Probably no more than a thousand American movies examine, mostly without meaning to, our national preoccupation with, and devotion to, our own innocence. When generalizing about ourselves, we have no great investment in the notion of our sophistication, or even our competence. (Though we’d like to believe that we’re mostly competent.) We’re absolutely unyielding, though, on the subject of our good intentions. Sure, we’ve been willing to admit mistakes—at least before our current administration—as long as everyone understood that we meant well. OK, we concede, we bollox up the occasional intervention, but why? Only because we were trying to help.
And what’s better evidence of that, we like to point out, than our attempt to get Europe back on its feet after World War II? Weren’t we right there, wallets open and hands out, ready to help Gunther and Pierre and Guido out of the rubble almost before the shooting stopped? And did we ask anything in return, besides a little cooperation and maybe some gratitude?
Well, yeah, some European movies, like Carol Reed’s The Third Man, suggest. We did. We do. Even if some of our hearts were occasionally in the right place.
Now, I’m one of those people who thinks that there’s never a bad time to see The Third Man. It is, after all, about as nifty and stylish and endlessly pleasing as thrillers get. But here we are again, in early 2005, post-inauguration, looking forward to four more years of disaster due to our refusal to see through a brazenly transparent rogues’ gallery. And The Third Man offers us a by no means entirely unsympathetic, but nevertheless bracingly clear-eyed, European take on an American type germane to that rogues’ gallery, a type broken into its constituent halves.The movie offers us two old friends, Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins and Orson Welles’s Harry Lime, both abroad in postwar Vienna. Holly and Harry, each the dark side of the other, both wreaking havoc, one obliviously, with an outraged sense of his own virtue, and the other cynically, with a blithely and sinisterly overdeveloped sense of his own self-interest. And if that sounds familiar to those of you following our current geopolitical situation, it should.
In 1948, producer Alexander Korda sent novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene to Vienna to research a movie about its post-war occupation. At that point, the four powers had divvied it up into zones: American, Russian, British, and French. Everyone was trying to help; everyone was angling for their piece of the pie. It was open season, as far as creative entrepreneurship went. It was an Allied Tower of Babel. It took Greene only two months to deliver the treatment.
His story involved the clueless but sincere Holly Martins, author of dime-novel westerns and out of his depth nearly everywhere. In the first three minutes, Holly arrives in Vienna to work for his old friend Harry Lime and discovers that Harry’s just been killed. An accident, apparently. Except that even Holly can make out some pretty glaring discrepancies among the eyewitnesses’ stories, and Calloway, a British officer at Harry’s funeral, tells him that Harry was the worst kind of racketeer, and that the world’s better off without him. Well, now, hold on one minute. There may be something shady about his pal’s death? And now European-types are trying to impugn his pal’s reputation? What would The Lone Rider of Mystery Gulch do in such a situation? That’s a no-brainer. Holly decides to get to the bottom of this: the lone sheriff come to town. He doesn’t know the city at all, and doesn’t speak German. Or Russian. Or French. But he’s on the side of right.And that’s enough for him.
Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins is your basic red-state, heartland kind of guy. He has rock-solid values, all of which he’s decided to leave unexamined. He has a covert pride in his own mulishness. He believes that the inflexibility of his loyalties ennobles him. His version of My country, right or wrong is My Harry, right or wrong. He’s suspicious of sophistication and, for a guy who’s on the case, oddly disinterested in learning much about where he is. He assumes that the frontier virtues on display in his paperbacks will cut right through any foreign equivocating, dithering, or obstruction. He decides what’s best for the leading lady without bothering to learn almost anything about her. He barges in on everybody, mispronouncing names. He’s the portrait of callowness, and cluelessness, but he still means to get the job done. And it never occurs to him that being in over his head might be dangerous for other people.
Holly’s an essentially decent guy, played by an essentially decent guy—production notes record Cotten spending some of his free time while on location handing out food parcels to Austrian orphans in the American sector—but he’s wandered into a sort of placid but lethal hornets’ nest. Carol Reed himself renders the movie’s opening voice-over with the mordant distractedness of someone swindling one person while chatting with someone else. We’re told that the wide-open opportunities Vienna afforded at that point,“in the classic period of the black market,” attracted lots of amateurs, but, “well, you know: they can’t stay the course like a professional.” To illustrate the point, we’re allowed to gaze upon a lumpish figure floating face down in the Danube.
Sure enough, Harry’s Viennese friends, when interviewed by Holly, seem to embody your basic xenophobic Republican’s fantasy of Euro-perfidy, like they’re the UN version of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each face is a little cameo of craftimalice. Ernst Deutsch as “Baron” Kurtz is half Joel Grey, half Josef Goebbels, all saturnine smiles and baleful sympathy. He wears a Rosalind Russell fur collar and carries a whimpering, unpleasant miniature Pinscher that just can’t be as small as it appears. His expressions of sincerity would generate skeptical contempt in Gomer Pyle.
