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

However, it is worth noting that a character’s name in The Third Man, like his or her nationality, is a very slippery business in what is an extremely slippery film (in terms of its narrative development, its camera style, and even its streets, which seem to gleam with wetness although it never rains). Holly was originally Rollo but is sometimes called Harry by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who is supposedly Austrian but is actually Czech, so one could surmise that Schmidt is not her real name.

The British Chief of Police, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is mistakenly called Callahan by Holly (the name probably derives from the head of the British Military Police at that time, Galloway) but Calloway is also the name of the crooked financier of one of Greene’s short stories ‘Across the Bridge’ (1938) which concludes with one of his most potent phrases – “the baseless optimism that is worse than hopeless despair” – which seems to predict the folly of appeasement and the onset of war. In The Third Man, we are amidst the rubble of Vienna after World War Two, and Holly will encounter a sinister Austrian doctor called Dr Winkle (Erich Ponto) whose name Holly will mispronounce as “winkle”. The film is a veritable miasma of unstable identity in a city of fluid nationalities and borders and even more flexible morality. As one of Lime’s shady associates, ‘Baron’ Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), tells Holly: “I tell you, I have done things that would have been unthinkable before the war.”

Although Greene indicated that the name of Holly for his main character was inspired by the 19th century American poet Thomas Holley Chivers, who was essentially a figure of fun (Greene wanted the name to be absurd and at one stage Anna comments directly on how silly it is), it has been suggested that the actual character of Holly Martins was based on the American screenwriter and producer Robert Buckner as an act of retaliation for Buckner’s screen adaptation of Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent, which had been filmed by Herman Shumlin in 1945. Buckner had been the screenwriter on a number of westerns, including The Oklahoma Kid (1939), and Holly Martins writes westerns, one of which is called ‘Oklahoma Kid’, which ‘Baron’ Kurtz displays on his first meeting with him and which Major Calloway later tells Holly he has read with some pleasure. Greene might have been having a private joke at Buckner’s expense (he was a great practical joker), but I don’t think he was after revenge. After all, he rallied to the defence of Lauren Bacall’s much-criticised performance in that film, and in general thought The Confidential Agent perhaps the best American film adaptation of his work, far surpassing the endeavours of more prestigious Hollywood directors, such as Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear (1944)) John Ford (The Fugitive (1947), based on The Power and the Glory), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Quiet American (1958)) and George Cukor (Travels with my Aunt (1972)). He might also have been pondering ‘Holly’ as a diminutive of ‘Hollywood’, and thinking wryly of those bizarre story conferences about The Third Man that he and Carol Reed had shared with Hollywood mogul, David O Selznick, which on one occasion seemed destined to be endlessly protracted until Selznick realised he was thinking of another film entirely. In his Preface to The Pleasure Dome (1972) Greene recalled, among other things, Selznick’s dislike of the film’s title (“Who the hell is going to a film called The Third Man?” he grumbled), and his preferred choice of Noel Coward in the role of Harry Lime (both Reed and Greene were appalled).2

But what about the name ‘Harry Lime’? ‘Harry’ is a good English name with Shakespearean connections (“Pray God for Harry, England and St George!”), but it also has connotations of to ‘harry’, as in ‘harass’, or ‘hurry’, for a character who is elusive, sometimes threatening, and always on the move. Lime is a shade of green, or what Peter Conrad called “an acid variant of the novelist’s name.”3 Another connection between Greene and Lime is obliquely suggested by an interesting comment about the novelist which is cited in Ian Thomson’s book Articles of Faith, where Tom Burns is quoted as saying that, when Greene entered a room, he “seemed to me to have a spotlight on him”.4 Think of Harry Lime’s first entrance in The Third Man: arguably the most dramatic spotlit entrance of any film character.

