Watching Carol Reed’s superb 1949 film The Third Man again, not long after reading Eric Ambler’s novel of ten years earlier, The Mask of Dimitrios, I was struck by the similarities between the novel and Graham Greene’s screenplay. Both feature an apparently dead villain whose story is sought after by a rather naive popular novelist, and the two story-lines develop (despite many differences) in a broadly comparable way.
There can be little doubting Ambler’s influence on Greene, yet The Third Man remains a distinctive and enjoyable piece of work, and it is, I think, a very good example of how one story-teller can properly borrow from another, and yet still make his work very much his own.
The setting in post-war Vienna is highly atmospheric, and of course the famous sewer sequence, as well as the scenes shot near to the Wiener Reisenrad, which long pre-dates The Millennium Wheel, are intensely memorable. The cinematography is complemented by Anton Karas’ zither music, and “The Harry Lime Theme” became an international hit.
Greene’s narrative has plenty of pleasing twists and turns, as well as a downbeat ending, and he and director Carol Reed are extremely well served by the cast. This includes those British stalwarts Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee and Wilfred Hyde-White, as well as Joseph Cotten and, best of all, Orson Welles. It is, at heart, a story about friendship and betrayal, and is a first rate example of how a tale that is very much of its time can nevertheless stand the test of time.