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[whitespace] Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles
Money Men: In 'The Third Man,' starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, novelist Graham Greene's subject isn't adultery--a sin that dooms practitioners to hell in Greene's Catholic world--but the kind of sin most of us can understand and participate in: avarice, the love of money.

Lime's Disease

Graham Greene provided the sin and estrangement, but Orson Welles' Harry Lime steals Carol Reed's classic thriller 'The Third Man'

By Richard von Busack

AMONG THE RELIGIOUS, there is a saying: a Christian is a stranger in this world. In the novels of Graham Greene, the protagonists all show their Catholic estrangement, whether in London during the Blitz or in the sagging English colonies.

Greene's antiheroes exist close enough to international trouble spots to see every horrific detail--as Greene, a sometime intelligence agent, did. But his characters are helpless to act on what they see. They are adulterers, caught by bonds of love (or sex). They are addicted to drugs or drink. They are impotent sinners, in short: stuck in hellish situations as punishment.

Greene's writing exhibits the savage incisiveness of a man who went to confession often, listing every sin. This self-made Catholic's sense of disgrace is foreign to many who inherit the religion. (My experience of being a Catholic is what you'd expect in a sunny, prosperous place like California: sweet-faced nuns with guitars and Sister Corita lithographs. Whatever terror of hellfire I had, I inflicted on myself).

Greene had his code as an English gentleman--it sounds like nonsense, the phrase, but it was a serious matter then. And Greene also had his own rules as a Catholic, with a code more rigid than even that of an Englishman of the gentry.

Consider Greene's 1948 novel, The Heart of the Matter, a fine-minded yet exasperating book about a Catholic who lets down the side and obediently accepts his place in Hell. Scobie is a British colonial policeman in Africa in 1942 who gets tangled in an extramarital affair after his wife leaves on an open-ended vacation of more than six months.

Scobie imagines his (well-earned, I think) adulterous affair as an insult to God--like rubbing the face of the baby Jesus in the dirt of the Bethlehem stable. (Very Victorian English public school: the bit about the stable floor is what you'd imagine John Cleese would preach if you stuffed him into a cassock.)

And as George Orwell notes, if Scobie were the kind of man we are told Scobie is, a man terrified of causing pain, "he would not be an officer in a colonial police force." Orwell, who had been a soldier in Burma, knew what he was talking about.

The author of 1984, who once described the British empire as a circle of bayonets protecting a shopkeeper, was puzzled at a vision of Africa in which the conflict between Africans and their occupiers doesn't exist. Which led Orwell to ask, why is The Heart of the Matter set in Africa, when "the whole thing might as well be happening in a London suburb?"

Is it because, among the ordinarily virtuous Londoners, a man like Scobie wouldn't have the opportunity for sin? Greene needed an atmosphere in which anything is possible: polygamy, easily arranged murder and so on. Without the background of corruption and sin, a Graham Greene Catholic, the elect among the gentiles, wouldn't stand out in such relief.

THE FILM VERSION of Greene's 1951 novel, The End of the Affair (now playing in San Francisco and due for general release in January), goes much more gently on the errant soul than The Heart of the Matter. But the subject matter is, essentially, the same: Catholic faith interfering with an extramarital affair.

Director Neil Jordan describes his handsome but humorless adaptation as a love triangle with God as the fourth side. The narrator, Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is tempted to Catholic faith but remains skeptical. Bendrix, who considers himself a free thinker, has a line that could have come straight from Harry Lime, the raffish villain of Greene's original screenplay for Carol Reed's 1949 film The Third Man: "The not done things are done every day, Henry. It's part of modern life. I've done most of them myself."

The Third Man was a sort of trifle by Greene's lights. He called the published version of the script an "entertainment," as opposed to his more substantial works. Greene's subject isn't adultery in the context of loveless, sexless marriages that any sane man or woman would flee. Instead it's the kind of sin most of us can understand and participate in: avarice, the love of money. With postwar Vienna providing a corrupt cityscape and with Orson Welles playing the gleefully sinning Harry Lime, The Third Man is probably the most popular study of the allure of evil that Greene ever wrote.

In Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures, a teenaged girl (Kate Winslet) races out of a theater showing The Third Man and shouts ecstatically, "Orson Welles is the most evil man in the world!"

"He gave the impression of stepping out of his own life," comments critic Andre Bazin on the moment in The Third Man when Welles' man-in-the-moon face first blazes out of a Viennese doorway. With his sleekness and gravity, Welles changes the Greene character (a fat, sordid chap in the book) into a mischievous epitome of power politics. Greene gives The Third Man its atmosphere of estrangement, of decency trying to survive in a whored-out, bombed-out city. But it's Welles who gives the movie its charisma.

