LIMELIGHT IN VIENNA: some notes on British cinema’s most charismatic villain

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the 20th anniversary of its being voted the best British film of the century in a British Film Institute poll, I want to offer some reflections on the film and particularly on the character of Harry Lime, who, as played by Orson Welles, is assuredly one of the cinema’s most charismatic villains. A remarkable aspect of Lime’s cinematic durability is that he is only on screen for around 8 minutes or so. My focus will be on those scenes in which he appears and the reasons for their impact. To begin with, however, I wish to ruminate on one of his most striking features: his name.

What’s in a name?

In Ways of Escape, Graham Greene mentioned some of the symbolic interpretations which had been offered about the names of the two main characters of his screenplay, Harry Lime and Holly Martins: for example, how the former had been linked to the lime tree in Sir James Frazer’s classic study of pagan mythology, The Golden Bough (1922), and how Holly was clearly associated with Christmas, so symbolically they represented a clash between paganism and Christianity. Greene could offer a much simpler explanation for what he had in mind:

The truth is I wanted for my ‘villain’ a name natural and yet disagreeable, and to me Lime represented the quicklime in which murderers were said to be buried. As for Holly, it was because my first choice of name Rollo had not met with the approval of Joseph Cotten. So much for symbols.1

The Magnificent Ambersons

“I don’t think he’ll change. At 21 or 22, so many things appear solid, permanent and terrible, which 40 sees as nothing but disappearing miasma. 40 can’t tell 20 about this; 20 can only find out by getting to be 40.” (Eugene’s letter to Isabelle in The Magnificent Ambersons)

“Nobody knows whether the world is old or young.” (G.K. Chesterton)

In Billy Wilder’s scintillating portrait of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950), there is a moment where a former star of the silent screen (Gloria Swanson) is outlining the plot of her comeback film Salome to a cynical young screenwriter (William Holden). “The princess in love with a holy man,” she says. “He rejects her. She dances the dance of the seven veils. She demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.” Comments the screenwriter sardonically: “They’ll love it in Pomona.” It is a vicious reference. On March 17, 1942, the Fox Theatre in Pomona, California was the scene of one of the most notorious previews in film history, that of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The derisive response of the audience was to trigger a chain of events which was to lead to the cutting of the film by about a third from its original length of 131 minutes. It was an act of aesthetic vandalism whose severity had not been seen in Hollywood since the savaging of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923) nearly twenty years earlier. Welles’s relationship with Hollywood never recovered.

The cinema of Orson Welles: An introduction

“It’s like meeting God without dying,” said Dorothy Parker on first encountering Orson Welles. Still in his early twenties, Welles’s fame had preceded him: the boy wonder who could read by the age of two; who could quote chunks of King Lear by the time he was seven; who had written a treatise on Nietzsche and published a best-selling book on Shakespeare before he was out of his teens. A voodoo version of Macbeth and an anti-Fascist modern-dress Julius Caesar had established his stage reputation as a stupendously original director. His sensational radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween night in 1938 had been powerful enough to provoke mass hysteria on a scale unprecedented for the modern media, either before or since. When at the age of 25, he produced, directed, starred in and co-wrote his debut feature Citizen Kane and it turned out to have the artistry and authority of an authentic film ‘auteur’ before the term had even been invented, there seemed only one possible way Welles’s career could go: down.

When he was asked if he knew at the time he was making an important film, Welles replied with the swagger of the young Kane himself: “I never doubted it for a single instant”. Time has proved him right: Citizen Kane remains the Great American Film against which all contenders must be measured. Yet one cannot forget how closely Welles’s audacity courted catastrophe. In constructing a character portrait so close to the public and private life of the ruthless newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who angrily tried to suppress the film, he came very close to making a masterpiece that would never be shown. Moreover, although the film radiates with the youth and precocious talents of its flamboyant collaborators, most of whom were new to the cinema, it also aches with the central character’s sense of frustrated achievement. It is a film of echo and shadow dominated by a gigantic but hollow man whose life trails into a shadow of what it might have become. Kane is always making promises, but they remain unfulfilled, like his own promise. It was as if Welles was tempting Providence, making a prophetic film of his own possible development. By a curious coincidence both Kane and Welles were to die the same age.

Barry Lyndon

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It was the subject of the first film review I ever published, in a now-defunct magazine Films Illustrated which had a section that invited readers the right of reply if they felt a film had been under-rated (or over-rated, I suppose). The reviews I had read of Barry Lyndon when it had first opened described it as overlong, boring, indecipherable, embalmed, symptomatic of a tendency in modern cinema for directorial self-indulgence, so I had gone to the cinema with comparatively low expectations. Three hours later I had emerged in a daze, convinced I had seen a film of quite exceptional artistry.

I think one reason why critics at the time had been baffled was the choice of material. Kubrick’s three previous films (Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971)) had been futuristic fantasies whereas this was a leap back into the eighteenth century. Moreover, the film was based on a virtually unread novel by Thackeray, published in 1844, which the novelist had intended as a demystification of the lovable rogue hero which he felt had not been done since the time of Henry Fielding. (A number of critics of Kubrick’s film had alluded to Tony Richardson’s film version of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1963, book 1749), as if expecting a similarly jolly experience, but there’s a world of difference between the high spirits of that film and the ominous tread of Kubrick’s.) The story charts the rise of its hero, Redmond Barry, by virtue of a prosperous marriage, and Thackeray’s intention was satirical, a first-person narrative by a hero who fancies himself as an eighteenth century gentleman but who unwittingly reveals himself as an unscrupulous scoundrel. By contrast, Kubrick’s tone is sombre, and the rise and fall of Barry Lyndon is told mainly through a combination of images (Barry doesn’t do a lot of talking for himself) and an off-screen narration, suavely intoned by Michael Hordern, who sometimes sees into the future in a way that Barry cannot, giving a sense of fatalism to the hero’s progress and the flavour of a cautionary tale. The narrator will sometimes puncture Barry’s romantic illusions and draw attention to the indifference of history to the individual life. Of a battle in which the hero takes part, the narrator notes dryly: ‘Though this encounter is not recorded in any history books, it was memorable for those who took part.’ It is particularly memorable for Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) because he is killed, one of several father/protector figures Barry acquires in the first half of the film who fall away in the second half, leaving him isolated and vulnerable.