Entry from June 21, 2012

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of The Enemy Within. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series opened on Wednesday, June 20th with a screening of The Third Man (1949) by Carol Reed, starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the series in general and this movie as follows.

Welcome to this year’s Summer Movie Series, co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute, which I wish to thank once again for the use of these facilities. I hope you have all found the popcorn and pizza and other snacks on the tables at the back and that, if you can, you will stay for a while after the movie to take part in the discussion that is the standard operating procedure for these film series, now in their sixth year. I would also like to remind you at this time please to turn off your cell-phones and any other electronic noise-makers you may have in your possession. As in the past, I’ll just say a few words about what we’re going to see and then we’ll start the movie.

This year’s films have all been chosen around the theme of The Enemy Within, an idea which perhaps could be said to have its contemporary origins in the boast by the fascist General Emilio Mola during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 that he was marching on Madrid with four columns of troops but with a hidden “Fifth Column” of subversives already in the city. His announcement led to massacres of potential fifth columnists by Republican forces in charge there. In the same year, the Moscow Show Trials of falsely accused enemies of the Soviet Revolution began as the prelude to the Great Terror which has ever since defined what we mean by Stalinism. In America and elsewhere in the West the idea of an organized body of subversives among our fellow citizens who are actively working for their country’s enemies, though not unprecedented, was relatively new and, in the post-war period, associated with the threat of Soviet communism.

We shall have more to say about that, obviously, in the weeks to come, but the first film in the series is Carol Reed’s The Third Man of 1949, set in post-war Vienna under the four-power occupation. Like next week’s movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is not ostensibly about communism or politics at all, except very tangentially, but it demands to be read as a sort of parable in illustration of E.M. Forster’s now-famous (or, I would say, notorious) dictum that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This was, of course, the attitude adopted by those, many of them in the movie industry, who were later to mythologize their own persecution and black-listing under what was to become known as “McCarthyism.”

Though some of them did suffer, they were believing communists or what was known as “fellow-travelers” with the communists whose first loyalty, as was well-understood by all party members at the time, was to the Soviet Union. The party discipline imposed by Moscow on American communists in those years was as rigid if not as lethally enforced as it was in the homeland of the Revolution. Yet when the hunters of subversion on the House Un-American Activities Committee or Senator McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee on Investigations came calling in the late 1940s and early 1950s, these Americans who had made a virtue of their disloyalty to their country saw the disloyalty to themselves of friends and former colleagues who, as the saying was in those days, “named names” to the official investigators as the blackest of evils, never to be forgiven or forgotten.

Communism would have been impossible without its success in first teaching its would-be adherents to minimize any lesser loyalties, including loyalty to country and friends, when these things interfered with their loyalty to the Revolution. The story of Comrade Pavlik, the 13-year-old child who supposedly informed on his father as a resister to collectivization in 1932, though almost certainly a fabrication, was meant to be paradigmatic for all good communists. Yet when threatened themselves with exposure, which at that time and particularly for those who worked in Hollywood meant loss of their livelihoods, they fell back on merely personal loyalties for their protection. Such people had an understandable interest in playing down the paradoxical nature of their own moral system, but Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay of The Third Man (and adapted it from his own novella) gloried in that kind of thing and sets it out for us in all its moral complexity, albeit with little or no reference to communism, in the movie.

His scenario was set up to revolve around the naiveté of its central character, a writer of pulp Westerns named Holly Martins, who is played by Joseph Cotten. Martins, now down on his luck, has come to Vienna because an old school friend whom he hasn’t seen for a decade, Harry Lime, has offered him a job. No sooner does he arrive, however, than he learns that Harry has been killed in an accident. The porter in Harry’s building, played by Paul Hörbiger, has an uncertain command of English and greets Holly by telling him that he is too late: Harry is already in hell (he points up) or heaven (he points down). Already the film’s moral ambiguity is made clear. Also, the hellishness of Vienna, a city which no one in the movie succeeds in leaving, is hinted at here, as it is by the narrator at the beginning for whom “the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm” is now as distant a memory as the Old West of Holly Martins’s “cheap novelettes.”