The name resonates in other ways. It is only one letter short of ‘smile’; and he is the only character in the whole film who really smiles. (When anyone else does, or laughs, it is so remarkable an occurrence that it usually attracts comment. Anna has only two laughs in her, she says; and Holly seems almost terminally morose, a potentially monotonous mood which, it should be said, Joseph Cotten invests with a good deal of variety and charm.) ‘Lime’ is also only one letter short of ‘slime’, as if presaging that final chase in the sewers. It is a clever name because it is such a fizzy concoction of ‘sly’, ‘slime’, ‘smile’ and ‘lie’, all of which make up the cocktail of his character. And the film certainly ensures that we don’t forget it, or him: the name is mentioned twice in the prologue, and ten times in the opening ten minutes, and he dominates every scene in the picture, whether he is in it or not. His absence is always present; indeed it ensures the film always seems to have a spring in its step and a surprise round every corner. “Lime, Harry Lime,” says Holly in the opening scene when he gets off the train and is explaining the purpose of his visit to Vienna, “Thought he’d be here to meet me.” But he isn’t, for Lime is a will o’ the wisp who is not where Holly thought he would be nor is he where Calloway thinks he is. “Could you tell me.. is this …?” says Holly at the graveyard when wondering whose funeral service it is “A fellow called Lime”, says Calloway, dispassionately. But it is not quite, for someone else is in that coffin; although even when he is supposed to be dead, his spirit seems to walk abroad and every character seems obsessed with him.

All of this mystery and mythologizing is setting the makers of the film a huge challenge, because when he does eventually appear, it must deliver on that promise. It is similar to a Hitchcock suspense sequence: when you have worked an audience up to such a pitch of expectation, you have to top that expectation with something extra in order to avoid anti-climax. After all, an audience knows that Orson Welles will appear sometime in the film, because his name is on the credits. When Carol Reed told Welles apologetically that he would not appear until halfway through, Welles replied: “Could you make it two-thirds?” He might well have been thinking of something like the carefully delayed entrance for maximum effect of the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, a work very close to Welles’s own heart (he had adapted it for radio, and it was intended to be his first film before location and financial complications forced its cancellation: nevertheless, Citizen Kane was to show clear traces of its influence.)5 And it is not just a case of when the character is going to appear; it is also how.

Extract 1: Enter Harry Lime

This is surely one of the classic moments of the cinema: once seen, never forgotten. Much of its power derives from the skill of its preparation.

As Anna and the lovelorn and inebriated Holly are sharing their memories of Harry in Anna’s apartment, the camera, which has been behaving oddly throughout the film, makes a sudden lunge towards the open window, as if it has spotted something strange out in the square that it was not expecting to see. A dark figure is walking across the street but it seems to stop as if noting a light on in Anna’s apartment. The cat, which Anna has said only liked Harry, has gone wandering off into the square to see what is happening. (One is not surprised to find that Harry was a cat person – sly, self-sufficient, a loner – whereas Holly is associated with a squawking parrot.) It comes to a doorway and starts sniffing round a person’s shoes, which are well polished and give the impression of a man who is doing quite well for himself for someone in a bombed out city. Another thing about those shoes: they might give a clue as to the identity of the murderer of the porter (Paul Hoerbiger), who just, before his death, looked as if he had seen a ghost. The screenplay reads: “Porter slams the window and turns towards camera. He stays still, listening. The sound of squeaking shoes [my emphasis] approaching from the next room. As they come closer, there is a look of horror on the Porter’s face.”6 Holly will be suspected of that murder; and it could be another example of Holly’s getting into a scrape from which his best friend has escaped, a repeated pattern of their childhood friendship.

When Holly comes out of Anna’s apartment, he notices a figure in shadow in a doorway across the square. Still quite drunk, he starts shouting at it: “Cat got your tongue?” and then defiantly initiates a game with this mysterious spy: “Come out, come out, whoever you are…” Suddenly this childish chant seems magically to summon up the very person who has defined childhood for him. Joseph Cotten’s reaction shot at that point is superb, for the shock of what he sees jerks him forward, and what will follow in a moment is what Graham Greene said was his favourite game from childhood: a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. The game has cropped up also in The Fallen Idol (1948) and in his short story ‘The End of the Party’ and in each case the game will start playfully but will turn into something much more serious, as it will in The Third Man, when the game is to be played out again in earnest and fatally in the sewers of Vienna.