The Third Man is back in a version that finally resembles director Carol Reed's original cut. For its U.S. release in 1949, the film was trimmed scene by scene, in chunks of less than a minute. The restored 11 minutes visible in the new print include a glimpse of a daring (for its time) scene of a stripper. Also, it had perhaps never been quite so clear that two of the peripheral characters, Dr. Winkel and Baron Kurtz, were not only unindicted co-conspirators but also lovers.

What remains the same in this great film, one of the most powerful film noirs, is the atmosphere of casual betrayal, the overture of the Cold War to come.

'The Third Man' The Shadow Knows: Director Carol Reed's classic, 'The Third Man,' was a noir overture to the Cold War.

ANTON KARAS' famous zither-filled "The Third Man Theme" accompanies scenes of a ruined Vienna right after World War II, "bombed about a bit," says the anonymous narrator (voiced by Reed). The Big Four powers--France, the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and the U.K.--have quartered Vienna like a pie.

Into this disputed city comes one Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an undistinguished writer of pulp Westerns. Martins has been offered a job by his disreputable chum from boarding-school days, Harry Lime. The author arrives to find that Lime has just been hit by a truck and killed. The British authorities are eager to send Martins home, which makes him suspicious. His investigations suggest that there was a missing man--a "third man"--at the scene of the fatal accident who could explain Lime's death.

Here's the blueprint for a standard film noir: corrupt town, sinister police and tough hero. But the blueprint is discarded. Martins is clumsy, bad with his fists. He doesn't hold his liquor well. Vienna is seen in drunk vision. ("Dutch angles" is the technical term for the famous slanted compositions Reed uses.) The pale, lurid faces loom up into the eye of the camera, in exactly the way someone might get into a drunken man's face.

When Martins hooks up with Lime's mourning girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), the writer brings the girl not help, just more trouble. Lime's disappearance begins to look less like a killing and more like a ruse. And Martins learns, to his chagrin, that Lime was involved in a vicious, callous racket that put profit ahead of innocent lives.

Eventually, Martins' inquiries flush out Harry. In one of the most famous scenes in the movie, Lime takes Martins for a ride on the gigantic Vienna Ferris wheel and explains his view of history. The people below look just like ants--and they count for no more than ants. It's a pop version of Matthew 4:8: the devil showing off all the opportunities in the world from a great height.

WELLES MAKES the film, but that's not to say The Third Man is actually Welles' film. Guy Hamilton, assistant director on The Third Man, stressed to the critic Adrian Turner that "Welles had bugger-all to do with the direction."

Welles himself always laid the credit at the feet of Reed and producer Alexander Korda. (And would Welles have made Touch of Evil without the examples of Vienna as night-town in The Third Man?)

Still, if it weren't for Welles, I doubt that The Third Man would enjoy the reputation with audiences it does. Certainly, it would be remembered by film critics, as is Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948, based on Greene's short story "The Basement Room"). The delirium-stricken scenes of Belfast in Odd Man Out anticipate the hallucinatory night-for-night shots in The Third Man, with spilled cobblestones, broken staircases and contorted statues.

Even the famous climactic chases through the sewers of Vienna might not be enough to guarantee The Third Man's status as a great popular film and not just a film-school touchstone. Who, after all, has heard of the 1948 low-budget John Alton/Anthony Mann picture He Walks by Night, with its terrific finale, a chase through the L.A. storm sewers? Without Welles' dark sense of humor, it's doubtful The Third Man would be remembered far and above anything else Graham Greene ever wrote.

It's Welles who gives the movie its considerable pleasures and complex morality. His Lime, that great embodiment of fascinating fascism, provides the thrill of at last seeing the enemy in your periscope. The Third Man, like Welles' Citizen Kane, is a story of an American who wants love on his own terms: "The only terms anyone understands," says Charles Foster Kane, which is just how Harry Lime would put it. Citizen Kane shows the underside of populism; Joseph Cotten's Jedidiah Leland explains that his ex-friend Kane is a man who considers liberty a gift he can give the people.

In the same imperial view from atop the Ferris wheel of history, the U.S. thought it could bestow democracy on the postwar world. Prophetically, The Third Man foretells the mistakes America was going to make in the next 50 years, the failure of the best intentions and the success of the worst ones.

Martins, a good man who gets in over his head, offers an early example of American foreign interventions gone wrong. And Lime: Lime is every spook who did evil in the name of free enterprise. Lime's treacherous smirk foretells the entire ugly history of the Cold War, all of its cost, its lies and its degradation.

The Third Man (1949; unrated; 115 min.), directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, opens Thursday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the December 15-22, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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