Haunted by „The Third Man”

coup de prague 1Le Coup de Prague (The Prague Coup) is a short story in comic-book form, a collaboration between the French writer Jean-Luc Fromental and the American artist Miles Hyman, published (in French) in 2017. It is a visualization of the legend according to which the film The Third Man, a famous British-American co-production from 1949, is a kind of coded confession on the part of its writer, British novelist Graham Greene, referring to Greene’s friend, spymaster Kim Philby, who – as the rest of the world would later find out – was actually a double agent, working for the Soviet Union. According to this legend, Greene, who was himself in the British Secret Service during World War II, subordinated for a while to Philby, either suspected or knew for sure that his colleague was a Soviet agent, but he chose not to turn him in; hence his abrupt resignation from MI6 (or SIS – Secret Intelligence Service), in May 1944.

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There are several good reasons for the persistence of this legend. First, after Philby’s 1963 exposure as a Soviet “mole” (“the third man”, as he became known to the British public, the first two being Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had both defected in 1951) and his defection to the USSR, Greene spoke again and again in his defense. Building an international reputation, from the late 1950s onward, as a politically progressive writer who was friendly towards communism, Greene was welcome in Moscow, and he used this privilege to stay in touch with Philby. In 1968, when Philby’s memoirs were published in English, Greene provided a preface in which, angering many Western readers, he asked rhetorically “who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country”. And The Human Factor, Greene’s 1978 novel about a British Secret Service man who’s actually serving Soviet interests (and eventually escapes to the USSR, as Philby has done), provides the traitor with the noblest possible reasons: it is out of love for a South African woman – a victim of racism – that he starts leaking secrets to the Soviets, and the secrets he leaks have to do with monstrous conspiracies uniting the American CIA with the racist South African authorities and involving nuclear power. The early stages of Philby’s activity in the service of the communist cause had also featured love for a woman: as a young man in Vienna in the 1930s, as he was working to help refugees from Nazi Germany, he fell in love with Austrian Jewish communist Litzi Friedmann, whom he married so that she could escape from Austria. But if Graham Greene is keen to stress in his novel that his hero’s work for the KGB is no way involves cold-bloodedly sending British colleagues to their deaths, Philby’s later work for the Soviets did involve that. Another legend has grown up that Philby had been in a position to help anti-Hitler plotters from Germany, who desperately needed British support and who, had they been successful in killing Hitler, would have brought an end to the war way before May 1945, thus saving many lives; but Philby didn’t want to see Berlin liberated by anybody but the Soviets, so he either worked actively to stifle British interest in the German plotters, or, at the very least, he didn’t encourage such interest, thus sacrificing all those lives that could have been saved. Jean-Luc Fromental, who authored the graphic short story about Graham Greene researching The Third Man in Vienna, accepts this legend unquestioningly, using it to raise the level of sinisterness in his evocation of Philby, to bring the latter closer to Harry Lime, the fictional character played by Orson Welles in The Third Man, who doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice the innocent lives of children. Yet it is a legend that other biographers of Philby and historians of MI6 – like Tim Milne, who had also worked with Philby – have disputed.

There is also the fact that, after resigning in 1944 from the secret service, Greene kept his ties there for many years, informally passing information while getting sponsored for some of his travels, even as he was writing to defend defection to the Soviet Union. Watching Greene become increasingly left-wing in the late 1950s – over U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which Greene presciently attacked in the 1955 novel The Quiet American, and then over the Cuban revolution, which he welcomed – fellow writer Evelyn Waugh, a notorious conservative and a friend of Greene’s, expressed his confidence that all this was just for “cover”, Greene being really “a secret agent on our side”. (On an amusing side note, the person to whom Waugh was making these comments was Ann Fleming – wife to the novelist who had created the character of James Bond.) But the truth is that, in the decades following World War II, Greene truly became more and more left-wing (drawn especially to Latin American “liberation theology” and, though sometimes critical of the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba, reluctant to give up all hope in their regard), while at the same time keeping, and sometimes using, his old MI6 connections.

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It is the premise of Fromental’s and Hyman’s graphic short story that, while researching in Vienna the script of what was to become The Third Man, Greene was also involved in espionage work. Fromental makes much of the fact that, from Vienna, Greene flew to Prague – right at the moment when the communists were taking power there. But, regardless of whether Greene himself was involved in spying at the time, there were spies all around him – starting with the British film mogul (of Hungarian origin) Alexander Korda, who was co-producing The Third Man (with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick). British film historian Peter Wollen writes that “Korda was particularly close to Winston Churchill, whom he [had] even hired as a screen-writer in order to support him during his years in the political wilderness, along with his son Randolph and his confidant, Brendan Bracken, who was alleged, maliciously, to be Churchill’s illegitimate child. (…) During the war Korda [had] left England for America and [had been] derided as a coward by the English, but, on his return, in mid-war, Churchill, now Prime Minister, immediately awarded him a knighthood, clearly for intelligence services rendered in the United States. In America he had worked clandestinely with BSC (British Security Co-ordination) and became close to Wild Bill Donovan, head of the OSS, which later evolved into the CIA.” From the moment he landed in Vienna, Greene was looked after by a Korda employee named Elizabeth Montagu (an aristocrat, daughter of “the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu”), who during the war had worked in the Berne OSS office, as a personal assistant to future CIA head Allen Dulles. Although Greene never mentioned her in his later reminiscences of The Third Man, her name is featured in the film’s credits as “Austrian advisor”. She is also Jean-Luc Fromental’s artful choice of narrator for his fictionalized account of Greene’s 1948 trip to Vienna (and Prague). We see Greene through her eyes.