The revelation is visually stunning. One of the neighbours, complaining about the noise in the street, opens her window and the light from her room illuminates the doorway like a theatrical spotlight, to reveal Harry Lime, an appropriately grand entrance for a larger-than-life character who, it seems, even has his own theme tune and one which is so insistently catchy that it sold 40 million copies on its release. Anton Karas’s music is one of the film’s master-strokes (there are a few) and part of its magic is that it fits the character so snugly. There is a hollowness to it, as if it is suggesting that Harry, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is hollow at the core, yet its jauntiness has something of Harry’s cheek; it is not the obvious music for a villain; it seems to invite us to forgive him. Incidentally it is quite wrong to claim, as some soundtrack critics have done, that the theme is repeated incessantly through the film. Apart from the opening credits, it only appears when Harry appears.

In the published screenplay, Greene describes Lime’s habitual expression in Martins’ presence as one of “amused geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.”7 That could almost have been written with Welles in mind. It is as if his cockeyed smile, the ironical twinkle in his eye, his cheerful rascality, requires the tilting of the camera to reflect Harry’s sardonic take on things.8 Even the step where he stands seems to be on a slight slope. In Citizen Kane, there is a famous close-up of Welles when the young Kane as newspaper editor has just enunciated his ‘Declaration of Principles’, and Joseph Cotten as his best friend Leland asks to keep a copy of it as he feels it might someday be important. Welles as Kane smiles at that but looks uncomfortable, as if he has been caught out at something. Peter Bogdanovich thought the shot looked awkward, though Welles always insisted it was meant to look that way, but the close-up in The Third Man cannot be faulted: it is exactly what the moment demands. The great French critic André Bazin thought this performance enshrined Welles as a movie actor much more than Citizen Kane. This is all the more remarkable given its short duration, and is particularly interesting because, unusually for Welles, he played the part without make-up, meaning that this was the closest we ever got to him on screen. Bazin went on:

The topicality of Greene’s script equated the ambiguity of his hero with our war-torn world. Personable bandit, in tune with the disillusionment, the romanticism of the period, archangel of the sewers, an outlaw prowling the zone dividing good from evil, a monster worthy of love, Harry Lime/Welles was, in this case, more than a character: he was a myth.9

Personable bandit/monster worthy of love: Bazin’s paradoxical description of Lime cannot but remind one of those favourite lines of Greene’s in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which Greene said could stand as an epigraph to all his books:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books –
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway.10

Small wonder that Harry Lime appealed so strongly to Greene’s imagination. Little wonder also that Carol Reed was his favourite of all the directors he worked with, not simply fulfilling his vision of this moment but imaginatively enhancing it.

There is a fine touch still to come. When Holly tries to cross the square, he is almost run over; and in the time it takes him to recover, Lime has gone. It is a subliminal recollection of how Lime is supposed to have died (being hit by a car), but he seems to have disappeared as if by magic. We remember that Lime has taught Holly the three-card trick, and also perhaps that Orson Welles was an accomplished magician who could no doubt make himself disappear in a deserted square. It is another example of why Welles was such perfect casting.

As yet, we have only seen Harry Lime. We have heard much about him – the worst racketeer in Vienna, fun to be around – but we have not heard his voice. From a brilliantly constructed visual sequence, we will move to what one could equally be described as an exemplary piece of screenwriting, where the eloquence of the dialogue and the sharpness of the characterisation never get in the way of purposefully moving the film forward.

