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Homosexuality and The Third Man

Its producer complained about gay themes - but were there any?

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The scripts for almost all films go through a number of drafts. The changes that are made give an insight into the film-makers' thinking: plots change, themes emerge, characters are developed. Sometimes the film-makers are diverted down blind alleys and this was the case for The Third Man.

Carol Reed's 1949 thriller set in Vienna was produced under the auspices of Alexander Korda and the American David O. Selznick (a renowned Hollywood figure who had been responsible for Gone with the Wind (US, d. Victor Fleming, 1939)), with whom Korda had struck a four-picture finance and distribution deal in 1947. As part of their agreement Selznick had the right to be consulted on the scripts, though he had no final power to enforce changes.

Selznick was a domineering workaholic with an amphetamine ('speed') habit: he would chew benzedrine tablets to help him through his hectic schedule. His comments on the script of The Third Man were forceful and sometimes crazy. Many of them were recorded in a series of minutes of meetings held in California in August 1948 between Selznick, Reed and writer Graham Greene; these documents are preserved in the Carol Reed files in the BFI Special Collections.

Selznick was particularly agitated by the script's anti-American bias, and by its hints of homosexuality. To the casual reader of Greene's final script or the novella upon which it was based, the idea that there are gay undertones will seem absurd. Yet Selznick detected them nonetheless, especially in respect of the two central male characters, called in the final film Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Before shooting began in October 1948, Selznick sent a memo stating his objections -

what on earth motivates Martins in his curious and passionate interest in clearing up the reputation of a dead man who he hasn't seen for ten years. ... The only conclusion I can draw from it is that they slept together, and I don't mean slept, all the way through Eton.

(In the film both Martins and Lime are Americans, but in Greene's novella they are English, though Martins is half-American.)

In an interview at the National Film Theatre in 1984, Greene remembered how vehement Selznick was on this point:

he went on to say, 'And what's all this buggery, boys? What's all this buggery?' I said, 'Buggery?' He said, 'Look. Chap goes out to find his friend. Doesn't find him. He's apparently dead. Why doesn't he go home?

It's easy to dismiss Selznick's comments as demented and paranoid, not to mention homophobic, but a look at the draft script, which was probably written in July 1948, gives pause for thought.

In the film Holly goes to Sacher's hotel after he finds out that Harry has apparently been killed in a road accident. There he receives a call from a friend of Harry's, whom he goes to meet. In the draft script this simple bit of business - getting Holly to find out more about the accident and then to grow suspicious about it - is accomplished in a much more complicated way.

Holly gets the call in a room in the hotel. This is the beginning of the scene in the draft script.

Martins is half undressed and is lying on the outside of his bed, with his shoes on. He is wide awake and staring at the ceiling. The door opens and Captain Carter, a young tough phlegmatic officer, appears, carrying a valise.

CARTER: Hullo. What are you doing here?
MARTINS: It's my room.
CARTER: As a matter of fact it's mine.

He begins to unpack his valise. [...]

MARTINS: They said you were in Klagenfurt. What shall I do? There isn't another room.
CARTER: The bed's big enough for two. (He picks up the telephone and dials). Do you snore?
CARTER: Nor do I.

Given that depiction of homosexuality was completely out of the question in cinema at the time, this scene is very risqué and could easily have been interpreted as a coded depiction of homosexuality. So Selznick had more concrete reasons for his anxiety than is immediately obvious.

As the finished film shows, this scene was entirely unnecessary. So why was it written? It's almost certain Greene wrote this draft and he might have done so in the knowledge that Selznick detected evidence of a sexual relationship between Holly and Harry in the very premise of his story. Perhaps, then, Greene wrote this scene just to wind up Selznick: certainly Selznick read it and complained. Greene was a mischief-maker, so this wouldn't be out of character. Without decisive evidence, though, this can only be a theory.

Rob White

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