Harry Lime profits off the death of children in war-ravaged Vienna. He betrays his girlfriend who loves him dearly to the Russians. And when his best friend from childhood pays him a visit, he considers killing him. He is most certainly not a hero. Lime says as much to his friend from America, Holly Martins: “the world doesn’t make heroes, Holly.”
Harry Lime entered film history in Carol Reed’s 1949 British film, The Third Man. He is played by Orson Welles in a relatively brief performance. Welles gets to deliver some great lines (see above), and lead the audience through one of the most memorable chase scenes, running through, across, above, and around the enormous, dimly lit, shallow water of the Vienna sewer system. The film was made from a Graham Greene script and produced by Hungarian Alexander Korda and American David O. Selznick. The cast included Welles’s friend Joseph Cotton in the role of the naive American who writes Westerns with heroic themes for, we might assume, equally gullible readers. In a supporting role as an British military police officer was British actor Trevor Howard, who gave a performance that was pitch-perfect cynical–his character believed in law just not justice. Shot in black and white by Robert Krasker who used shadows and the rubble of postwar Vienna to great effect, the film had a score that featured Anton Karas on the zither, not quite the most menacing sounding instrument. But then, the movie plays a bit with contrasts, these were the dusky early days of the cold war, after all.
The film’s premise is pretty simple: Holly Martins bumbles his way to Vienna at the invitation of his criminal friend Harry Lime. Almost as soon as he arrives in the war ravaged city, Martins gets wrapped up in a police investigation into Harry’s black market business of selling watered-down penicillin at an enormous profit (70 pounds a bottle). At first, Martins is incredulous that his old chum could be such a crook, but after Major Calloway (the British mp) reveals a good deal of evidence and Holly spends some time with his conscience and Lime, he realizes that the only option he has is to set-up his friend–to be, in the parlance of the time, an informer. The film nears its end with a memorable scene captured in the screen shot above.
The Third Man was well-received by critics, film festivals, and audiences. According to one site dedicated to its honor, critics were nearly unanimous in their praise. Nearly. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times offered a review that, while quite positive overall, included a paragraph that when read in the context of postwar thought hints at why film noir remains intellectually significant. Crowther wrote:
“The simple fact is that “The Third Man,” for all the awesome hoopla it has received, is essentially a first-rate contrivance in the way of melodrama—and that’s all. It isn’t a penetrating study of any European problem of the day (except that it skirts around black-markets and the sinister anomalies of “zones”). It doesn’t present any “message.” It hasn’t a point of view. It is just a bang-up melodrama, designed to excite and entertain. In the light of the buzz about it, this is something we feel you should know. Once it is understood clearly, there is no need for further asides.”
As a point of contrast, across town at Time, Inc., James Agee wrote in 1946 of three crime dramas he had seen recently, declaring that they were “much better to watch than the bracing, informative, constructive films which are the only kind…progressives would allow, if they were given half a chance.”
In these two snippets we get a sense for what film noir placed at stake in a struggle for ideas. The battle was between the children of light and the children of darkness.
Crowther was not a prude or clueless as much as simply liberal. He wrote for a middle-class, middle-of-the-road audience who, in the early postwar period, had begun to demand films that were not stock Hollywood productions, especially silly dramas with ridiculously happy endings. Indeed, American moviegoers had made films such as The Bicycle Thief a minor hit and art house cinema, cine-clubs, and foreign films legitimate forms of moviegoing.
However, as Crowther intimated, there were different ways to imagine “serious” entertainment. Message films, such as Crossfire, Pinky, The Best Years of Our Lives, and A Gentleman’s Agreement, all had story-lines far that did not shy away from controversy but that, in the end, did offer a sense of redemption. The war had changed the world and it had changed Hollywood–as Crowther said in an essay about postwar Hollywood, “It is hard to imagine such directors as Capra, Wyler, Huston, or Kanin going back to Hollywood [after service in the war] to make ‘rootless, dehumanized’ films.” People wanted realism but not, Crowther consistently argued, hopelessness. Movies in the postwar would ask questions, but the difference between liberal, message pictures and film noir boiled down to the answers: The Third Man didn’t provide any answers.
In this sense, while Crowther appreciated Reed’s craft, Greene’s script, and the cast’s acting, he was ultimately unmoved by the fact that the film used a destroyed city as a backdrop for a “conventional” crime drama.
And yet, when Holly Martins demands to know what is “at the bottom” of the police Major’s incessant search for his friend, Calloway replies in deadpan: “death. Death is at the bottom of everything, Mr. Martin.” How would one resolve that insight in an hour and forty minutes?
You can’t, and the impossibility of simple resolution echoed the stinging admonition from Reinhold Niebuhr who gave a series of lectures at Standford University and produced a book in 1944 essay entitled, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Niebuhr attempted to explain the horrors of fascism and the world wars by suggesting that “the democratic world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury which it avowed. Civilization [the children of light] refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities. It…spoke glibly of an international conscience; but the children of darkness meanwhile skillfully set nation against nation….Moral cynicism had a provisional advantage over moral sentimentality.”
It is not surprising that many critics at the time and since viewed the character of Holly Martins as a stand-in for general American naivete–I could imagine Niebuhr seeing it that way too. But seeing this film in light of Rumsfeld, Cheney, the war on terror, and Abu Ghraib, I propose that in a contemporary sequel to The Third Man our Holly Martins might have internalized the old world cynicism he saw in Vienna and have little problem reciting the little speech that Harry Lime used to sum up his cynical philosophy:
In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed–but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.
And farewell to any liberal pretense of American innocence.