Extract 2: The Great Wheel

The scene on the Great Wheel is so important because it is the only one in the entire film between Harry and Holly. In those five minutes the momentum of the narrative has to be maintained, but the scene must also capture the essential relationship between the two men, which is the core of the film and what has kept Holly in Vienna. If that does not come across, the whole film falls apart.

There is an immediate contrast in character: Holly waiting glumly, Harry arriving on the move- brisk, unapologetic, already smiling, no explanations, just a greeting (“Hello, old man…”). There is no suggestion of guilt. He does not suffer from a bad conscience, only from bad indigestion (rather like the lawyer Prewitt in Greene’s Brighton Rock, who is also corrupt and dyspeptic and who says that “I’ve sunk so deep I carry the secrets of the sewer”: Harry Lime has taken that one literal stage further). Yet immediately on his appearance, and even as Harry circles round him (he could always run rings round Holly), one can feel life quickening with excitement for Holly and can sense within him the magnetism of Harry’s attraction.

“Hello, old man” is a slightly odd greeting, a term of endearment (he uses it six times in the scene) that is not meant literally but does carry certain inferences. There is still an element of the naughty boy about Harry Lime. “He never grew up,” Anna has said about him, “the world grew up around him.” Holly seems older by comparison, having the melancholy of maturity. The setting adds to that feeling: a playground, a fun fair out of season; and in this context, one might also think back to the little boy Hansl (Herbert Halbik) with the round chubby cheeks, whose whole purpose in the film seems to be to get Holly into trouble and who is surely meant as a sort of surrogate of what Harry was like as a child and his relationship even then with Holly. The phrase “old man” also suggests to me a comparison with a film made the previous year, John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), another allegorical fable about the post-war situation, with Edward G Robinson as Johnny Rocco, a deported gangster in hiding, planning a return to America by flooding it not with diluted penicillin (which is Harry’s racket) but with counterfeit money. “Who’s gonna stop me, old man?” he says to Lionel Barrymore, who is in a wheelchair and who symbolically, I think, is meant to evoke Roosevelt. There the phrase “old man” is literal and said with a sneer, unlike the affectionate address of Harry, but the underlying sentiment is similar. Barrymore in Key Largo and Holly in The Third Man are ‘old men’ in comparison with their audacious adversaries, or, more specifically, old-fashioned men, dinosaurs of decency out of place in the ruthless new world of pragmatism, profit and power.

The Great Wheel is an inspired choice of location. It is a reminder of the old Europe which the recent war has destroyed. It is also appropriate for a film of constant instability and revolving perspectives. Anna tells Calloway at one stage that “You’ve got things upside down”, and when the porter tells Holly about Harry’s funeral and the destination of the dead body, he points upwards to indicate Hell and down to indicate Heaven. In his 1947 essay ‘The Lost Childhood’ (which would be a good alternative title for the film), Greene writes that, inspired by Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan, he had discovered the pattern for his future work, which was: “perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”11 It seems to me that The Third Man is an elaboration of that pattern, with Lime as a charismatic Lucifer, who insists that he still believes in God but who knows the way the world is turning. The sin of Lucifer was pride, which comes before a fall, and Harry Lime’s fall will be precipitous: from the top of the Great Wheel all the way to the sewers. As Calloway said on discovering that the man they buried at the beginning of the film was not Lime: “We should have dug deeper than a grave.”

“Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Holly has asked Harry, referring to the patients who have suffered from taking the diluted penicillin. (And, incidentally, the turning-point for Holly is the later occasion when Calloway tricks him into visiting the children’s hospital and he sees for himself some of the victims of Harry’s racket.) In response, Harry will nonchalantly deliver the first of two statements of personal philosophy which encapsulate the moral deformities of a fallen post-war world. “Victims?” he says. “Don’t be melodramatic.” Opening the door to the cable car to look down at humanity below, he goes on:

Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, 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.

A moment later he will go on to say:

In these days, old man, nobody thinks of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs, it’s the same thing. They have their 5-year plans; so have I….

