The Third Man

The Third Man

Siegfried Beer

Siegfried Beer looks at the links between The Third Man and British intelligence.

CRITICS AND MOVIE-BUFFS alike have consistently placed The Third Man (1948-49), produced by Alexander Korda, directed by Carol Reed and scripted by Graham Greene, among the ten most important movies in cinematic history. An absolute classic of the thriller genre, it is certainly considered one of the few undisputed masterpieces of British cinema. Thus it won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1949 and the British Film of the Year Award for 1949, and it was recently even voted the best British movie of the century. Almost everyone agrees that The Third Man transcends its nominal classification as an entertaining thriller, embracing — as it does — serious themes in a complex interweaving of moral, religious and political issues and at the same time capturing the tension, mistrust and fear that characterised the emerging post-Second World War era in Europe.

The plot appears simple enough. An American pulp fiction writer, Holly Martins, arrives in post-war Vienna only to find that his friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job there, has just been killed under mysterious circumstances. After hearing of a `third man’ present at the time of Lime’s death, Martin becomes determined to solve the riddle. The ensuing quest entangles him in his friend’s involvement in the black market, with the international police, and with Lime’s Czech girlfriend.

Yet The Third Man has been the subject of widely differing interpretations. The film historian Marc Ferro, for example, detects a violently anti-Communist bias and characterises the film as a political tragedy written in the spirit of the Cold War. The critic Pauline Kael sees it as a statement on the effect of total war on the survivors, turning them into `tired, ravaged opportunists’. Lynette Carpenter, on the other hand, judges it to be an `advocacy for humanity and compassion’, while at the same time depicting the attractiveness of evil.

Other analysts have scoured the five different manuscript versions for changes in the names, nationalities and status of the characters, or the changing narrative viewpoints. Some stress the outstanding film photography of the Oscar-winning cameraman Robert Krasker or the spectacularly successful theme music by the hitherto unknown Viennese musician Anton Karas, whose zither tones add so much to the suggestiveness of the movie. Most critics agree about the outstanding performances by practically all the actors, international and Austrian, and foremost, of course, by Orson Welles. No doubt, Greene’s gift as a storyteller and Carol Reed’s superior cinematic instinct account for the many-sided excellence of The Third Man. However, there were also some contemporary accusations against the movie. The critic of the New York Times, for example, called it `a bang-up melodrama, which doesn’t present any message, hasn’t a point of view and isn’t a penetrating study of any European problem of the day’. Obviously, viewers the world over disagreed.

But as Marc Ferro convincingly assures us, `each film has a history that is History’. It is only the history of conceiving, planning and actually making this film in the early years of the Cold War that provides us with clues that it became a movie saturated with the aura and spirit of secrecy and the stuff of intelligence. This background web of intelligence information permits a bold and enticing new interpretation, for at the heart of the drama and suspense of The Third Man lies the existential issue of personal friendship, trust and betrayal between two real-life friends and `intelligencers’: Graham Greene and Kim Philby, the first commonly regarded as one of the great English writers, the second as the super spy of the twentieth century. This connection has first been pointed out and developed by one of Greene’s literary biographers, Michael Shelden, and is here expanded mainly by evidence derived from historical research on Anglo-Austrian intelligence relations in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Hungarian-British producer Alexander Korda conceived the idea of a contemporary film set in postwar Vienna in 1947. He knew he wanted Carol Reed to direct the movie and Graham Greene to write the script. Korda knew Vienna quite well from his years spent there working for Sascha Film in the early 1920s. The divided, battle-scarred and bombed-out former Habsburg capital fascinated him, as did high politics and the company of powerful men in Great Britain. By the mid-1930s Korda had become a close friend and confidante of Winston Churchill and had developed close ties to several other influential figures in government, foremost among them Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s Minister of Information from 1941, and Sir Robert Vansittart, formerly Permanent Under-secretary of State and from the mid-1930s one of Churchill’s closest partners in intelligence. There is good reason to believe that Korda used his connections with the Austrian film world and allowed his company, London Films, to provide cover in Austria for various operations of the British Secret Service, SIS, before, during and after the war. Later, in June 1942, Korda became the first man to be knighted for work in films when the Churchill government honoured him for his services to the cinema, but it now appears the accolade was also in recognition for his contributions to British intelligence. Korda also seems to have been Greene’s main contact to the Secret Service in the early post-war years.

