I can see now that Grahan Green was right in his original decision not to put ‘The Third Man’ forward for publication as a novella.
My expectations going in were fairly low. I saw it as a preliminary sketch, made in isolation, in preparation for the collaborative creative effort of making what was to become a good movie. In effect, it’s a first-pass storyboard I didn’t expect it to be so lifeless that I abandoned it at 35% because I was bored.
The structure of the storytelling is clumsy and ineffective. Having events curated by a policeman who is reflecting on his memories and who slides back and forth on the timeline doesn’t work well. It keeps you out of the heads of the main players and keeps the action as passive recollections and the emotions as chewed-over summaries. I think it was meant to add mystery and foreshadowing but, for me, it just made the story ponderous.
The plot is wafer-thin. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning who the third man is and what Role Martins’ blind spot is. This might have been OK if I was invested in Rolo’s search for the truth but he’s a hard man to like. His only distinguishing features seem to be weakness and bad temper. His relationship with Lime seems to be one of suppressed homosexual attraction arising from an early, apparently abusive, relationship when he and Lime were at school together. He refers frequently to ‘mixing his drinks’ which seems to be a coded reference to his bisexuality. Lime, as seen from the policeman’s eyes and Martins’ shared memories, is a narcissist and a racketeer. Martins’ is his long-time stooge. The story gives me no reason to care about Harry Lime. Martins’ could have been drawn as the route-for-him-because-he’s-loyal-and-grieving-for-a-friend under-dog but instead, he comes across as weak, broken men, thrashing around trying to sustain the fantasy of a relationship that he won’t allow himself to see clearly.
Still, I didn’t set the novella aside because I didn’t like the characters or the plot. I put it aside because the prose limps along and I became bored. The whole thing is only 157 pages long. I should have read it in a day. Instead, I kept putting it down and then found myself reluctant to pick it up again.
My advice: skip this and watch the movie. If the movie really hooks you and you want to see what made it work, dip into this novella and see how far they came from this beginning.
Here’s the trailer for the movie. It’s worth watching for the camera work and the music, even before you add Orson Welles.