In the comic-book, as in reality, Elizabeth Montagu takes Greene to a journalist called Peter Smollett (formerly Hans-Peter Smolka), a correspondent for the London Times. It is this Smollett or Smolka who briefs the screen-writer about the rackets that have developed in ruined post-war Vienna, one of them involving watered-down penicillin. This will be the racket conducted by Harry Lime in The Third Man. It is also from Smolka that Greene learns about the city’s sewers, which had been used – by Smolka himself, among others – to smuggle socialists out of Vienna in February 1934, when “Austro-fascist” leader Engelbert Dollfuss was engaged in erasing the local socialist movement off the face of the earth. It will be through the sewers of Vienna that Harry Lime will attempt to escape from the police at the climax of The Third Man.

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Although Greene gave Smolka’s name to a bar which is mentioned at one point in the film’s dialogue, that name is missing from the credits of a film to which, by all accounts, the journalist seems to have contributed substantially. According to Korda biographer Paul Tabori, the very idea of making a film about the four-power occupation of post-war Vienna (divided at the time in four zones – Russian, American, British, and French), about the war-ravaged and crime-ravaged state of the city – came from Smolka. (The film mogul had just regained possession of the profits resulted from the pre-war exploitation of his films in Austria, but it was not simple to get the money out of the country – it was simpler to make a film there.) Smolka is supposed to have been introduced to Korda by Churchill confidant Brendan Bracken, who had been Churchill’s minister of information during the war and had himself appointed Smolka as head of his ministry’s “Soviet Section”, in charge of creating popular pro-Soviet feeling.

Smolka (who after the war returned to Austria) had a secret which was not going to be disclosed until a few years after his death (which came peacefully in 1980) – in fact, after the dissolution of the USSR and the opening of some KGB files. His secret was that during all this time he had been a Soviet spy. And that was not everything: he had known that other Soviet spy – the biggest of them all, Kim Philby, whom the press would later call “the third man” – before the war in Vienna; they had worked together in helping Austrian socialists get out of the city through its sewers. So, in 1948, when they met, Smolka and Greene had Philby as a common friend, as an obvious topic of conversation. What did they talk about him? What did Smolka (who knew about Philby just as surely as he knew about himself) tell Greene (about whom it’s impossible to know for sure how much – if anything – he knew about either of them)?

It is no wonder that – for many of the viewers who are aware of its connections to the world of real-life espionage (Korda, Greene, Smolka, Montagu) – The Third Man feels so Philby-haunted. Hence the temptation to investigate it for coded messages scribbled all over it by these spies, confessions or secrets passed on to those of us in the future who would be able to decode them, and involving the absent Philby. Le Coup de Prague is a fiction inspired by this view of the film, by this legend. (Another fiction that it’s related to is John Banville’s 1997 novel The Untouchable, although Banville ignores The Third Man and turns Greene from a friend of Philby’s into a friend of the other “Cambridge spies” – Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, neither of whom was close in any way to Greene in real life.)

All of this despite the fact that The Third Man is not a spy film in the full sense of the term. Harry Lime is not a spy (not primarily in any case); he’s a “spiv” – a racketeer, a black marketer. As Peter Wollen and other critics have shown, this Carol Reed-directed picture is part of a cycle of British post-war “spiv films”, which included Sidney Gilliat’s Waterloo Road (1945), Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). With the exception of the American producer David O. Selznick, who seems to have wanted it more anti-communist than it turned out, the main artists or craftsmen involved – Greene (who would describe it as “a fairy tale”), Reed, Korda – seem to have wanted it “apolitical”. Whether they succeeded is another matter: the Soviets emerge as decidedly shiftier, more unreliable than the other three powers controlling the city – they not only allow the criminal Harry Lime to roam free in their sector of Vienna, but they also use him (at least that’s what he says); and, when they claim the actress Anna (played by Austrian-Italian star Alida Valli) as a citizen of Czechoslovakia, it goes without saying that the fate awaiting her there – in what would come to be known as “the Soviet bloc” – is not an enviable one.