Graham Greene’s family history is entrenched with espionage and secrecy. His older brother Herbert spied for the Imperial Japanese Navy in the 1930s, as well as for the British and the Americans. His younger brother Hugh, a journalist, may also have done a bit of spying; he co-edited with Graham an anthology entitled The Spy’s Bedside Book in 1957. Greene’s younger sister Elizabeth joined MI6 in 1938 and later married a high-ranking SIS-officer. It was she who recruited Graham into the Secret Service in 1941, where he served until June 1944, known as officer 59,200. Greene’s loyal readers are familiar with his life-long fascination and even devotion to spying and secrecy, and there is evidence that he continued to take on missions for SIS, informally, well into the 1980s.

Practically all Harold `Kim’ Philby’s numerous biographers agree that his most formative experience and the one which put him squarely on the path to becoming a Soviet mole occurred in Vienna in the few months of 1933-34 during which he witnessed the struggle of the Austrian Left against the Austro-fascist government of Engelbert Dollfuss. Philby quickly gained access to Austrian Communism through Litzi Friedmann, the daughter of his Viennese landlord (and soon Philby’s first wife). It was in the battles of the Austrian civil war of February 1934 that Philby helped to hide endangered comrades in the sewers of Vienna and then assisted in smuggling them across the Czech border. As holder of a British passport he became an effective courier for an organisation called `Committee for Aiding Refugees from Fascism’. Naturally, Litzi was in danger of imprisonment, and marriage to Philby provided the secure papers to leave Austria legally. Within two months she was in possession of a British passport and by May 1934 the Philbys left Vienna for London. It can be safely assumed that in 1943-44 Philby recounted to Graham Greene his Viennese exploits of hiding wounded street fighters and threatened Socialist and Communist party functionaries in the Viennese sewers. Philby’s eventual recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, is underscored by his connection with several Austrian-born or Austrian-educated high-ranking agents of the Comintern and of the Soviet foreign intelligence service (foremost among them Theodor Maly, Arnold Deutsch, and Edith Tudor Hart).

In February 1943 Greene was recalled to England following an unspectacular stint in Sierra Leone as SIS case officer, to serve in Section V, the counter intelligence branch of SIS, first at St Albans (interestingly enough, located at Harry Lane) and later in London (at Ryder Street). His immediate superior for more than a year was Kim Philby, by most accounts already considered a brilliant intelligence officer on his path to a higher calling within the SIS. It was in the Iberian sub-section of British Counter Intelligence that their acquaintance started and their friendship grew. Long hours at the office were interrupted by frequent lunches at favourite pubs and were often followed by drinks in the evening. By all accounts, Greene and Philby hit it off almost immediately. And why not? They came from similar backgrounds, thrived in the atmosphere of secrecy and subversion, and above all showed a particular zest for life — for intellectual banter, drinking and women. Even if, as Philby intimates in his memoirs (My Silent War, 1968) they could never allow themselves to become very close friends, within little more than a year they developed a mutual respect that would serve as the foundation for an unmitigated loyalty to each other that remained beyond Philby’s defection in 1961, up to his death in 1988.

There was, however, at least one puzzling incident in their professional partnership which may have clouded their friendship. This was Greene’s untimely resignation from SIS just prior to the allied invasion of Europe when Philby clearly wanted his friend to succeed him as head of the Iberian branch. Greene’s biographers Sherry, Mockler and Shelden are agreed that his surprise resignation only makes sense because Greene intuitively suspected, or with his outstandingly sharp eye for deception even already knew, that Philby was a Soviet informant and penetration agent. If indeed Philby did prove to be a Soviet double-agent it would be highly compromising to have become his protege in SIS. Mockler even suggests that Greene may have been passing secret information on to the Soviets (who actually ran him under the code-name LORAN) himself, and that he resigned from SIS when he did in order to avoid facing a conflict of loyalties after the war. His new job at the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) was to prove as dull as his pre-SIS position had been at the Ministry of Information (MOI).

In a newspaper article written in 1963 shortly after Philby’s spectacular defection, Greene wrote about his friendship with his former boss and jokingly referred to the fact that he had created the phrase `The Third Man’ long before anyone could have imagined that it would one day apply to his defector-friend and serve as the title to several Philby biographies. With his flight from Beirut to Moscow in January 1963 Philby was unmasked as the third Cambridge mole, after Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean who had already defected in 1951.

