For my money, the greatest movie ever made is The
Third Man, first
released 50 years ago and now re-released with restored footage (11
minutes had been cut from the U.S. version). Usually praised as a “classic
thriller,” it’s much more than that: it’s a study
of evil that bears repeated viewings.
Rarely has a film been blessed by such a perfect combination of direction
(Carol Reed), script (Graham Greene), cinematography (Robert Krasker),
music (Anton Karas), and excellent casting, right down to the creepy
An American pulp-fiction writer named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten)
comes to occupied Vienna just after World War II to take a job writing
for an old pal’s “medical charity.” But upon arrival,
he learns that his pal, Harry Lime, has just been run over by his own
chauffeur. Holly attends Harry’s funeral and talks to witnesses,
whose conflicting accounts of a “third man” at the death
scene lead him to believe that Harry was murdered. When a cynical British
military policeman, a Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), tells him that
Harry was “about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living
in this city,” Holly angrily resolves to find “the third
man,” solve the murder, and shame Calloway by clearing Harry’s
It turns out that “the third man” was Harry himself — still
alive and in hiding after faking his own death. Moreover, Calloway
was right: Harry is getting rich in the black-market penicillin trade,
watering the stuff down and causing death and suffering to the innocent.
After falling in love with Harry’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida
Valli), Holly finds Harry, confronts him, and eventually agrees to
help Calloway capture him.
Harry Lime is one of the great villains of film. He’s played
by Orson Welles in a brief but unforgettable performance, which is
well served by Welles’s hammy style: Harry is a charming rascal
who, as Anna says, never grew up. Holly’s old schoolmate, who
could fake illnesses and report cards, has developed naturally into
a ruthless criminal who will sacrifice anyone, including Anna, to his
In his confrontation with Holly in a ferris wheel, Harry jauntily explains
his philosophy. Looking down at the tiny people milling about below,
he asks Holly what he’d say if Harry offered him $20,000 — tax-free — “for
every one of those dots that stopped moving.” “Would you
really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how
many of those dots you could afford to spare?”
In a telling analogy, Harry likens himself to governments. “They
talk about ‘the people’ and ‘the proletariat.’ I
talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They
have their five-year plans, and I have mine.” All this is said
with a conspiratorial smile; Harry knows how seductive he is, even
when proposing murder.
Holly won’t bite. He accuses Harry of throwing Anna to the wolves
by allowing the Russians to repatriate her to Czechoslovakia. Harry
deflects the charge: “What can I do, old man? I’m dead,
Anna learns that Harry is alive and that he has betrayed her to the
Russians. But she loves him anyway and won’t forgive Holly for
helping Calloway trap him. The film ends with a stunning snub: Anna
walks coldly past the waiting Holly without even giving him a glance.
Even when destroyed, Harry Lime still exerts a sinister power over
There really are people like Harry in this world. He may remind you
of a certain politician of similar personality: charming, cunning,
ruthless, knowing all the angles, profoundly self-centered and treacherous,
yet somehow able to retain the loyalty even of people he has deceived
Evil doesn’t usually appear with horns and cleft hooves. Often
it comes with a winning smile, an exaggerated warmth, an offhand joke,
and an offer that’s hard to refuse. It may flatter the suckers
and the mugs as “the American people,” but it regards them
as so many dots, to be measured by opinion polls and focus groups,
with calculation where its conscience should be. And it gets a lot
of help from people who ought to know better.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on July 27, 1999.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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