Writer Graham Greene once said that The Third Man (the 1949 noir classic directed by Carol Reed made from his script) is a director’s film. Martin Scorsese also wrote that the all-important zither (mostly absent in the show) was another character. This musical version, which takes the film as its inspiration rather than a blueprint, is neither a showy director’s piece nor is George Fenton’s score show-stopping. Instead, director Trevor Nunn and lyricists Don Black and Christoper Hampton go for a character study of two of the protagonists – Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt – who, in the film, are overshadowed by Orson Welles’s portrayal of anti-hero Harry Lime.
The story is set in post Second World War politically-divided Vienna, when the city was occupied by Allied forces. Western novel writer Holly arrives at the behest of his old school friend Harry just in time for his unexpected funeral. Soon Holly starts to suspect that the versions of stories that surround Harry’s “accident” don’t add up. His investigations uncover a city barely under control, dominated by crime, financial exploitation and hundreds of refugees. Harry is the star black marketeer at the centre of this. Holly also discovers Harry’s lover Anna, here a singer, whom he also falls for. Designer Paul Farnworth’s bare Italian neo-realist set and Emma Chapman’s atmospheric lighting work together to preserve the film noir elements of the original, but frankly it feels that this city could be anywhere, and echoes, though a bit flimsily, any post-war or post-covid era now.
Reed’s film spends a lot of its time being fascinated with Vienna and with what really happened to Harry. His absence is a big part of the suspense. Not here. Deliberately the build-up to Harry’s reveal seems understated (although his eventual appearance is still sardonically captured by Simon Bailey). Instead, the focus falls on Holly and Anna’s conflicted feelings for Harry – Greene converted to catholicism later in life and was obsessed with good and evil. Holly and Anna both love Harry but his criminality tests this and they wrestle with their own morality.
Anna’s big number, “Paul and Claus”, also further enlightens her own conflicted feelings. She doesn’t see that, for her, Holly and Harry are two sides of the same coin. Natalie Dunne plays her with perfect innocence. Holly’s story meanwhile, is in a horror show all of his own making and which began in childhood. For too long he played the mug to Harry’s clown, now he has to stand up and take a side. Sam Underwood’s portrayal is that of a man who lives on “the dangerous edge of things” – and in this version, Vienna only helps to expose the moral ambiguities that lie deep within himself.
Nunn’s version suffers from an uneven pace and sometimes narrative repetition. But for all the show’s flaws, Greene might approve of this attempt at a “writer’s version”.