by Francis Levy.
I just saw a revival of Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man at Manhattan’s Film Forum as part of their Brit Noir series. The Third Man was made from the Graham Greene novel with a screenplay by the author. With so many recent headline stories about fraud and con artists, Greene’s Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is the ultimate con man. A figure of consummate evil, he’s diluted supplies of penicillin exacerbating an outbreak of childhood meningitis. But like all great con artists he’s also capable of creating faith and great allegiance in those who love him. The figure of Harry looms over the movie, like the discredited ideologies of fascism and Stalinism. It’s no coincidence that the famed collection of essays by disillusioned Communists Arthur Koestler, Andre Gide, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender entitled The God That Failed was published the same year the movie was released. Harry is a creature who inhabits the infernal regions of Vienna (the sewers) and who at the same time is resurrected or brought back to life when he is thought to be dead. And the title of the movie both mocks and pays to another great belief system: the Catholicism that is a recurring theme in all of Greene’s work.
There are many iconic moments in the movie, in particular a scene recollecting Eisenstein’s famed Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin in this case a child leading an angry lynch mob down a majestic flight of steps; there’s a referencing of Hitchcock’s Thirty Nine Steps where the figure of conscience the writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) finds himself on stage and brought up short by provocative questions from an audience member. The leitmotif of Harry’s shadow in the streets hearkens back to great German Expressionist films like Fritz Lang’s M.
But the greatest take is the famed Ferris wheel sequence where Harry offers the fourth rate metaphysics high above the Prater, the legendary Viennese amusement park.“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. 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?” The world is evil and Harry makes himself out to be not so bad by comparison “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about suckers and the mugs - it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plan, so have I.”
The famed zither theme of The Third Man makes music out of darkness and accords with the black humor that runs throughout The Third Man, illustrated by Harry’s pithy view of human destiny, “…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.”
The final sequence is essentially a déjà vu: a recapitulation of an earlier tracking shot in a cemetery. As the French say “tout ca change, tout c’est la meme chose.” Even with truth revealed, death and betrayal win out. Greene sardonic to the end posits conscience in the form of a writer of Westerns who has never heard of Joyce. And Holly’s final gesture of love and sacrifice is met with scorn from a woman who will walk out of his life forever.
Francis Levy is the author of Erotomania: A Romance.