July 27 1999
money, the greatest movie ever made is The Third
Man, first released 50 years ago and now re-released with
restored footage (11 minutes had been cut from the U.S. version). Usually
praised as a classic thriller, its much more than
that: its a study of evil that bears repeated viewings.
Rarely has a film been blessed by such a
perfect combination of direction (Carol Reed), script (Graham Greene),
cinematography (Robert Krasker), music (Anton Karas), and excellent
casting, right down to the creepy minor characters.
An American pulp-fiction writer named
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to occupied Vienna just after World
War II to take a job writing for an old pals medical
charity. But upon arrival, he learns that his pal, Harry Lime, has
just been run over by his own chauffeur. Holly attends Harrys
funeral and talks to witnesses, whose conflicting accounts of a
third man at the death scene lead him to believe that Harry
was murdered. When a cynical British military policeman, a Major
Calloway (Trevor Howard), tells him that Harry was about the
worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city, Holly
angrily resolves to find the third man, solve the murder,
and shame Calloway by clearing Harrys name.
It turns out that the third
man was Harry himself still alive and in hiding after
faking his own death. Moreover, Calloway was right: Harry is getting rich
in the black-market penicillin trade, watering the stuff down and causing
death and suffering to the innocent. After falling in love with
Harrys lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Holly finds Harry,
confronts him, and eventually agrees to help Calloway capture him.
Harry Lime is one of the great villains of
film. Hes played by Orson Welles in a brief but unforgettable
performance, which is well served by Welless hammy style: Harry
is a charming rascal who, as Anna says, never grew up. Hollys old
schoolmate, who could fake illnesses and report cards, has developed
naturally into a ruthless criminal who will sacrifice anyone, including
Anna, to his own profit.
In his confrontation with Holly in a
ferris wheel, Harry jauntily explains his philosophy. Looking down at the
tiny people milling about below, he asks Holly what hed say if
Harry offered him $20,000 tax-free for every one
of those dots that stopped moving. Would you really, old
man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many of those
dots you could afford to spare?
In a telling analogy, Harry likens himself
to governments. They talk about the people and
the proletariat. I talk about the suckers and the mugs.
Its the same thing. They have their five-year plans, and I have
mine. All this is said with a conspiratorial smile; Harry knows how
seductive he is, even when proposing murder.
Holly wont bite. He accuses Harry
of throwing Anna to the wolves by allowing the Russians to repatriate her
to Czechoslovakia. Harry deflects the charge: What can I do, old
man? Im dead, arent I?
Anna learns that Harry is alive and that
he has betrayed her to the Russians. But she loves him anyway and
wont forgive Holly for helping Calloway trap him. The film ends
with a stunning snub: Anna walks coldly past the waiting Holly without
even giving him a glance. Even when destroyed, Harry Lime still exerts a
sinister power over the living.
There really are people like Harry in this
world. He may remind you of a certain politician of similar personality:
charming, cunning, ruthless, knowing all the angles, profoundly self-
centered and treacherous, yet somehow able to retain the loyalty even of
people he has deceived and betrayed.
Evil doesnt usually appear with
horns and cleft hooves. Often it comes with a winning smile, an
exaggerated warmth, an offhand joke, and an offer thats hard to
refuse. It may flatter the suckers and the mugs as the American
people, but it regards them as so many dots, to be measured by
opinion polls and focus groups, with calculation where its conscience
should be. And it gets a lot of help from people who ought to know
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