Erich Ponto, meanwhile, as Dr. Winkel (Holly: “Dr Winkel?” Winkel: “Vinkel.” And again, later, Holly: “Dr. Winkel?” Winkel: “Vinkel.”) comes across as an unpleasant mix of Ernest Thesiger—remember Dr. Pretorius, the flamboyant old queen with the basset-hound face from The Bride of Frankenstein?—and Joe Lieberman. Mostly he stands around projecting I don’t release information. And Siegfried Breuer’s Popescu is all oily, smirking, insincere courtliness. (“I helped Harry fix her papers, Mr. Martins. Not the sort of thing I should confess to a stranger, but you have to break the rules sometimes. Humanity is a duty.”)
It turns out that Harry’s friends are the only eyewitnesses to Harry’s demise. His personal driver was driving the truck that hit him. His doctor and best friend, who happened to be passing by, were the only ones who attended him.
It’s all enough to make Holly suspicious.You don’t have to conk him on the head with a plank to get a point across.
This whole place, in fact, he notes with some distaste, is a little off. Certainly we note it, too. To begin with, it even sounds off. Mention The Third Man to most people who’ve seen it and the first thing they remember is its musical score. Fair enough: it is one of the very few movies scored entirely by a single instrument: Anton Karas’s whiny and peppy and tinny little zither, which provides throughout an inappropriately merry, Devil’s Carnival–like counterpoint and satiric edge. (Reed apparently discovered both Karas and his instrument at the party welcoming his production company to Vienna. Helpful note to would-be filmmakers: going the zither route creates a soundtrack that’s alternately playful, stylishly overdramatic, and parodic.)
The Third Man is also invariably remembered for its camera angles, which are so flamboyantly and insistently canted in crucial scenes that director William Wyler, a pillar of by-the-book and blandly handsome American filmmaking, famously gave Reed a carpenter’s level when he saw him after the movie came out. Streets plunge diagonally out of the frame, cathedral fronts pitch and yaw, and even shot-reverse shot exchanges tilt the characters toward and away from one another. But vertiginous angles aren’t just Reed’s version of look,ma, no hands filmmaking; they also set off just how four-square and upright our Holly, abroad in a land of shifty relativists and dirty dealers, imagines himself to be. They continually make the wry and faintly menacing visual point that this isn’t a world of straight-arrows. Or for straight-arrows.
The American hero doesn’t just get to the bottom of things, though; with Harry being dead and all, there’d be no one around to be properly grateful, no one in whose admiring regard the taciturn and modest hero could subsequently bask. Someone needs to be rescued, as well. Holly settles on Harry’s girlfriend.
She’s the logical choice. She’s a woman, isn’t she? And pretty? And she looked sad at the funeral. And she’s certainly a more presentable locus for all of those fascinated feelings that Holly has, or had, for Harry.
Except that Alida Valli’s Anna Schmidt, in her first scene with Holly, exhibits all of the winsome and virginal charm of a late model Marlene Dietrich. She’s sexy enough, in an end-of-Weimar kind of way, but she’s not going to qualify as anyone’s damsel in distress. Holly asks Anna if she was in love with Harry, and Anna answers like she’s Old Tired Europe herself: “I don’t know; how can you know a thing like that, afterwards? I don’t know anything anymore, except that I want to be dead, too. Some more tea?” Holly, a little oblivious to nuance, is charmed by this, and comes away from their meeting determined to be her knight-errant.
Anna loved Harry. She says this repeatedly, with the kind of affect you might employ to announce that your socks are wet.When she returns to Harry’s apartment with Holly so Holly can attempt to grill the porter, an eyewitness to the accident,Anna doesn’t quite display the emotional turmoil we’d expect from all of these memories flooding back.While Holly futilely tries to make himself understood, Anna plays with Harry’s cigarette lighter. She wanders around appraisingly. She combs her hair in his mirror. She rolls dice she finds on the bedside table.
“Well, if I do find out something, can I look you up again?” Holly asks her, after the porter clammed up and threw him out. Her response couldn’t be more encouraging:“Why don’t you leave this town? Go home.” He’s unfazed. He escorts her to her apartment, where they walk in on Calloway and the Allied police midway through a search for information on Harry’s racket. And here’s some good news: while they watch, Calloway sniffs out Anna’s forged passport. Calloway and his adjutant hold it up to the light, proclaim it very good work, take it from her, and say she’ll have to come down to the station. “Anything really wrong with your papers?” Holly asks, always three steps behind.
It’s Holly’s goofy and misplaced longing, based on a narcissistic self-regard, intersecting with Anna’s dismay and disdain that gives the movie its overall tone of dry doomsday humor and erotic melancholy. Vienna becomes a city of romance in which romance is doomed, a city that’s reached the point where romance is beside the point.