Harry’s smooth alignment of his own individual philosophy with the political morality of the day is still capable of chilling the blood. From his vantage-point of superiority, Harry has the dangerous egotism of the demagogue, an attitude that has accounted for the current devastation of Europe. In Harry’s eyes, such cheerful cynicism is not an erosion of the soul but a recognition of the new reality. It could not be more different from the naive simplicities of Holly’s western novels where good will always triumph and evil will always be defeated.

As if delighting in his amorality, Harry starts teasing Holly with a little game of his own, which typically Holly does not quite grasp. “There’s no proof against me. Except you,” Harry says and muses how easily Holly could now be disposed of. “Don’t be too sure,” says Holly with grim apprehension but Harry seems still to be turning the idea over in his mind. “Hm… I carry a gun. Don’t think they’d look for a bullet after you hit that ground.” And then he laughs: “I suppose he was laughing at us all the time,” Anna has said of him. He has been pulling Holly’s leg, of course, for, as he says, “as though I’d do anything to you or you to me.” Inadvertently he reveals his Achilles’ heel.

The cuckoo clock

As he gets out of the car, Harry extends his offer to Holly to come in with him as a partner and set up another meeting, adding that “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police.” And then comes the parting shot. “And don’t be so gloomy,” he says. “After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” It is the one part of the scene not written by Graham Greene, but improvised on the spot by Orson Welles, and it is an improvisation of genius. Throughout the scene, his delivery of the dialogue – the timing, the rhythm, the apparent spontaneity, the irresistible shafts of mischief, the way he seems always two sentences ahead of Holly’s laborious thought processes – has been instrumental in lifting the words off the page. That exit speech – witty, paradoxical, sardonic, and, as enunciated by Welles, a marvel of breath control and ironic inflection – elevates the scene onto another level. Supreme man of the theatre that he was, Welles knew that a character who had been given such a stunning entrance would need an equally inspired exit, because, to all intents and purposes, this is his last line in the film. What is wonderful about it is that is perfectly in character. It is a lot more than an afterthought by an egotistical actor; it is the magical something extra that makes a screen character not simply memorable but immortal and makes a film sequence not just exceptional but unforgettable.

Harry’s curtain-line, as it were, makes you smile, reminding us that The Third Man could be a rather glum film without Harry Lime, which perhaps is one of the reasons that audiences can like him in spite of themselves.12 And the cuckoo clock is a compelling symbol, “an automaton that pretends to be alive,” as Peter Conrad put it,13 whereas Harry Lime is a human pretending to be dead. It is very Wellesian for Harry to pick the Renaissance as his prize example of artistry in the midst of political turbulence. Yet underneath all the cleverness and the irony, one can still intuit the nihilist in Harry, the Fascist inside the funster, with a contempt for ordinary people and their values, and carrying within him a lethal message about the failure of democracy that now seems so worryingly topical..

The secret of the sewers

I have often puzzled over the last part of the film when Harry agrees to meet Holly. Does he not suspect that he is walking into a trap? Is it a kind of death wish? Or is his trust in Holly so absolute that it never occurs to him that he is being set up? The best defence I have read of Harry’s motivation at this point appears in a book on film-making by that great director Alexander Mackendrick, who, when a teacher at UCLA, had an exercise in which he invited his students to write out the thoughts of a screen character at a particular stage in a film: what would be going through that character’s mind? One of his main examples comes from The Third Man and the thoughts going through Harry Lime’s mind as he approaches that café. Mackendrick suggested a cluster of reasons for Harry’s keeping that appointment, including curiosity (and we know what curiosity did: it killed the cat), but at the heart of it is Harry’s absolute conviction of Holly’s enduring hero-worship and his capacity for loyalty, which makes him, in Harry’s eyes, completely trustworthy.14 “As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me…”

