You Know Harry

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July
27, 1999

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
minor characters.

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
name.

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 own profit.
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, aren’t I?"

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 the living.

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
and betrayed.

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.

Sobran’s
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Joseph
Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
of the most significant American writers. See his
website
and his
intellectual journey
.

The
Best of Joseph Sobran

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