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  • Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man:When a Cowboy Comes to Vienna
  • Michael Sinowitz (bio)


The Third Man appears after the conclusion of World War II and explores the complex world of postwar Vienna, a city fragmented and controlled by the Allied forces. Graham Greene himself had worked as something of an agent for the British during the war, and so he brought a certain amount of first hand knowledge to the project; in addition, Greene did on-site research in Vienna. Eventually, Carol Reed's film was made from a treatment written by Greene in 1948. While Greene knew he was writing a film, he first constructed The Third Man in the form of a noir novella; as Greene notes in the preface, his novella "was never meant to read, but only to be seen" (7). There are several important alterations that occurred through the process of transforming the novella, and as Greene admits in the preface to the published version of the novella, most are for the better. Greene explains his process by saying that in order to construct the screenplay and present fully realized characters as well as "mood" and "atmosphere," "[o]ne must have more material than one needs to draw on" (8). Following Greene's own methodology, I will be occasionally going back to Greene's novella as a way of contextualizing [End Page 405] certain scenes from the film, and thus viewing the film almost as an excerpt of a more extensive narrative.

Before focusing on the details of the film itself, let us consider the context of the project's evolution. By the end of the World War II, many of the most prominent writers of the modernist period had died or, at the least, seen the height of their careers pass. In England at this time, it is clear that not only had modernism—or the various modernisms that have since been grouped together under this rubric—moved toward a close, but also an often active distrust of the techniques and methods associated with it began to surface in the work of the writers that dominated this period. As Malcolm Bradbury declares in a chapter on this period, "Modernism was over, even tainted". Bradbury goes on to note that modernism was "already being historicized, defined, monumentalized, given its name and structure" (268). In other words, what might be more precisely called modernisms was being shaped into something more unified and monolithic in retrospect, something authors of the next period could identify and respond against. Attitudes toward the period aside, it is clear from Bradbury's characterization of the critical response to modernism that it was no longer possible to continue writing in this vein and be considered a writer of truly new fiction.

Against this backdrop, it is also important to realize that not only was modernism becoming out-of-date, if you will, but because of the circumstances of World War II—the Holocaust, the birth of the nuclear age, the vast destruction wrought throughout Europe, to be brief—the ideological implications of its methods and techniques raised very serious questions following the War for those viewing modernism in this newly homogenized version. Now, the idea of using radically abstract or experimental aesthetic forms to shape personal and public experience offered very serious ramifications. Frank Kermode, looking back at the work of W. B. Yeats, whose "Second Coming" can be seen as an exemplar of Modernist fears of chaos and its frequent desire to regain control over existence through form, makes a point "more often noticed than explained: totalitarian theories of form matched or reflected . . . totalitarian politics" (108). Likewise, this too is the period in which Theodor Adorno famously remarked "No Poetry after Auschwitz," a phrase Bradbury interprets—I believe rightly—to suggest he was "conscious that the aestheticization of life might breed the evil in history" (269). It is not going too far to say that some modernist literary ideas could easily be associated with political views of the right. After all, Pound had infamously supported Mussolini's regime, Yeats—according to Kermode—dabbled with authoritarian politics (106), Wyndham Lewis wrote his unfortunate book about...


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pp. 405-433
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