So far, his return on all of his efforts has either been deflating or demoralizing. Naturally, he then resolves to act even more decisively.
He runs his hypothesis by Calloway, who tells him it sounds like a cheap novelette. “Well, I write cheap novelettes,” Holly says, indignant and hurt.
More action on his part is problematic, given that he’s invincibly gifted at misreading the situation. He invests the banal with the terrifying (“Have you got orders to kill me?” he shouts at a taxi-driver who’s speeding him to a lecture about which he’s forgotten) but blandly ignores gathering menace. (Anna has to drag him away from an increasingly ominous crowd outside the murdered porter’s home, after the porter’s gnome-like son fingers him as the last person to have seen the victim alive.) Just about every major character tells him he’s in over his head and that his methods are sure to backfire. Even a parrot he passes bites him. “This isn’t Santa Fe, I’m not a sheriff, and you aren’t a cowboy,” Calloway explains. “Haven’t you done enough for tonight?” Anna asks, with ever-increasing fatigue.
But Holly isn’t entirely unteachable. Calloway, tired of trying to control Holly’s blind-man-in-a-lightbulb-store explorations around town, finally decides to give him a little seminar on the blackness of Harry’s soul. He makes Holly sit through a magic lantern show of everything they have on his friend. It’s pretty harrowing stuff. Harry was stealing penicillin from the military hospitals, diluting it to make it go further, and then selling it, with catastrophic results for the patients. Calloway stresses in particular the impact on children suffering from meningitis. The lucky ones, he says, died.
When the show’s over, Holly’s desolate in his disillusionment. “How could he have done it?” he asks himself as much as Calloway. “Seventy pounds a tube,” Calloway shrugs, and recommends he go back to the hotel and keep out of trouble.
But that’s not really Holly’s thing. He gets drunk, buys an absurd bouquet (mums?) and wakes up Anna in her apartment. “HL” is embroidered on the pajamas under her robe. He swans around, self-pitying, and announces he’s going. “It’s what you’ve always wanted,” he mopes. “All of you.” He’s not clear on much, except his adolescent sense that No One Wants Him Around. Anna looks at him as if she’s at a loss as to how to make that same point any clearer.
But now that the cat’s out of the bag—now that Holly and we are sure that Harry was no good, it’s time to resurrect him. “I knew him for twenty years; at least I thought I knew him,” Holly says morosely. “Suppose he was laughing at fools like us all the time?”
And outside Anna’s apartment, in one of the more famous moments in film history—celebrated, among other places, in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—Harry’s cat (“He only liked Harry,” Anna tells us) pads along the dark cobblestoned street to a pair of wingtips in an unlit doorway. He nestles in against the man’s ankles; he peers up; he nuzzles a shoelace. Holly, meanwhile, continues his brooding until Anna interrupts, “Oh, please; for heaven’s sake, stop making him in your image. Harry was real. He wasn’t just your friend.” “Oh, I don’t know, I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and then falls in love with girls,” Holly tells her, and then peeks up. She looks at him.Two kinds of solipsizing; two kinds of self-pity. He’ll try one and then the other.
Leaving, he scuffs his way home. He hears a noise in that doorway; sees the cat.“What kind of a spy do you think you are, satchel-foot?” he calls across the street, drunkenly pleased to have found someone in Vienna clumsier than himself. Satchel-foot doesn’t move. The cat keeps cleaning itself. Holly keeps calling and taunting until an upstairs neighbor’s light goes on, illuminating Harry’s face. Harry’s bemused, then amused.An eyebrow goes up, as Orson Welles does his roguish charm thing.
Harry Lime, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, was what you called a Star Part: one of those roles in which you only show up late in the movie, but the entire cast talks incessantly about you for an hour until you appear. By then, your charisma has been so predetermined, you only have to do a few minor things and you come off as riveting.
So. Holly chases Harry; Harry disappears, magically; Holly informs Calloway, who instantly figures out where Harry has gone: the sewers. Holly returns to Harry’s friends, tells them to summon Harry, and says he’ll be waiting at the ferris wheel. Harry warily strides up via the round-about route, scouting out any potential backstabbing, has a go at a backslapping reunion (Holly won’t take his hand), and they go for a ride.
Inside the ferris wheel compartment, the two halves of that American type confront one another. “Listen, Harry, I didn’t believe that—” “It’s good to see you, Holly,” Harry says, cutting him short with patronizing affection. He complains of indigestion. Holly tells him that Anna’s in trouble. “Tough, eh? Tough,” Harry concedes.“They’re handing her over to the Russians,” Holly adds, to give his anxiety some force.“What can I do, old man? I’m dead, aren’t I? Holly,” Harry says, sucking an antacid and cutting to the chase, “exactly who did you tell about me? Hmm?”
