in The Quiet American, but Greene didn’t conceive of them that way. Equally counter-intuitive is the fact that Greene wrote a relatively conventional happy ending for the book version of the story. In the final scene of the novel, he has Martins “get the girl” (the one played by Alida Valli in the movie). Reportedly, it was Reed who quashed that ending in favor of the wry, downbeat coda that concludes the film. Another key element of the movie that doesn’t appear in the book, of course, is the splendid zither-based score composed by Anton Karas. But it’s nice to think, and plausible to suggest, that the mordant yet playful tone of Greene’s writing had some influence on that musical choice.]