These are the words used to describe them by the British Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, who is in charge of investigations into black marketeering. Calloway tells Martins that his now-deceased friend was “the worst racketeer that ever made a crooked living in this city” and advises him to go home. Martins, however, having described Harry Lime as the best friend he ever had, refuses to believe such evil of him. Instead of going home, he begins to investigate on his own what he soon realizes are the suspicious circumstances surrounding Harry’s death. In doing so, he soon acquires his own sense of the city’s crookedness, which is also conveyed in the almost expressionistic camera effects by Carol Reed’s director of photography, the Australian Robert Krasker. Throughout, we are reminded that Martins has not been hardened by the war, like all those around him: “Is that what you say to people after death?” he says at one point. “‘Goodness, that”s awkward’?” But what else is there to say when death is a daily companion?

I hope it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the picture if I tell you now that it turns out Harry, played by Orson Welles, has faked his own death in order to get the police off his back and turns up alive and voluble for one memorable scene, set in a Ferris wheel gondola, with his old friend Holly. Here he makes the case, such as it is, for the precedence of personal loyalty over the more public sort. Here’s part of what he says:

What did you want me to do? Be reasonable. You didn’t expect me to give myself up… “It’s a far, far better thing that I do.” The old limelight. The fall of the curtain. Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories. . . Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? 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, so have I. . . I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.

One thing I like about the movie is that, although its tendency is towards greater sympathy with those who display personal loyalty over those who have a stronger sense of public duty, it never lets Harry get away with this attempt to minimize his own crimes. His particular speciality in the black market has been carefully rationed penicillin, which he buys from a corrupt hospital orderly and sells back to the hospitals diluted, so as to increase his profits. But the dilution not only makes the penicillin ineffective, it has its own disastrous effects, especially on children suffering from an outbreak of meningitis. It makes them go “off their head,” in the memorably old-fashioned words of Major Calloway, who takes Holly Martins around to the children’s ward of a hospital in order to persuade him to cooperate in bringing about the apprehension of his old friend.

The camera never allows us to see any of these children, only the look on the faces of Martins and Calloway as they peer into their cribs and a forlorn teddy bear briefly clinging to the bars of one of them. It’s one of the best examples I know in the movies of how horror can be made more horrifying by not showing it than by showing it. It’s this scene which leads Martins to ask Harry, “Have you ever seen any of your victims?”

“You know,” says Harry, “I never feel comfortable on these sorts of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there,” and the camera shows us the view from the top of the Ferris wheel. “Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots 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 nowadays.”

I don’t think it is merely fanciful to make a connection between Harry Lime’s distant “dots” and his pooh-poohing about how “nobody” — at least nobody in this day and age — “thinks in terms of human beings” with the effects of the wartime aerial bombardment. The physical effects on Vienna are everywhere visible in the movie, and they are set off by the chiaroscuro of its exterior shots, but the psychological effects have proved more long-lasting. World War II was the first war when killing from a distance like this, in particular the killing of civilians by bombs dropped from thousands of feet above them, accounted for a significant portion of its casualties. Four years before The Third Man was released, bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ended the war whose after-effects the characters of the movie are still struggling with. Many of them must have been at least as troubled in conscience about it as Winston Churchill who is supposed to have asked on being shown film of the damage wrought by Bomber Command on Germany, “Are we beasts?”

The point is that such people must have felt both things — both the necessity of doing what was done and remorse at, as they saw it, having had to do it — while at the same time preferring like Harry to think of the victims as no more than the “dots” they appear to be from above. What everyone in this post-war lunar landscape and not just the Harry Limes of the world had lost were the easy moral certainties of Holly Martins’s pulp Westerns with their good guys and their bad guys. It is no less clear than ever that Harry is one of the world’s bad guys, but he also knows that he can rely for his protection on the waning self-confidence among his pursuers, or at least an element among them, that they are the good guys. Here I risk trying your patience by saying that I also hear an echo of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach,” in which “the melancholy long withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” took with it all but the most personal sorts of certainties.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

As it happens, Harry’s love, the beautiful actress Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli), is true to him precisely on this principle. In one memorable scene when she is arrested for evading with a false passport (supplied to her by Harry) deportation to Russian-controlled Czechosovakia the British military policeman says to her “I’m sorry, Miss, it’s orders. We can’t go against the protocol.”

Anna desperately replies: “I don’t even know what protocol means.”