As The Third Man was being filmed in Vienna, back in England George Orwell was compiling for the Foreign Office a list of suspected communists and fellow-travellers – “a wildly speculative [list], xenophobic, [and] tinged with anti-Semitism”, as BBC journalist Peter Foges would later call it. Smollett/Smolka was on it (“Surely an agent of some kind”, wrote Orwell, adding: “Very slimy”). In 1949 – and not on that list, but in a letter to a friend –, Orwell also described Graham Greene as “a mild left with faint CP [Communist Party] leanings”, adding, “I have even thought that he might become our first Catholic fellow-traveller, a thing that doesn’t exist in England, but does in France”. Greene had recently attained notoriety as a writer of “Catholic novels” (his 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter becoming a huge best-seller in the Western world) and Orwell was writing to correct what he regarded as his friend’s misconception of Greene as an “extreme conservative, the usual Catholic reactionary type”. He wrote: “If you look at his books like A Gun for Sale, England Made Me, The Confidential Agent and others, you will see that there is the usual left-wing scenery. The bad men are millionaires, armaments manufacturers, etc., and the good man is sometimes a Communist.” On the other hand, Orwell also wrote, “of course he is a Catholic and in some issues has to take sides politically with the church”. In the past, that had meant that, while left-wing British writers like Orwell himself (the Orwell of the 1930s) travelled to Spain to participate in the civil war there, Greene had travelled to Mexico to report on how Catholics were being persecuted there by the Marxist government. It is only in the second half of the 1950s that his move left would become inexorable (partly fueled by his hostility towards the United States), while his interest in religion would noticeably cool off. At the time of The Third Man, that had not yet happened: his 1950 reporting about the communist anti-British insurgency in Malaya (published in the anti-communist American magazine Life) reflected the official British position, and two years later, when he was already reporting (for Paris Match) from French Indochina (the future Vietnam), he could still present the possibility of a communist takeover in terms of the “domino theory” (“If Indo-China falls, Korea will be isolated, Siam can be invaded in twenty-four hours and Malaya may have to be abandoned.”).

Still, notwithstanding its being more about racketeering than about spying (more of a “spiv film” than a spy film), notwithstanding its screenwriter still being contaminated at the time with the anti-communist clichés of the post-war years, notwithstanding its studied lack of interest in politics and, at the same time, its anti-Soviet bias, The Third Man seems to announce a lot of Greene’s post-war work, and a lot of John le Carré’s most vital work, too. Partly, this has to do with ultimate evil showing itself to have a healthy, boyishly smiling American face (that of Orson Welles’s Harry); with the happy ending proving impossible (this was due to director Carol Reed, not to Greene, who had originally written one such ending); with the conflict between black and white resulting in a lot of grey – the “bad guy”’s execution looks suspiciously like mercy killing, the “good guy”’s trapping of the “bad guy” looks more like disloyalty than like heroism, while the “bad guy”’s mistress remains loyal to him for so long, and in the face of such evidence of his monstrousness, that loyalty is also discredited. But it also has to do, overwhelmingly, with the sense that the filmmakers were privileged to observe and report from the front row as the world was being remapped after the war for the next 40 years – new lines being drawn, new forces being matched for a long stand-off. As Peter Wollen writes: “The twentieth century saw Vienna collapse from being a centre to being a frontier – at first, after the First World War, a frontier with the Balkans (…), and then, after the Second World War, a frontier with the Soviet bloc. The Third Man was conceived and made in a transitional period – the Balkans are still there, as they were in Graham Greene’s earlier novel Stamboul Train [1932], with its fateful departure from the station in Vienna for the instability and chaos of Yugoslavia, where the train is stopped and passengers are removed, but the Soviet bloc – «Eastern Europe», as it came to be known – was not yet quite in place. Vienna was no longer in the centre in a positive sense but only in a negative sense, as the half-way point, as the Iron Curtain began to come down.” Hence this “fairy tale”’s enduring value as a document of the birth of a new era, with added value and fascination resulting from the closeness of some of its creators – Korda, Greene, Smolka, Montagu – to the real centers of power, the real makers of history.

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For all the quality of its research and the elegance of its visual storytelling, Jean-Luc Fromental’s and Miles Hyman’s short story in comic-book form does not have enough imagination to stand on its own. It is too parasitic on Greene’s novels and on the Greene-Philby legends, it depends too much on frissons of recognition – Fromental’s fictional Greene keeps running into characters who evoke either The Third Man, or, more generally, Greene’s other novels (“Greeneland”, as journalists called his world), and he sometimes talks in aphoristic lines taken from his books. And, while Greene was much celebrated for his ability to draw a supporting character, or a place, in a few lines that instantly made the character come alive for the reader, or instantly conveyed to her a sense of that place, Fromental doesn’t do much to flesh out a promising character like Smolka or a promising place like Prague in 1948. But, in its modest way, Le Coup de Prague testifies to that enduring fascination.