Did Greene already know Philby was a traitor?

The Third Man (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene
Rated PG, 104 minutes (original UK release length)
4.5 stars

Who is Harry Lime, exactly? One of the most famous and charming villains in movies, certainly, and one of the best roles Orson Welles ever had, but who did Graham Greene have in mind when he began writing The Third Man, a week after leaving war-ravaged Vienna, in February 1948?

This question is at the heart of this most famous of films, reissued now (this was 2003) in a splendidly restored print of the original British cut (11 minutes longer than the one most of us know). Joseph Cotten’s character, an American writer called Holly Martins, spends the whole movie trying to reconcile his memory of his boyhood friend with the post-war monster described by Trevor Howard’s British intelligence officer Calloway. 
Martins, verging on alcoholism, comes at Lime’s invitation, only to find he’s dead. Determined to find out what happened, he plunges into a city of spies, spivs, refugees and cops, a byzantine world pulverised by war, riven by hunger and ruled by four powers. He meets a series of Lime’s shadowy friends and falls in love with Harry’s girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), an actress.   

Everyone in the film has trouble with names, one of the ways Greene warns us that people’s identities are fluid. One name, however, is worth special mention, because it’s a secret code. After Martins attends Lime’s funeral, Calloway offers him a lift and a drink, giving his driver a one-word direction: ‘Smolka’.     

This may be as close as Greene ever came to acknowledging one of his primary sources. Hans Peter Smolka (aka Smollett) was the London Times correspondent in Vienna and one of the first people Greene was taken to meet on arrival. Greene was sent by the Hungarian-born producer, Alexander Korda, with whom he shared a lifelong enthusiasm for spying. Korda’s London Films office acted as a virtual sub-branch of British intelligence. Greene had worked for MI6 from 1941 to 1944, but kept up informal ties for much longer. Indeed, MI6 paid for much of his extensive travel after the war.

Greene’s boss at MI6 during the war was Kim Philby, who had been in Vienna in 1934, where he first met Smolka. It was most likely Smolka who gave Greene the details of a black market in penicillin and the fact that black marketeers used the sewers, two key elements of the script, but Greene may have been more interested in what Smolka knew of Philby. In his 1994 biography of Greene, Michael Shelden claims that The Third Man is essentially Philby’s story, ‘with the real details scrambled to suit Greene’s purposes’.

In 1934, Philby had married a young Jewish communist in Vienna, Litzi Friedman, giving her the protection of his British passport. In the movie, Harry has given Anne the forged papers she uses to evade repatriation to Czechoslovakia. Harold was Philby’s first name. Harry Lime lives in the Soviet sector, and (in the book) passes secrets to the Russians. Martins writes cheap westerns and admires his adventurous friend; Greene wrote in unfashionable genres too, and never stopped admiring Philby, even when he defected in 1963.        

Indeed, if Lime is based on Philby, it’s almost a confession that Greene knew, 20 years before the defection, that there was something amiss about Philby’s loyalties. Shelden argues that it may have been why Greene left MI6 in 1944, not wanting to get caught up in Philby’s downfall.  

There’s also the hint that Harry is Lime, as in green. Greene, like many Catholics, loved sin, and that is what makes Harry so memorable: his ability to act without remorse, to view people as mere dots which no-one would miss if crushed. In a very obvious visual sense, Carol Reed and his Australian-born cinematographer Robert Krasker show that Harry is a modern vampire, and an attractive one. He moves silently at night, cloaked in a dark hat and coat. The hospitals and morgue are full of his victims. The film is mostly nocturnal, and the camera is often tilted, evoking German expressionist films of the 1920s, but this modern Nosferatu is only one man. The film’s superb use of the rubble of Vienna (you can see bullet marks on the buildings) gives a sense of a much bigger evil, which has just passed through, like a pestilence.    

David Selznick, the American co-producer, trimmed 11 minutes for the US release, the only version released here until now, but aficionados will not notice new scenes. He cut a small amount from many scenes, rather than butchering it. At its more languid original pace, the film is still shockingly modern, an early sign that movies were changing. Nothing could be as innocent as it had been before the war, and by the end, even Holly Martins knows it.

Post script: As of 2015, the film has been reissued in a new 4K restored version, available with extensive extras, from Criterion. It is the same length – the original UK release version of 104 minutes.