The fourth and possibly most mysterious figure of intelligence that can be linked to the making of The Third Man is a little-known Austrian Communist by the name of Peter Smolka. Smolka was one of just a very few people whose acquaintance with Philby dated back to 1934, to his Communist agitation and rescue work in Vienna during the Austrian civil war. Smolka and his wife emigrated to England in 1934 and for a short time even went into a partnership with Philby in London, running a Central European news agency, the London Continental News Ltd. In 1939 Smolka became a naturalised British citizen, changing his name to Smollett, and soon after managed to secure appointment as head of the Soviet section in the Ministry of Information (where no doubt he made the acquaintance of Graham Greene who was also employed there in 1940-41.) Smolka/Smollett has for several years now been unmistakably identified as a fully-fledged agent of the NKVD (where he was codenamed ABO), well-known and collaborative with at least three, possibly even four, of the infamous group of Soviet moles in the British government, known as the Magnificent Cambridge Five. According to recent scholarship Philby recounted in 1980 that `on my own initiative, I decided to recruit an agent, a Harry Smolka … [who] was 100 per cent Marxist, although inactive, lazy and a little cowardly’. Of the few people who after the defections of the first two Cambridge moles could have testified to Philby’s Communist entanglements in Vienna in 1934, Smolka was by far the most worrisome to Philby, and they both knew it. Others were Teddy Kollek, later the long-term mayor of Jerusalem, and Eric Gedye, a British journalist for the London and New York Times in the 1930s and connected to SIS in Turkey during the Second World War.

It is my contention that Smolka provided several, if not most, of the main ideas and scenarios for Greene’s film script. The two were introduced in Vienna in February 1948. Smolka then spent many hours with Greene describing the underground atmosphere and culture in Vienna, the lucrative black market, the rackets for much-needed medical products and possibly, and told him about the secret inter-zonal channels and escape routes through the sewers of Vienna. For these decisive contributions to the plot Smolka was actually offered a stingy contract by London Films of [pounds sterling]210, but was given no public credit whatsoever, except for a puzzling reference near the beginning of the film when the head of the British military police, Colonel Calloway, without any real explanation, bellows the name `Smolka’ to his driver, a reference which the uninitiated viewer can only understand as the name of the bar they are going to visit.

These unacknowledged connections with the second-echelon Soviet mole Smollett are only known of due to Elizabeth Montagu, an employee of London Films who prepared and managed Greene’s trip to Vienna in February 1948. She arranged for him to reside at the still elegant Sacher Hotel which was otherwise reserved for the highest British military officers stationed in the city. Elizabeth Montagu was herself an experienced former intelligence operative who had spent the war years at the Swiss centre of espionage in Berne where she worked for the Political Warfare Executive, a propaganda agency. She also did some secretarial work for the American spy-master Allen W. Dulles, who was in charge of the outpost of the American intelligence service Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the Swiss capital. Was it coincidence that she led Greene to Smolka or was it something more than a casual meeting of like-minded acquaintances from wartime London? In any case, Smolka (who in May 1947 was characterised by a political analyst of the American State Department in Vienna as `a minor but aggressive Communist wielding a disproportionate amount of influence’) certainly knew his Vienna well. Shortly after the war and with the help of the Russians, Smolka had re-emigrated to Austria. He was again active in journalism (allegedly writing for the London Times, the Daily Express and the Austrian government paper Neues Osterreich) and surprisingly quickly had been restored as owner-manager of a factory in the Soviet-occupied part of the city, soon to produce the highly successful Tyrolia ski binding. Eventually he became a protege of the long-term federal chancellor of Austria, Bruno Kreisky, for whom — until his death in 1980 — he edited the semi-official journal Austria Today. Ironically, both Smollett and Philby were awarded the OBE (the latter in 1946) for their wartime work by the British Government.

Most critics and biographers have argued that Greene’s books explain him better than anything else. One does not have to share Norman Sherry’s conviction that for every character in a Greene novel there existed a real life counterpart. Greene once admitted that his characters are `an amalgam of bits of real people’ but hastened to add `that real people are too limiting’. It is my claim that The Third Man is more or less the story of the Greene-Philby relationship couched in fictional suspense. It is as much a sophisticated treatment of the ambivalence of friendship, and of the scriptwriter’s pre-occupation with betrayal, of moral ambiguity and of lost innocence based on real life experiences, as it is a thriller about a war-torn, morally decadent and politically victimised Central European capital.

