Graham Greene (credited writer), Carol Reed with Orson Welles (uncredited writers), Carol Reed (director) The Third Man / 1949
I presume that most readers of an essay on The Third Man have already seen this classic 1949 film and are acquainted with its rather creaky plot. For those few who may be approaching this material for the first time (I’d suggest, however, they first view the movie), I’ll briefly recount the story.
CALLOWAY: Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don’t know
what you’re mixing in, get the next plane.
MARTINS: As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I’ll get the next plane.
CALLOWAY: Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to
MARTINS: Mind if I use that line in my next Western?
An accidental encounter with the head of a local cultural club, Crabbin, who invites Martins to lecture to his group, gives Holly the purpose and cash to stay on in search of the truth of his friend’s death.
You know, I never feel comfortable on these sorts of things. Victims?
Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of
those dots [pointing down at the people below him] 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
Lime further supports his own immorality with history and cultural stereotypes, boasting of his behavior by comparing it—in what has become one of the most quoted lines in film history (a speech comparable to that of Henry James’ worst European scoundrels)—with the Borgias, in opposition to democracy, symbolized here by the Swiss:
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 brother love—they had 500
years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo
clock. So long Holly.
Goodbye, indeed! To a film audience watching this only a few years after the War, Harry’s speech must have stood against everything for which they had just fought. Faced as we are nearly every week with the moral emptiness of business and political leaders it is hard for us today to comprehend just how shocking is Welles’ placidly glib defense of greed; does it still shock?
Obviously, one can make too much of their male bonding and their apparently long-lasting relationship. Yet, even if it is in Harry’s best interest to throw Holly off the Ferris wheel, he does not—at the very same time that he has sacrificed Anna to the Russians.
*In the context of this film, it may be interesting to quote Webster’s dictionary definition of birdlime: Birdlime \Bird"lime`\, n. [Bird + lime viscous substance. An extremely adhesive viscid substance, obtained from the middle bark of the holly, by boiling, fermenting, and cleansing it. When a twig is smeared with this substance it will hold small birds which may light upon it. Hence: Anything which ensnares.
Los Angeles, October 4, 2007
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, V, no. 2 (Spring 2008).