When Peter Bogdanovich discussed loyalty and betrayal with Welles and suggested that “you must disapprove then of Cotten’s betrayal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Welles replied: “Of course… Betrayal is a big thing with me… almost a prime sin.”15 It is another aspect of the casting of Orson Welles which brings a resonance that would not have happened with any other actor. If there is one theme that recurs again and again in Welles’s work, it is the theme of betrayal and, more specifically, betrayal by one’s closest friend or confidante: from Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1952) and Touch of Evil (1958) to perhaps the greatest betrayal scene in all literature, when Welles’s Falstaff is disowned by Prince Hal, now Henry V, in Chimes at Midnight (1966). And casting him next to Joseph Cotten, an acolyte from Welles’s Mercury Theatre, only intensifies the theme. Cotten as Jed Leland in Citizen Kane moans at one stage, “I was his oldest friend – and he behaved like a swine.” Did Cotten betray Welles over The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s magnificent torso of a film, cut by the studio from 131 to 88 minutes after a disastrous preview, and in which Cotten appeared in some scenes that were re-shot by another director? Welles was very cross with him, but Cotten’s feeling was that, if he had not acquiesced, the film might not have been shown at all. Certainly the history between the two men feeds fascinatingly into the character complexities of The Third Man.

In one way, Holly exhibits a quality which Greene was to discuss controversially in his later career (notably in his defence of Kim Philby): the virtue of disloyalty. Holly is disloyal to Harry but for a virtuous reason: the sight of the “victims” in the children’s hospital. Yet why is it that this virtue feels so treacherous? In a later scene with Anna, when it seems as if her papers have been cleared, she realises that she is part of the bargain that Holly has struck with the police to trap Harry, and she tears up her papers in disgust. The price of her freedom is too high. “Look at yourself,” she says to Holly, “They have a name for faces like that.” We learn what that name is when she confronts Holly in the café just as Harry is stealing in by the back entrance and catches the end of their conversation. “Holly. What a silly name,” Anna is saying. “You must feel very proud to be a police informer [my emphasis].” It is on the word “informer” that Harry pulls his gun, and at that point his expression suggests he would do something to Holly, for this is the worst betrayal in his eyes. “Informer” was certainly a loaded word in the Hollywood of 1949, reeling from the investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and prior to the McCarthyist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, which will see friend informing on friend. Harry’s sentimental (complacent?) belief in Holly’s unwavering loyalty has proved his undoing.16

Extract 3: Chase, Funeral and Finale

From the heights of Vienna to its depths: from the top of the Great Wheel to the sewers. Greene was fascinated by the sewers: what he called, “a strange world, unknown to most of us, that lies under our feet.”17 I suspect he saw people like that, essentially unknowable and with hidden depths; and the final chase does feel as if it represents the point when Lime is finally and inescapably trapped by the dark deviousness of his own personality.

At the end, he is cornered, his bid for freedom now rendered as just fingers through a grating that lead out onto the street (another of the film’s indelible images). He has shot the sympathetic Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and retribution is at hand. Now wounded, he will nod consent for Holly to shoot him, even at the end holding dominion over him and, as it were, calling the shots. There is a loud report; and Holly will come back down the tunnel alone with gun in hand, looking for all the world, and for the only time in the film, like one of those western heroes he writes about.

There follows a funeral scene which echoes how the film has begun and brings the narrative full circle (like the Great Wheel). What a strange narrative journey it has been: of a man investigating the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death; suspecting he has been murdered but then discovering he is a murderer; and who, in a delicious stroke of irony that Harry himself might have appreciated, finds that finally it will fall upon him to kill the friend whose death he has been investigating. And yet is Harry dead really? His death is implied, not shown – like the ravages of his diluted penicillin. He still gets the girl, living on in the memory of Anna, who departs from the cemetery and walks past the waiting Holly without so much as a glance, leaving him on the margins of the film frame and amongst the falling leaves, sidelined in love, the absolute epitome of the forlorn romantic loser. Would audiences remain in their seats for this long goodbye and tolerate an unhappy ending in what had been intended as a film with, in Graham Greene’s words, no other desire than “to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh”?18 Greene had misgivings, but Reed insisted that artistic truth should take precedence over commercial calculation, and he was triumphantly vindicated. As Greene later generously acknowledged, he had underestimated the mastery of Carol Reed’s direction and the potency of Anton Karas’s music in making the ending so perfect a conclusion.

