In 1949, New Statesman held a Graham Greene parody contest. The second-place winner began, “The child had an air of taking everything in and giving nothing away. At Rome airport he was led across the tarmac by his aunt, but he seemed to hear nothing of her advice.” The wise and cynical hero on the brink of a journey, the strained family relations—these were the hallmarks of Greene’s reliably suspenseful output that the satirist captured. He knew Greene’s novels quite well, having written them.
The two paragraphs Greene submitted pseudonymously grew into a film treatment titled The Stranger’s Hand, which director Mario Soldati made into a film without the author’s quite completing it. The 70-page work is included in this volume with No Man’s Land, another film treatment of equal length, completed but never filmed. As David Lodge observes in his foreword, Greene’s film treatments are replete with unfilmable metaphors and passages about states of mind. To illustrate this point, he quotes from an aside made as Henry Court—the child crossing the tarmac in the first scene—reads a letter from his father: “They seemed to be signalling to each other tentatively over the No Man’s Land of two years, a waste filled with the wreckage of other lives than their own.”
Lodge refrains from mentioning how these unfilmable passages represent the two texts signaling to each other; note the mention of a No Man’s Land. Jointly and individually, they both also signal to a third text, namely The Third Man, Greene’s novelization of Carol Reed’s film based on Greene’s screenplay (which makes that book a thirdhand adaptation, I suppose), and they should be devoured by the many cinephiles who believe it to be the greatest movie of all time. Henry, waiting for his father to show up in Venice, whiles the time away in the hotel room playing a fantasy game of cricket. “He captained one team, putting himself in to bat third man,” Greene writes, a tip of the cap to his earlier work, presumably intended for the amusement of Soldati, who cast Alida Valli (Harry Lime’s girlfriend in The Third Man) as the chambermaid Roberta and Trevor Howard (a policeman pursuing Harry) as Henry’s father.
In The Stranger’s Hand, Greene writes evocatively of a quarter of Venice beside the dockland: “In that dark sunless network of streets, the people seethed like disturbed flies round a pile of ordure,” a description that inevitably recalls the famed monologue that Harry gives from atop the Ferris wheel, in which he compares the citizens of Vienna to ants. Film buffs will recall that the most famous lines from the monologue (“They [the Swiss] had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”) were contributed by Orson Welles, who played Harry Lime.
Beyond the pleasures of cross-referencing afforded by reading these two novellas in conjunction with The Third Man is the horror of the deepening metaphor of the No Man’s Land that permeates all three works, adding up to a trilogy on the ways that nature abhors a vacuum—or more accurately, on the way that humanity’s most pernicious tendencies crop up as soon as some evil or another is eradicated. In No Man’s Land, he writes of “[t]he sense of an unfathomable emptiness that the propagandists of two worlds have imposed on our minds,” and this sense, a product of the Cold War, is equally palpable in all three stories. Allied forces occupy but do not quite control the Vienna of The Third Man, the Venice of The Stranger’s Hand, and the Harz Mountains in southern Germany where No Man’s Land takes place. All three regions host desperate and ultimately fruitless searches.
The mountainous setting of No Man’s Land is traversed by German refugees searching for shelter, Catholic pilgrims searching for the cave where the Virgin Mary made an appearance and handed a rose to two children, and Russians searching for deposits of weapons-grade uranium. The shadowy protagonist, Richard Brown, is on a quest of his own. Posing to the British as a vacationer and to the Russians as a pilgrim, he is looking for a report on the uranium, left for him by his half-brother. This being a detective story, it involves a beautiful and needy but ultimately dangerous woman. This being a work of Graham Greene, it contains vividly intelligent Cold War prose that remains deadly serious even while verging on self-parody: “If only, he thought, it was a gun I had in my pocket instead of two holy medals: the world is controlled by uranium, not by God.”
Mark Swartz is the author of Instant Karma (City
Lights) and H2O (Soft Skull, 2006).
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 1, 2005