September 30, 2020

Celebrating Orson Welles and the Triumph of “The Third Man”

By Stuart Mitchner

“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”

—Harry Lime, in The Third Man (1949)

When President Trump recently spoke about “the very low level of deaths” America could list without those “tremendous death rates in the blue states,” his smoothly offhand tone reminded me of the Ferris wheel scene in The Third Man (1949), a film that, as Roger Ebert put it, “most completely embodies the romance of going to movies.”

In a YouTube minute I’m in Vienna, in a closed car atop the Riesenrad (the Great Wheel) high above the Prater amusement park. The first thing I hear is the smooth, soothing voice of Orson Welles as the black market racketeer man-of-mystery Harry Lime. He’s telling his old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) to “look down there.” Sliding open the door, he asks, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, 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 — the only way you can save money nowadays.”

To look down from the top of the Great Wheel with the door open is like standing on the brink of certain death, and there’s a hint of menace in the quick downward glance Welles fires into the depths after Martins admits that he’s been in touch with police from the British Zone, who do not yet know that the accident that “killed” Harry Lime had been staged, a piece of subterfuge to flummox their investigation. They have proof that Lime has been making a fortune peddling watered down penicillin to local hospitals, where patients have been dying as a result, some of them children with meningitis. The question that prompted Harry’s philosophical disclaimer about the “dots” was “Have you ever seen one of your victims?”

I was around 11 the first time I saw that short, scary, unforgettable scene. As someone whose concept of good and evil hadn’t gotten much beyond Saturday matinee visions of cowboy heroes and villains, this was my “there are stranger things in heaven and earth” moment. I was dealing with the fact that the charming, fascinating rogue, the movie’s secret hero, had been not only blithely uncaringly making money from the deaths of kids my age but was boasting of the financial upside while hinting he might give his old pal a share of the profits.

Suckers and Mugs

Watching the Ferris wheel sequence after Sunday night’s revelation about the president’s taxes, it was hard to ignore the coincidence of Harry’s “free of income tax” boast, as well as what he says before actually offering to cut Martins in on the take: “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs — it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, so have I.”

Movies! Amazing medium, where a scene you saw in your adolescence rises from the depths of memory as if attracted by the sheer magnetism of the news cycle. Where else but on the silver screen can you have your righteous cake and eat it, too? At the end, even after the thrilling chase through the sewers of film noir Vienna that ends when Harry’s old pal delivers the death blow, the Third Man’s shadow looms above everything. Whether you’re an 11-year-old kid or a seasoned moviegoer like Roger Ebert, you can’t help but cast your vicarious lot with Orson Welles. Like Martins, you’ve fallen for Anna, Harry’s Viennese mistress (Alida Valli), who can’t get over her love for a “dead man” and whose cat “liked Harry,” and one night you and Martins are walking away from her place and you see the cat comfortably mewing and grooming itself in a dark doorway opposite. Someone’s standing there, the cat’s nuzzling the tips of the hidden figure’s shiny black shoes. A window opens, casting light on the face of the man in the doorway. The zither strikes the theme, putting a chill on your neck, for you thought your old friend was dead and there he is looking right at you, as the camera moves in. Then, just before the window slams shut, the light reveals the hint of a smile, a sly, sinister tease, a car careens between you and him, you give chase, and you never really catch the running figure. You don’t want to catch him. You do and you don’t. In the end, a semblance of justice is done, Hollywood’s morality of quid pro quo, while the legend lives on.

Welles covers a more sophisticated version of the same ground with the line he inserted at the close of the Ferris wheel scene, his most famous contribution to the film aside from the magnitude of his presence: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Lime Mania

Referring to the moment with the kitten in the doorway, Welles tells Henry Jaglom in Lunches With Orson, “That was the greatest entrance there ever was.” To Europeans, “Harry Lime represented their past … the dark side of them. Yet attractive, you know…. It was a kind of mania. When I came into a restaurant, the people went crazy. At the hotel I was staying in, police had to come to quiet the fans. It was my one moment of being a superstar, a traffic-stopping superstar…. I could have made a career out of that picture.”

You can’t help reading “fortune” for “career” if you’ve just seen the lead story in Tuesday’s New York Times documenting the value of “Mr. Trump’s celebrity,” which came not only from the millions he earned as star of The Apprentice, but the additional millions that “flowed from the fame associated with it.”

The Book

The cover of the Bantam paperback of Graham Greene’s novella, originally written as a source text for his screenplay, catches the mood of the film more subtly than the movie ads ever could. Harry’s lover Anna and his best friend Martins (shown as played in the film by Valli and Joseph Cotten) are pictured in black and white, a couple at once distracted and estranged by the shadow of the enigmatic figure in the background. Although it’s a good read, if not quite vintage Greene, the book is of interest primarily for the way it was reworked and shaped to make Carol Reed’s masterly film. The most striking of numerous changes was in the ending, arguably one of the most brilliantly, satisfyingly, lyrically bleak closing sequences in cinema. As Harry’s mistress walks away from the grave, Harry’s friend stands hopefully waiting beside the long tree-lined allée. It takes a full minute for her to reach the foreground of the shot, and when she does, she walks right past him, without a look, eyes straight ahead, a leaf falls, and he lights a cigarette. It’s the triumph of Harry Lime, mystery over morality, but above all, it’s the triumph of the film itself, thanks in great part to the cinematography of Robert Krassker and the zither music of Anton Karas. Greene had argued strenuously for his ending, in which Martins catches up with Anna and you see them walking off together. Reed held his ground — “triumphantly,” as Greene later gratefully admitted.

Writing this homage to the “romance of going to the movies” on the eve of the first presidential debate, “I want to make one thing perfectly clear” —  it’s not my intention to put the president’s celebrity on the same level as the triumph of a great film. One good thing about bad news is the opportunity it offers to look for analogies in art, books, films, music, and even political theatre. In other words, Donald Trump is no Orson Welles, and The Apprentice is not The Third Man.