Mike Quille unearths the radical politics and art in Carol Reed's great thriller.
In an uncanny parallel with today, many in the Britain of 1949 were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party’s policies for economic austerity at home and support for US imperialism abroad. Those concerns rumble below the surface in The Third Man, first screened that year. Written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles, the film is set in a post-war Vienna divided into zones of influence by the victorious but mutually suspicious Allies. It is a bombed-out, rubble-strewn city of darkness and disorder, emphasised by unsettling camera tilts and the distorted, wide-angle shots of landscapes, interiors and characters.
The film’s central character Harry Lime (Welles) is a US businessman criminally responsible for the death and chronic ill health of patients through diluting penicillin in the search for greater profits. Like transnational corporations, his business activities are lucrative and lawless — he avoids detection by using the city’s sewer system.
In a key scene, he literally employs high-flown rhetoric from the top of a Ferris wheel to justify making profits at the expense of the people far beneath him. Renaissance wars produced great art and philosophy, he argues, whereas “brotherly love, peace and democracy” in Switzerland brought “nothing but the cuckoo clock.” His words are a clear allegory of post-war US big business, a voracious, cynical capitalism cloaked — like its British forebear — in a veneer of culture and civilisation.
Writer Holly Martins, the film’s other main character, is a friend of Lime’s. The scripts he pens, where the classic cowboy strategy of solving problems with guns and calling it morality always prevails, implicitly reference US cold-war policy. Meekly followed by the Labour government, it dashed post-war hopes on the left that alliances with working people across Europe and the Soviet Union would be the best guarantee of lasting peace.
Lime has invited him to Vienna to write promotional publicity for his criminal enterprises — again, an allegorical expression of how advertising copywriters and other cultural workers were being commercialised and suborned to the US post-war project of promoting consumer capitalism while claiming the moral high ground of “freedom of the individual” over attempts in Europe to build fairer, socialist societies.
The Third Man is the Cold War in microcosm and a critique of its politics, accurately capturing the tension, mistrust and fear characteristic of Europe post-1945. Characters and their relationships assume the symbolism of economic and political forces without losing dramatic credibility as people in any way. The camerawork, the jaunty ambivalence of the music and the sombre shadows all create a sense of tension and uneasiness and the menacing, noirish atmosphere of betrayal and disappointment powerfully expresses the disappointment, disillusion and dissent amongst the British working class as the government drifts rightwards in its foreign policy and fails to challenge and change Britain’s rigid class structure.
Reed’s direction and all of the actors are outstanding but the most memorable performance is Welles’s brave portrayal of Lime, informed by his own radical politics and artistry, as was also the case with Greene. Lime’s persona brilliantly encapsulates the arrogance and violence beneath the surface of smooth-talking, charismatic capitalists. He’s a conscious recreation by Greene and Welles of Kurtz, the cynical and persuasive trader and tyrant in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lime, who makes money from mutilated children in Vienna, personifies the predatory capitalism of post-war US big business just as Kurtz, who enslaves and mutilates workers in the Congo rubber plantations, personifies the murderous colonialism of European empires.
The Third Man’s protagonist is thus the perfect symbol of the rising power of US post-war corporate capitalism. It’s no wonder that the US authorities bundled Greene out of the country in 1952 as a suspected communist or that right-wing Hollywood studio bosses regarded Welles as box-office poison and blacklisted him for years afterwards. By behaving in fact as Lime does in fiction, they could not have chosen a better way of demonstrating the truth of the radical politics and art behind this great film.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.