At the core of this realistic, serious and artistically convincing fictional analysis of love and loyalty lies the relationship and friendship of the mature writer Greene to the fascinating, younger, but perhaps more experienced and morally ambiguous operator, Philby. The virtually unexplained presence of Harry Lime in a beleaguered, internationally threatened capital; the work for a refugee agency; the hide-aways in the sewer system; the secrets shared with the Soviets; the use of the word `racket’ for Lime’s business in Vienna (a term that Philby regularly chose to refer to the SIS); the youthful romanticism and love adventure; the girlfriend in need of safe identity papers; and the calculating manner underlying the charm are all features that bear some resemblance to the real Philby. Furthermore, Harry Lime is a natural leader whose real cause is only himself. Similar things have been said about Philby by his former colleagues in SIS and also by his detractors inside the KGB. Lime charms the audience as he charmed Anna Schmidt and Holly Martins. Charm was apparently Philby’s most legendary weapon. Harry Lime has many of Philby’s traits: amorality, ruthlessness but also love of life and real wittiness. And Lime is Holly’s alter ego. Martins, the writer of Western thrillers, is a typical Greene outsider and becomes the mouthpiece for Greene himself, the Christian idealist in search and adrift. He is constantly torn between his loyalty and friendship to Harry, his growing love for Anna and his moral sense of duty in the face of mounting evidence of the horrendous suffering caused by Harry.

Parallels to Greene’s experiences with Philby include Greene as the writer friend in search of clues and evidence; the discovery of a friend’s character flaw and depravity; and the worrisome dilemma of choosing the right kind of response to such a discovery. There are several direct links between names. Philby’s real name was Harold, of which Harry is the obvious derivative; Greene’s first name was Henry which frequently mutates to Harry; Philby’s and Smolka’s KGB case officer from 1940 to 1944, Anatoly Gorsky, was codenamed HENRY and Smolka’s pseudonym initials H.P. stood for `Harry Peter’. `Lime’ not only refers to a shade of green (Graham Greene) but also to a green plant called holly (Holly Martins). Throughout the film verbal suggestions create a confusion of identity between the two protagonists and visual parallels link Harry and Holly. Several times Anna even confuses her suitor’s name (Holly) with that of her lover (Harry). The similarity of their names creates mirror images throughout the film as the pattern of their mutual dependence and betrayal unfolds. Mistaken identity and character ambiguity are constituent features in plot and cinematic technique. Harry Lime epitomises Greene’s attitude towards evil in modern society. Lime embraces crime because he is cynical and hopeless about mankind.

The script abounds with religious imagery and reflects Greene’s Christian moralism. There is no `positive’ hero since good and evil are mixed in each of the two friends’ characters. Neither Holly nor Harry is completely good, nor totally evil. Because Harry Lime is such a charming villain, the viewer wants to like him. Even though his presence on screen amounts to barely fifteen minutes in a film of 104 minutes, he is easily the most engaging character. As Orson Welles pointed out in a late-life interview: ‘Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime. Nobody talks about anything else’. By the end of the film some may not to wish for Lime’s capture, seeing instead Martins as a betrayer.

The big wheel sequence — perhaps the most famous and dramatic in the film — provides the most intimate and direct confrontation between Holly and Harry; in 1948 Greene may well have envisaged a similar encounter with Philby one day; yet as far as we know, none of the meetings between the two that took place in Moscow years later between 1986 to 1988 (in 1987 alone they met on four separate occasions) resulted in a similar reckoning. As is well known, Greene remained Philby’s sole and consistent apologist. Philby’s defection also provided the inspiration for Greene’s last spy novel, The Human Factor (1978), only a few years after John Le Carre had fictionalised the Philby story in his thriller Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy (1974).

Beyond all the impressive components that make The Third Man a classic, the authenticity of the intellectual and emotional logic of the story, in my view, derives greatly from the fact that the writer was drawing from a hidden, probably deeply disturbing, dilemma in his own life which became compelling in the course of his dreary stay in the Austrian capital in early 1948. It was Philby’s Vienna of February 1934 and Smolka’s post-war Vienna fourteen years later that really triggered his powerful meditation on corruption, betrayal and the vicissitudes of a friendship with a professional colleague turned traitor-villain.


Charles Drazin, In Search of the Third Man (London, 1999); Anthony Mockler, Graham Greene: Three Lives (Edinburgh, 1994); Michael Shelden, Graham Greene: The Man Within (London, 1994); Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. II: 1939-1955 (New York, 1994); Gene D. Phillips, Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction (New York, 1974); Judith Adamson, Graham Greene and Cinema (Norman, 1984); Robert F. Moss, The Films of Carol Reed (New York, 1987); Nigel West, The Legacy of Graham Greene: Superspy.: World Intelligence Review 13 (1994)

Genrikh Borovik, The Philby Files (London, 1994), Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev, The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives, (London, 1998)

Websites: man.html

Siegfried Beer is Professor of History at the University of Graz, Austria.

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