Although Greene said they had no desire to move people’s political emotions, it seems to me that, if T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is the definitive evocation of post-World War One decadence, demoralisation and dismay, then its equivalent artistic masterpiece of post-World War Two is The Third Man. With its own babble of languages and heap of broken images, and with its extraordinary visual deployment of a devastated Vienna to suggest a whole culture and civilisation in ruins, The Third Man quite transcends its thriller genre. At its heart stands Harry Lime, buried but seemingly imperishable, for he will soon be resurrected on radio and on television. With just a few lightning strokes of inspired creativity, Welles, Greene and Reed had fashioned an altogether extraordinary character who was realistic, symbolic, and mythical all at the same time.

Neil Sinyard

This article is developed from a talk given for the Graham Greene International Festival.

  1. Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (Penguin, 1980), pp. 181-182. 

  2. The Pleasure Dome (Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 3-4. 

  3. Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life (London: Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 329. 

  4. Articles of Faith, edited by Ian Thomson (Signal Books, 2006), p. 146. 

  5. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a work close to Greene’s heart also. As I have argued in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), it has always seemed to me that the relationship between Holly Martins and Harry Lime owes its pattern to the Marlow/Kurtz relationship in the Conrad novella: “In both cases, one can see the attraction of the ostensibly ‘good’ character for the ostensibly ‘evil’ character, who makes him uncomfortably aware of darker potentialities within himself that he would rather not see. In Greene’s screenplay, Lime is the suppressed Dionysiac side of Martins’ inhibited personality, representing an outlawed vitality that Martins both envies and fears. Marlow has the same ambivalence towards Kurtz [Conrad’s phrase for this is “the fascination of the abomination”]. In both cases, the temptation of irresponsible licence that his ‘double’ represents is to be rooted out in a symbolic confrontation in darkness- in Conrad’s case, in the heart of the jungle; in Greene’s case, in the sewers of Vienna.” (p. 26)  

  6. The Third Man screenplay (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), p. 63. 

  7. Ibid., p. 95. 

  8. After seeing the film, the great Hollywood director William Wyler had sent Carol Reed a spirit level, with a note that read: “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” See Nicholas Wapshott, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed (Chatto & Windus, 1990), p. 228. 

  9. André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View (Elm Tree Books, 1978), p. 105 

  10. Graham Greene, Why the Epigraph? (Nonesuch Press, 1989). 

  11. Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. 

  12. When Welles’s daughter Chris saw the film with her father and told him afterwards that she felt sorry for Lime at the end, he was delighted. “That’s what makes the movie work… and any other one, for that matter – that you can feel sympathy for the villain.” But when she asked him whether he liked Harry Lime, Welles replied: “Like him? I hate him. He’s utterly cold and without passion.” She says she was startled by the vehemence with which he spoke. See Chris Welles Feder, In My Father’s Shadow (Mainstream Publishing, 2009), p. 101. 

  13. Peter Conrad, p. 357. 

  14. See Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making, edited by Paul Cronin (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 55-7. 

  15. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Harper Collins, 1993), p. 296 

  16. The screenwriter William Rose once wrote that the basic theme of his screenplay for Alexander Mackendrick’s classic black comedy, The Ladykillers was: “In the Worst of all Men is a little bit of Good – that will destroy them”: see Mackendrick, On Film-Making, pp. 103-4. This could apply to the ending of Greene’s short story, “Across the Bridge” and is also applicable to Harry Lime. 

