A sad thing happened this evening. It was made only marginally better by the brief conversation I had with a very attractive Englishman.
On Saturday, I finally read a book that my dad gave me for my birthday way back in October: Graham Greene’s The Third Man. The book was written for a film, which stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, and since I found it both interesting and enjoyable, I thought I’d rent the movie and see how they compared.
Turns out I’m not the only person interested in the mystery films of 1949. When I called The Film Buff to check if they had it in stock (thereby avoiding a fruitless walk to Leslieville in the cold) I was told that someone had rented it earlier this evening.
Dang! Why are other people like me??
So while I wallow in my own homogeneity, let me take a brief moment to write about the book, in anticipation of the movie viewing experience that is a necessary part of my experience of this narrative.
I say necessary because this book, in Greene’s words, “was never written to be read but only to be seen.” The Third Man is the end result of a screenplay commissioned to tell a story set in occupied Vienna. For Greene, the film needed to come from more than a screenplay:
“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. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.”
Arguments against Greene’s opinion aside (and it is an opinion, despite his matter-of-fact wording), when I read this in the preface to the novel it immediately put me in the mood to like this book. Greene goes on to describe, in brief, the process by which he and director Carol Reed worked through scenes and dialogue together. The final film product, he explains, differs in a number of instances from the book – some of these changes were made by the actors and the studio, some he made himself, and some elements of the book were never intended to be filmed.
I find this process, to write a novel that would inspire a film, refreshingly honest. The means of production are transparent. Two artistic works, while meant to inform one another, stand alone as authentic representations of their medium and of a shared story. In a cultural moment when films are hurriedly produced to capitalize on the success of a book, with artistic integrity or respect for the narrative merely afterthoughts; and when horrible novel versions of blockbusters are rushed to the printers so that movie-goers can feel that they’ve done something smart by picking up a poorly written book; the fact that an artist would take the time to write a good book in order to inform (what I imagine to be) a good movie is pretty incredible.
The novel version of The Third Man is definitely a cinematic novel. The setting itself is highly visual: the novel is set in post-war Vienna, divided into four sections by the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Russia. Each has its stereotypes, which informs the reader’s sense of characters and space, and creates a sense of constant discovery and adventure as we pass from one political and social climate to another. The book isn’t about occupied space or the post-war experience per say, but these elements inform and enrich the images and moods that the narrative elicits.
I’m particularly interested in seeing the film because my favourite element of the book won’t necessarily translate well. I found the leading man and his position relative to the narrative structure incredibly rich. The book is narrated by a police officer, but he’s telling the story as told to him by protagonist Rollo Martins (until the final chase sequence, which I believe is from the policeman’s perspective).
It’s a great case study for unreliable narrators (one of the most fascinating elements of film noir), and Rollo Martins is a multi-layered man. Here’s why:
- Our first impression of Rollo Martins comes from the cop, who describes a split personality: the brash, hot-headed Rollo and the sturdy, calculating Martins. Both make appearances throughout the story.
- Rollo writes cheap Westerns under the name of Buck Dexter. In fact, the first person to speak to Rollo in Vienna is a reporter, who identifies him as Buck: duality is established from the get-go.
- In deciding to investigate his friend’s death, Rollo not only adopts a new profession (detective) but decides to do so knowing that his actions directly parallel one of the novels he has written. There’s a sense of machismo here, of narcissism, self-indulgence, and fantasy.
- Rollo comes to Vienna penniless, but he’s able to pay his way because a hotel mistakes him for Benjamin Dexter, a pompous English novelist who they are putting up. He even ends up giving a lecture and signing copies of the man’s novel (under the justification that signing “B. Dexter” technically isn’t a lie…)
On top of all this, there’s the knowledge that this story is being retold, thus we’re forced to question the accuracy of what is said. In fact, the policeman starts the book by asserting that these are the facts exactly how they were told to him (and when that assertion is made, you are obligated to ask questions), except that he can’t attest to how accurately Rollo told the tale. So really, how can we trust anything the narrators say? I find this dilemma fascinating.
There’s more I could say on this, and since I have to wait up to five days to see the film, maybe I’ll focus on the book a little more….Until next time, feel free to read another film-related post that references Joseph Cotten.
And, for those who were wondering, the very attractive Englishman who I spoke to over the phone is a dude that Lauren, Veronica and I like to refer to as “studcrumpet.” This is because “studmuffin” isn’t ethnically specific enough for a ladykiller from across the pond. Studcrumpet works at The Film Buff and is really hot…aaaaaand by sheer chance (I swear to god) we know where he lives and what his name is. I swear it’s less creepy than it sounds…