Friday, October 14, 2011

David Thomson on The Third Man-an ironic take on bad guys

Ed here: The Third Man was on TCM this morning so of course I watched it. I wouldn't change a single frame. As much as I admire Graham Greene's other screenplays, this is the masterpiece. And Carol Reed, the director and Greene's close collaborator, was every bit as good as Greene.

Here's Thomson's ironic take on the career of Harry Lime. As I watched this I saw Lime as all the Wall Streeters who destroyed a good part of the world. And also on bad guys in general.

The Third Man
Production year: 1949

Directors: Carol Reed
Cast: Alida Valli, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard

How bad is bad? Good enough to make a sequel. In Vienna, just after the war, there was a shortage of penicillin that led to a racket. In The Third Man, this fellow, Harry Lime, cornered the market in penicillin. He was selling it for 70 quid a tube. Then logic occurred to him: he could dilute the stuff but put the price up. It was a kind of murder. "Men with gangrened legs, women in childbirth. And there were children, too. They used some of this diluted penicillin against meningitis. The lucky children died, the unlucky ones went off their heads."

They could be your children. Calloway, the policeman, shows the results to Holly Martins to break that fool's friendship with Lime. In 1949, such scenes were too grim to put in the film itself. But no one stinted on the charm of Lime. He's talked about for three-quarters of the picture, and there he is, like a little boy in a grown-up's coat, hiding in a doorway, with a cat on his polished shoes, and giving that sweet, seductive Orson Welles smile into the camera. Would he smile to see the children in the hospital, or just pop another indigestion tablet to kill the acid? Those kids, he tells Holly, they're like dots on the ground. He offers Holly £20,000, "free of income tax, old man", for every dot that stops moving. It is a Satanic proposition, and The Third Man is a film where Satan has most of the best lines - like the one about Italy under the Borgias and good old Switzerland with centuries of brotherly love and only the cuckoo clock as its prize.

Everyone loved Harry Lime in 1949, even if he had to die, so it was hardly a surprise that after the movie, Lime was back, on radio first - as a hero, a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, a bit of a rogue but a fellow who righted wrongs, someone the poor benighted mugs of the world could rely on.

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Bill Crider said...

The radio show crops up on XM now and then. It's pretty entertaining, though certainly not in the league with the film.

Brian Drake said...

I think I have the entire set of The Third Man radio show, and I like it, but it is indeed watered down and I don't even think of the Harry in the show as being the Harry in the movie. The characters are that far apart from each other.

However, here's a tidbit for you: There was a Lime episode that involved the fleecing of a fellow by setting up a phony horse racing event that ended in a misplaced bet and screaming and gunfire and it all went according to plan until...well, you know. Harry never could complete a scam and always escaped with the shirt on his back.

Flash forward a handful of years later and a movie called THE STING (maybe you saw it) uses the exact same routine. I saw THE STING for the first time recently and knew the ending even before it happened because the writers changed NOTHING. The question is, did the movie writers write the radio show and simply recycled what was technically already theirs, or did the movie writers steal from the radio writers and nobody ever found out?

Bill Carlin said...

"The Third Man" is definitely one of my all-time favourite films. I usually watch it at least twice a year; often in January when the Scottish climate mirrors the Vienna of the film (all too often I'm afraid). The film version of "Road to Perdition" also does this pretty well.
Greene was apparently a little annoyed that Welles added in the "cuckoo clock speech" impromptu to help the pacing of the scene. Most people love it - with the exception of the Swiss. One of them wrote to Welles to say that the cuckoo clock is a German invention.