Who inspired Graham Greene
Cahal Milmo

GRAHAM Greene was fond of a practical joke. He once anonymously entered a competition for short stories parodying his work and took second prize, beaten only by his brother.

And it seems the great novelist may have translated his taste for ridicule to the silver screen by using his most famous screenplay, The Third Man, to ridicule a Hollywood producer who had earned his displeasure.

Film buffs have long speculated as to whether Holly Martins, the flat-footed American who is the hero of the 1949 film noir classic, was based on any of Greene’s rich tapestry of real life acquaintances.

Kim Philby, the MI6 officer and Russian spy who was a friend of the novelist, has long been thought to be basis for Harry Lime, the amoral racketeer at the heart of Greene’s book and film, memorably played by Orson Welles in the screen version.

But according to a new theory, it is more likely that Greene used his clumsy protagonist, who makes living from writing low-rent novels, to take a coded swipe at Robert Buckner, an Oscar-nominated producer and screenwriter.

Buckner, whose best-known work was the screenplay for the 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, incurred Greene’s anger when he wrote and produced Confidential Agent, another film based on one of the British novelist’s books.

When the film, made by Warner Brothers, was released, in 1946 Greene wrote to his agent, Laurence Pollinger, describing it as "trash".

Philip Kerr, the novelist and journalist who puts the theory forward in an essay to accompany a new collectors’ edition DVD of The Third Man, said:

"I feel certain that Greene must have nursed a grievance against Buckner, or the idea of Buckner, at least enough to use The Third Man to settle the score with him." Kerr, the former film critic of the New Statesman, argues that Greene got his revenge on the American by not only making Martins as much of a fool as possible in his screenplay — at one point he is bitten by a parrot — but also by including an obvious visual jibe.

Buckner, who also won a Golden Globe in his Hollywood career, spent much of his career writing screenplays for a succession of westerns, including one called The Oklahoma Kid.

In The Third Man, which tells the story of a hapless Martins arriving in post-war Vienna having been promised a job by his friend Lime only to find he has faked his death in a traffic accident, there is a scene in which Martins discusses one of his "cheap novellas" with another character, Baron Kurtz. It is called Oklahoma Kid.

In an exchange which Kerr believes would have caused Buckner considerable discomfort, the Baron says of the book: "It’s wonderful how you keep the tension". A bemused Martins replies: "Tension?" Then the Baron adds:

"Suspense. At the end of every chapter, you are left guessing what he’ll be up to next." Kerr said: "Greene’s script never misses an opportunity to damn Martins’ oeuvre with faint praise; and, I believe, by extension, Buckner’s also. Watching the movie, poor old Buckner must have seethed."

— By arrangement with The Independent