“You don’t care anything at all about Anna, do you?” Holly demands. You can almost feel him thinking,We’re Americans. We’re all about altruism.“Well, I’ve got quite a lot on my mind,” Harry chuckles. Turns out Harry told the Russians about Anna, to further endear himself to his protectors. When Holly rants around about his disgust, Harry reminds him:“I’ve never cut you out of anything.”
Holly asks if Harry’s ever seen any of his victims. Harry answers, bringing to mind the glory days of Dick Cheney hardball: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic.” He throws open the door of the car. They’re at the top of the wheel now.“Look down there.Would you really feel any pity if one of those… dots stopping moving, forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every… dot that stopped moving, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man; free of income tax.” Holly looks on, unsurprised.
“It’s the only way you can save money nowadays,” Harry adds.
Harry is that bouncing American boy, now just about everywhere in our current administration, who sees the world as a source of plunder. As Greene describes him in the novella he later wrote based on his treatment, he features “big shoulders that are a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, and on his face, a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.”
Holly and Harry make not only an unsettling portrait of our current President and Vice-President, abroad to help and to make a little something on the side; they also, as a pair, clarify just how much one exposes something central in the other. The Third Man turns out to be the story of a typical American’s refusal to believe that good old Harry—genial, cheerful Harry—has an unexpectedly pitiless interior. It’s Harry’s ruthlessness that Holly has so much trouble believing, and Holly refuses to believe—despite all the evidence—at his own peril. As, right now, do we.
Harry’s simply acting the way governments act, he points out to Holly. “They have their five year plans; and so have I.”
There’s something irresistibly attractive, stunningly enough, about that degree of certitude in one’s own values. Harry’s out for Harry and never made any bones about it; that causes everyone to shrug and shake their head and admire him for his childlike appetite and relentless drive to service his own desire. “He never grew up,” Anna shrugs, thinking back on her boy.“The world grew up around him. That’s all.” Later, having herself confronted the reality of all those victimized children, she still won’t renounce him entirely: “I don’t want to see him or hear him. But he’s still a part of me; that’s a fact.”
And he’s a part of Holly. At first he agrees to betray Harry to Calloway to rescue Anna, who is about to be deported to the Russian Zone. But he botches the selflessness of that gesture because he can’t refrain from giving her a glimpse of his self-sacrificing heroism at the train station as she’s leaving. She rejects her role, gets off the train, and tears into him. Feeling chastened in matters of loyalty, he returns to Calloway and announces that the deal’s off: Calloway can run Harry to earth himself. Calloway assures him that he will. Holly says, “Well, I won’t have helped.” Calloway points out that “That’ll be a fine boast to make.”
So sly Calloway, driving Holly to the airport, stops by to drop in on those victims he told Holly about before. Holly, not figuring out what’s happening, tags along. Stunned, he peers into crib after crib at all sorts of silent suffering that we can’t see, while Karas’s mournful little zither vamps. He’s re-resolved. The betrayal—the split—is back on.
Anna storms in on Holly, the bait waiting at a café.“Don’t tell me you’re doing all of this for nothing,” she says witheringly. “What’s your price this time? Honest, sensible, sober, harmless Holly Martins,” she says bitterly, putting the stress on exactly the right word.
Harry’s warned by their exchange, but not warned soon enough; after a prolonged chase, he’s cornered in the sewer’s spiral staircase. Having been shot by Calloway, he’s finished off by Holly. Before Holly does so, they exchange looks, and the suffering Harry seems to mutely plead to be put out of his misery. It’s as if Hyde is pleading with Jekyll. Which brings us to the coda of Harry’s second funeral. Anna’s back, as is Calloway, as is Holly. Holly’s sad, of course, but also oddly hopeful, when it comes to Anna. After all, he’s purged his dark side, hasn’t he? He asks Calloway to stop the jeep carrying him away from grave and let him out, so that he can wait for Anna, walking along the lane.“Be sensible, Martins,” Calloway says, his last words in the movie encapsulating his exasperated advice throughout.“I haven’t got a sensible name, Calloway,” Holly answers. I yam what I yam, as Popeye puts it. The zither does a stirring if slightly mournful little fandango. Holly leans against a cart and waits for the distant Anna. The romanticism of his own self-image is too fundamentally ingrained to have been broken by the events of the last few days; he’s going to wait there, for Anna to arrive, in order to enact the happy ending. A few leaves fall. He waits and waits, as do we, while in an extraordinary long take, Anna walks toward him, and us, down a corridor of trees so severely pruned they look blasted. When she finally comes level with him, that happy ending he was hoping for evaporates. Her face makes clear that she has no more patience whatsoever with either the tenacity or the primacy of his illusions about himself. She just keeps walking, past him, and us. ✯