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Wednesday 7 April 2010

When The Third Man Met the Third Person

I have been asked, a lot, why I picked the surname Cotton for the protagonist of my novels. It is not a signally heroic sort of name. No Spade, Laidlaw or Reacher. Nor is it the obvious name of an anti-hero.

Perhaps I should have made things clearer, because people have also said – ah, you mean he ‘cottons on’? Actually no, I didn’t have catching on in mind. Others have mentioned one of Peter Rabbit’s siblings – Cottontail. Kindly, they don’t mention Flopsy. But again, Beatrix Potter, so admirable in so many other contexts, was not in my mind.

By far the most interesting and unexpected take has been, courtesy of Andrew, of the excellent Edinburgh Bookshop, who asked if the name was an allusion or tribute to the actor Joseph Cotten, described apparently by Orson Welles as ‘the perfect in-film narrator’ (meaning first, that Joseph Cotten could speak clearly; second, that his acting style, certainly for the forties, was naturalistic on film and third, that he provides the viewer’s ‘in’ and thread to the story).

Welles and Cotten acted together several times – sometimes with Welles as director - but, most notably in the 1949 film The Third Man, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed.

The short answer to Andrew’s question was no, there was certainly no conscious allusion – but it did set me thinking. I chose the surname Cotton because it seemed to me a good name for a third person narrative.

The Third Person 'he' or 'she' is less obviously subjective than First person 'I'. Yes, I am aware of Rashomon - Akira Kurosawa’s great film which appeared in 1950 - in which unreliable ‘I’ participant-witnesses put any sort of truth through self-interest and a prism.

But the kind of Third Person narrator that interested me can add a certain shadow (a little gleam as well) to objectivity, knowledge and selection. Graham Greene was one highly perceptive part of the cross-fertilisation between film and printed narrative.

To put Joseph Cotton’s character Holly Martins another way, the descendant of Joseph Conrad’s narrator Marlow, and F Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, meets Christopher Isherwood’s pre-war ‘I am a camera’ on film.

Greene even has an unreliable witness called Kurtz - surely a reference to Conrad’s character in A Heart of Darkness. In post-war Vienna, Holly Martins, a pulp fiction writer, learns that morals, a confident viewpoint and even friendship are as disposable as the children being given adulterated penicillin.

The Third Man has a highly atmospheric noir look and over the shoulder camera tilts and dislocating angles. Yes, I may, as a child, have been over-impressed by the Cheshire Cat, but Orson Welles makes inimitable use of a smile when taking half a step out of the dark. Lime light with a difference.

The actual Third Man refers to someone who may or may not have been present when Harry Lime was (as Holly Martins finds out at the beginning of the film) hit and killed by a truck. The thing is, of course, that Harry Lime was not killed and has gone to ground rather than being in a box under it. The Third Man is never seen, a sort of shadow of knowledge - in cooking terms a thickener of a sauce or a binding agent. He is a possibility, a possible lead, a growing suspicion.

Getting the effect of the Third Man into the Third Person is not at all easy and I have taken some comfort from discovering that Graham Greene’s initial treatment-cum-novella underwent several changes when it became film. Some were market based – Martins and Harry Lime became Americans. Likewise with name changes - Rollo to Holly Martins. Not the name of a hero. Perhaps what surprised me most was to learn that the director’s final cut was to have a grim ending to the relatively hopeful one Greene proposed.

Finally, just to put this in perspective, I remember that in Greene’s Collected Essays, he recorded Beatrix Potter’s reaction to a review of his on her work. The review was pretty favourable. It mentioned her use of alliteration, her extraordinary economy of language, but it did stray into conjecture as to why she should be so good at portraying what all children knew: that some people are extraordinarily nasty. Greene may have said Jemima Puddleduck was on a par with Jane Austen’s Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park.

Miss Potter was unconvinced. On the whole, she said, she sharply deprecated the Freudian school of criticism.

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