History: Greene's novella, or "entertainment," was written in 1950 as a sort of preliminary draft for a screenplay and was not actually intended to stand alone as a written work. The motion picture, stated Greene, is better than the story because it is the story in its finished state, and it is the film, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, that most people will remember.
Plot: The film is set in Austria's capital city Vienna, devastated and recovering from the Second World War. The city was at the time divided into four separate zones and one international zone, jointly controlled by the victorious Allied powers.
American pulp Western author Rollo Martins arrives seeking an old friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him the opportunity to work with him in Vienna.
Arriving at Lime's apartment, Martins discovers that Lime has been recently killed by a lorry while crossing the street. Shocked, he heads to the cemetery to attend Lime's funeral, where he meets two British Army Royal Military Policemen, Sergeant Paine, who is an enormous fan of Martins' books, and his superior, Major Calloway. After the services, Martins accepts an invitation to speak to the members of a local book club, delaying his departure to do so. He is contacted by a friend of Lime's, Baron Kurtz, who wants to talk about Lime's death. Kurtz relates that he and Popescu, another friend of Lime's, had picked Lime up after the accident and brought him over to the side of the street, where before dying he had asked them in a brief conversation, to take care of Martins and Anna, Lime's actress girlfriend. Kurtz mentions the theatre Anna works in, but advises that the case is pointless to pursue and best left.
Martins heads to Anna's workplace and arranges a meeting with her. During their conversation, he becomes suspicious and wonders if Lime's death had really been an accident. The porter at Lime's apartment house tells Martins that there was in fact
no possibility that Lime could have been alive after being hit by the lorry, due to a broken neck, and adds that he saw a third man helping to carry the body across the street, not two as Kurtz and Popescu had said. Martins pressures the porter to tell
his story to the police, but the man refuses, becoming agitated, and asks Martins to leave.
Martins walks Anna back to her apartment. To her surprise, the police are there searching her room. They find a forged passport used to escape the Russian quarter of the city, and take Anna with them. Martins then visits Doctor Winkel, a friend of Kurtz's, Popescu's and Lime's, and who was present when Lime was killed. On Martins' arrival, Winkel is preparing to eat a sumptuous meal of roast chicken and is obviously doing well, despite the rationing that is the norm in Vienna. Martins questions Winkel about the circumstances surrounding Lime's death, and Winkel reassures Martins that there were only two men present at Lime's accident. Martins is not convinced, due perhaps to Winkel's air of evasiveness.
The next day, the porter offers to give Martins more information about the death, but when he arrives to talk, the man has been murdered. Escaping from the hostile and suspicious crowd outside the porter's house, Martins is driven to the book club
meeting, but unable to collect his thoughts he makes a poor show. His sole coherent response is to an inquiry from the audience, a man (Popescu, one of Lime's friends) who asks what his next book will be, to which he pointedly replies that his upcoming novel is called The Third Man and will be inspired by actual facts. He flees when he notices two suspicious-looking men at the back of the hall.
The British policeman Calloway advises Martins to leave Vienna and, when Martins refuses and demands an investigation into Lime's suspicious death, finally reveals the truth about Lime's racket. Calloway shows him a dossier and photographs proving
that Lime stole penicillin from military hospitals (the first known antibiotic and at the time a new and scarce life-saver commanding a very high price on the black market), and sold it for a high price in highly diluted form, with devastating effects on his many victims. Martins, convinced, agrees to leave Vienna. As he departs the police station, a Russian officer comes in and asks Calloway for Anna's forged passport in order to take her back to the Russian quarter. Martins heads back to Anna's apartment to say goodbye and discovers that she too had been told by Calloway about Lime's activities. Leaving her apartment, Martins discerns across the darkened square, a man watching from a dark doorway. A lighted window illuminates the man's face briefly. It is Harry Lime, alive, well and smirking. Unable to catch up with Lime when he flees, Martins summons Calloway, who determines that Lime has escaped into the sewers via a kiosk. Calloway realizes that Lime has been using the sewer tunnels to move about the city undetected. Finally convinced that the wanted man is alive, the British police exhume Lime's coffin and find that another man, Joseph Harbin, has been buried in his place. Harbin, an orderly in a military hospital who had recently vanished, was thought to have stolen the penicillin.
The next day, Martins meets with Lime in the Soviet sector, on Vienna's famous Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, in the Wurstelprater amusement park. They talk and Lime is dismissive about any effects of his activities. He offers to bring Martins in on his racket and implies that Martins will be disposed of if he causes further problems, but Martins rejects the suggestion and hints that he will not be easy to dispose of. Lime compares the people moving on the ground far below to dots, and asks in a celebrated monologue (see below) whether Martins would really feel pity, if "one of those dots stopped moving, forever", and whether he would actually decline the monetary rewards of doing so.
Calloway asks Martins to help capture Lime by luring him to a rendezvous. Martins negotiates safe conduct for Anna out of Vienna in return; she leaves the train angrily rather than depart Vienna, accept his offer, or set aside her feelings for Lime. Martins reconsiders his involvement, but Calloway takes him to a hospital and shows him children crippled physically and mentally by meningitis after receiving Lime's under-strength penicillin, and Martins agrees to assist in drawing Lime out for them. When Lime arrives at the cafe, Anna calls a warning. He evades capture and reaches the sewers, but police reinforcements have arrived and begin a mass search of the underground tunnels. He is eventually cornered and fires at Sergeant Paine, killing him, being shot by Major Calloway in return. Lime, badly and perhaps fatally injured, drags himself up a staircase to a grating, but is unable to push it open. Martins, using Paine's gun, climbs the steps and shoots his old friend. In the aftermath, Martins attends Lime's second funeral. He waits by the roadside to speak with Anna, but she simply walks past him.
Review: I listened to this book, read by James Mason. I enjoyed it but didn't get the story, which is apparently unfinished. When Graham Greene was asked to come up with a script for Carol Reed to film, he saw an opportunity to flesh out the bare bones of an idea--suppose someone saw an old friend, supposedly dead, on the street one day. Of course, Greene & Reed & Orson Welles turned this idea into the great movie The Third Man (1949). For the novel, Greene returned to the scenario and rendered the whole story as he originally envisioned it. Most of the changes are fairly minor--freed of the presence of Joseph Cotten, Martins is English not American--but sadly missing is the famous line from the movie, which Welles apparently wrote himself, about Italy under the amoral Borgias producing magnificent culture while Switzerland's hundreds of years of democracy has produced only chocolates and the cuckoo clock. It does retain the great concluding chase through the sewers of the city, which seem to physically embody the moral cesspool that Cold War Europe was becoming. This is a work that presages LeCarre and much of the ambivalent spy fiction of the 60's & 70's. It is perhaps not quite up to the standards of the movie or of some of Greene's other books, but those are high standards indeed.
Opening Line: "One never knows when the comet but I get the impression that you would rather not be bothered."
Closing Line: "Poor all of us, when you come to think of it."
Quotes: “I'd make comic faces... and stand on my head and grin at you between my legs... and tell all sorts of jokes. I wouldn't stand a chance, would I?”