Stolen Identities

I suppose it matters whether one is the third man or the tenth, because there is a world of difference between the film adaptations of Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949; written by Greene to be made into a film)and his The Tenth Man (1988; streaming on Kanopy). The stories themselves have numerous similarities, including mistaken identities and the complications of post-war Europe. One is directed by Carol Reed for the cinema, and the other by Jack Gold, for television.

It is not that The Tenth Man adaptation is necessarily bad, but the melodrama and the music, especially in the first act, take away from the tension of Greene’s story. Additionally, the fact that all the French and Germans speak British English keeps the film from being totally believable. As brilliant an actor as Anthony Hopkins is, who plays the main character, Chavel, for me his demeanor doesn’t quite fit the hysteria of Chavel in prison, and as he draws the lot to be executed. Even though most of the dialogue in the movie is taken directly from the book (as Greene originally wrote it to be filmed, around the same time he wrote The Third Man), there’s something stilted about the delivery.

Hopkins fits better in the later part of the film, trying to hide his identity. Kristin Scott Thomas as Thérèse, though, is the one who keeps it from totally devolving into complete melodrama, and Derek Jacobi as the impostor steals his scenes (and he won a Primetime Emmy for his supporting role).

Even with all of its flaws, the drama of Greene’s novel is still apparent, especially when the man claiming to be Chavel shows up. The fact that both men are impostors of different sorts draws taut the looseness of the opening scenes, and makes the second half of the movie much better than the first.

But the novel and the movie are not just good stories (which is true of all of Greene’s books). There is a deep spring of meaning that is fed by Greene’s Christianity. The foolishness of the cross runs beneath the idea of one man taking the place of another in death. Each of the three papers for drawing lots are marked with “a cross,” although in the movie they look more like X’s. And there are three of them, which parallel the crosses of Jesus and the two insurrectionists. Michel’s (Timothy Watson) decision to accept Chavel’s entire estate for taking his place in death is ridiculed both before and after his death, and  Thérèse says at one point, “Did he think I would rather have all of this than have him?” Chavel is a coward and morally repugnant, and he knows it. He escapes death by the selfless virtue of another man, even if people think that Michel’s virtuous act was misplaced.

Finally, it is in the truth and in his own, long-put-off death that Chavel finds his peace. Running through the story, though more obvious in the book, is the idea that Chavel is an unscrupulous liar and cheater, and that he has no feeling at all. Perhaps that is why in the book he gives his name to Thérèse as Charlot, which in English, besides beginning similarly to Chavel, seems to suggest “charlatan.”

But that lends itself to the larger theme of Chavel (and, indeed, God) cheating the devil out of what is his. I don’t think this line is included in the movie, but in the book Thérèse says, “When [Chavel] dies…you can take your oath it will be in a state of grace with the sacrament in his mouth, forgiving all his enemies. He won’t die before he can cheat the Devil.” And then, later, in conversation with the impostor, whose name is really Carosse, Chavel thinks, “It was as if all that morning he had moved close to the supernatural: an old woman was dying and the supernatural closed in. God came into the house in an attaché case [of the priest], and when God came the Enemy was always present. He was God’s shadow: he was the bitter proof of God. The actor’s silly laugh tinkled again, but he heard the ideal laughter swinging behind, a proud and comradely sound, welcoming him to the company of the Devil.” And immediately after, Carosse calls Chavel “a cunning devil.”

But on the battle field between God and the devil, which is Chavel’s life and soul, the momentum swings back as Chavel contemplates the field leading up to his house: “The indentation of footmarks ran up from the river: he could recognize his own narrow shoe marks and the wide heavy galoshes of the priest. By this route God had moved into the house, where it was suddenly as if the visible world healed and misted and came back into focus, and he saw Carosse quite clearly again, porky and triumphant, and he knew exactly what he had to do. The Decree of the 17th [by which one party could contest any transfer of property under Nazi occupation]—even the gifts of the Enemy were also of God. The Enemy was unable to offer any gift without God simultaneously offering the great chance of rejection.”

In the end, Chavel is able to drive Carosse away for good, at the very same hour that Michel had died, and preserving the property for Thérèse. As the book ends, “Even a lawyer’s meticulous conscience was allowed to rest in peace”—which, I wonder if it was not a question Greene had about his own meticulous author’s conscience.

The book of The Tenth Man is certainly better than the made-for-TV version, even with Hopkins, Thomas, and Jacobi. If one is a fan of Graham Greene, it is worth watching for its overall fidelity to the book. But it is a film that deserves to be remade, and especially remade in a way that preserves even more of the spiritual tension inherent in Greene’s novel. That, of course, raises the question whether there is a filmmaker capable of doing so.