“Joe, the turtle boy . . . He walks and eats and sleeps just like a turtle but talks the English language as well as you and I. And shaves himself with a safety razor. And as an added attraction, folks, Joe plays the zither”
Carnival barker’s spiel in I’m No Angel (1933)
How many American moviegoers in 1933 knew what a zither was is uncertain. But just over a decade-and-a-half later probably most people (and not just moviegoers) in the United States and Great Britain did know. For the theme from the movie The Third Man (1949), played by Anton Karas on that instrument, became a smash hit in both countries, including a spell of eleven weeks as the number one recording in the US. Set in an ally-occupied Vienna that is still hung over from the war, the movie itself, directed by Carol Reed and adapted by Graham Greene from his novel of the same name, is one of the great noir mystery/thrillers of all time.
Title characters of films and plays come in all varieties; they can even not come at all (Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot) or be dead the whole way through (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). It takes about an hour before moviegoers catch a glimpse of the title character of The Third Man, and even then the first things they see are his highly-polished winged-tip shoes; the rest of him is cloaked in darkness. When a sudden circle of light penetrates the recess in which he is hidden, his face is seen in semi-profile. The cheeks are puffy, the texture soft and smooth, and there is the look of an incipient doubleness to the chin. The title character is Harry Lime; the actor, Orson Welles.
All Welles’ physical features that were so wrong for the itinerant Irish seaman in his own film The Lady From Shanghai (see my previous blog entry) are absolutely perfect for the black- marketeer Harry Lime. A black-marketeer—but not a criminal at the scuffling end of the game. He is an entrepreneur, dressed in a comfortable overcoat, a fashionable hat, and soft gloves (as well as those highly-polished wing-tips). And he has the physical complaint of successful businessman—dyspepsia (he regrets that his favorite tablets are no longer available in Europe).
Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), a naïf lured to Vienna by his old pal Lime, knows Harry to be something of a rogue, and he can’t understand why Major Calloway of the British Army (Trevor Howard) is so keen to nab him. After all, what’s a little hustling of stolen tires and such like? Except it’s stolen penicillin, which is then watered down to ineffectualness. The results to patients, especially the children, are disastrous.
When Holly does get to meet Harry in the Prater amusement park, they ride the famous Ferris Wheel to the top, and Harry, looking down to the ground, speaks of those Holly has called “his victims”:
“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? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.”
Harry Lime is the type of role that Welles was born to play—no phony accent, no pretense of a past murder with his own hands. No, his voice displaying a jauntiness touched with an edge of menace, the soft-featured and well-tailored Harry Lime is Welles at his white-collared best--an entrepreneurial criminal whose reading of history* is the most famous set piece in the film:
“Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. 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.“
****Supposedly written by Welles himself.