“Neither do I, Miss,” says the sympathetic soldier. Talk about your ignorant armies! Her best line in the film comes when she says to Holly Martins’s revelations about Harry’s criminal career: “A person doesn”t change just because you find out more.” She doesn’t pretend to understand any larger moral question than the simple moral certainty of her attachment to Harry.

There is a marvelous moment in the concluding chase scene through the sewers of Vienna, a classic noir episode that sees Harry, holding a revolver, on the run from dozens of policemen. Pursued from all directions, he suddenly stops, standing in the open, in a well-lit place in our plain view, while all his pursuers lurk in the darkness of the surrounding vaulted aisles and passageways. Harry can hear their voices, but he cannot see them; they cannot see him, though he is visible and utterly vulnerable to us. For a moment we forget who are the pursuers and who is the pursued, just as we are meant to forget who are the good guys and who are the bad. Only Anna remains entirely without any sense of this moral ambiguity, utterly sure of where her loyalties lie — and they lie with the thief and the murderer.

All this kind of thing is typical of Graham Greene, who had worked for British Intelligence during the war under the Soviet double agent (as he was later revealed to be) Kim Philby and who had a lifelong fascination with the theme of loyalty and betrayal. In a remarkable coincidence, Philby, though still undetected at the time, was to become known as “the Third Man” who assisted the escape to Moscow in 1951 of his fellow Soviet agents in MI-6, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. In that case, of course, personal and ideological ties were pulling in the same direction, but the real-life story of Burgess, Maclean and Philby — and the fourth and fifth members of what are now known as the Cambridge Five, John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt — could have been designed by Greene as an illustration of how the personal and the ideological are not easily disentangled.

I wish we had time in our subsequent movies in this series to pursue the distinctively British view of such matters, which we can see in embryo in this film and which was to go on to be developed in the novels of John Le Carré. Both Greene and Le Carré adopt a patronizing and often contemptuous view of Americans as being, like Holly Martins, overly attached to their quaintly old-fashioned notions of good guys and bad guys. And this is a corollary to the argument for “moral equivalence” with which both show some sympathy. That means equivalence not only between the American and the Soviet systems but also between the presumed amoral behavior of the intelligence and security services of both sides — which was to become the default assumption of the sophisticated, in America almost as much as in Britain, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet The Third Man doesn’t quite allow us that easy certainty either. The British authorities, which are the only ones we see in the movie apart, briefly, from the Russian, are still clearly good guys standing apart from the general corruption of Vienna, which is itself like one of the gangrenous wounds that Harry Lime’s penicillin cannot treat. “You’ll never teach these Austrians to be good citizens,” says the Romanian Popescu, played by Siegfried Breuer. He’s clearly drawing a line between the Anglo-Saxons, both British and American, and everybody else associated with Vienna and tainted, like himself, by association with demoralization and defeat. The pall of gloom that hangs over the city and its inhabitants suggests what we now call the “dystopian,” a kind of forecast of generalized evil that threatens to engulf the Anglo-Saxon powers as well, though it hasn’t done so as yet.

That same oppressive gloom also sets off the jaunty amorality of Harry Lime, which blows through the movie, designedly I’m sure, like a breath of fresh air. The most memorable of his lines to his old friend Holly Martins, apparently improvised by Welles himself, come right at the end of their one speaking scene together. “Don’t be so gloomy,” says Harry who, a few minutes earlier, had been prepared to kill his friend — until he realized that the latter had already been to the police and revealed his secret.

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 brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

As an apologia for the evil Harry has wrought and is still to commit, this is of course absurd, but as a way of putting himself and the new post-war world he represents to Graham Greene and Carol Reed in a historical context it ought at least to give us pause. In particular, it is a denial of the communist notion of history as a quasi-autonomous moral force inexorably bearing us forward towards the progressive utopia in whose name the treacheries of the Cambridge Five, among so many others, were committed. Harry represents Greene’s Catholic sense of inevitable sin and corruption which remains a powerful counterweight, perhaps the only one there is, to the vision of the savage utopians whose threat to the free world was beginning to dawn on the popular imagination in 1949. In the weeks to come we’ll see many other approaches to this threat, including the denial that it is one, but none that remain today as imaginatively powerful as this.

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