  17. The Third Man screenplay, p.86. 

  18. Graham Greene, ‘Preface’, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Penguin, 1971), p. 11. 

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 blow to Welles’s career and possibly his self-esteem was acute. He had gone into the project full of confidence, having adapted Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a screenplay in just nine days on King Vidor’s private yacht. He was familiar with the material, always claiming that his father, who was a friend of the novelist, was the model for the novel’s inventor-hero, Eugene Morgan, played in the film by Joseph Cotten. Welles had already done a radio adaptation in 1938, with himself in the role of the pampered son, George Minafer of a wealthy Indiana family who is to get his “come-uppance”. In the film, this part was played by Tim Holt, and Welles was to reflect later on whether this had been a strategic mistake; although his voice is heard as narrator, this was the only time when he did not appear in his own film. It is an aspect of the film which has prompted some speculation. Did Welles genuinely feel he might have seemed a little too old and forceful for the part, as he originally argued, or was the role of the spoilt son being doted on by a glamorous mother a little too close to home? Tim Holt’s uncompromising performance was perceived at the time as being a major impediment to audience identification: as the review in Variety put it, the movie “devotes 9000 feet of film to a spoiled brat who grows up as a spoiled spiteful young man”. There are others, however – this writer included – who feel Holt’s performance is superb, an unflinching, courageously conceived characterisation of an arrogant, unsympathetic yet ultimately pitiable human being.

Welles had insisted on a period of five weeks rehearsal before filming began. When his remarkable cameraman from Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland proved unavailable, he turned to the more painstaking Stanley Cortez, with whom he occasionally fought but who turned in a quite exceptional piece of work. (Cortez was later to be the cameraman on another of the most beautifully photographed of all black-and-white movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.) Sometimes the circumstances of shooting were difficult. For example, Welles insisted on shooting the snow scene in an ice plant in Los Angeles, not so much for authenticity of performance but because he wanted a clear visible contrast between the cold pure breath issuing from the characters’ mouths and the acrid smoke coming from Eugene’s new-fangled automobile. Towards the end of the filming Welles had been commissioned to make a documentary in Brazil called It’s All True as part of a government initiative to foster good relations between North and South America; and because he needed to be in Brazil in time for the carnival in Rio, this necessitated his dictating his instructions on the final cut of Ambersons to his editor Robert Wise, often by phone or by cable. Although this arrangement was complicated, there is no indication at this stage that Welles anticipated any major problems. He firmly believed he had made a better film than Citizen Kane: less showy, more thoughtful.

There have been many different accounts since of what went wrong and who was to blame. The most graphic account of the preview was given in a letter to Welles by the then President of RKO, George Schaefer, who had been one of his most steadfast allies during the attempts to suppress Citizen Kane. Schaefer described the preview experience as “like getting one sock in the jaw after another for two hours.” The audience laughed in the wrong places, particularly at Agnes Moorehead’s titanic performance as Aunt Fanny, stewing in frustration at her unrequited love for Eugene, a performance incidentally that went on to win the award for best actress from the New York Film Critics and was to be described by the great drama critic Kenneth Tynan as the best performance of its kind (the gnawing of unrequited love) in the English-speaking cinema. (Welles described her simply as “the best actor I’ve ever known”.) The downbeat nature of the film had also been criticised, not surprisingly perhaps since the audience, prior to Ambersons, had been sitting through a cheery Dorothy Lamour musical, The Fleet’s In (1942). Still it was hardly fair of RKO executives to blame Welles for the pessimistic thrust of the narrative: if they had cared to read the novel, they would have seen that he was only being true to his source. (Although full of imaginative touches, the adaptation is essentially a faithful one.) Also it is worth remembering that not all of the preview cards were hostile. 53 of the 125 were positive and 10 said it was the best film they had ever seen, a judgment shared by future director Cy Endfield who had seen the complete cut. Schaefer’s hypersensitive response was undoubtedly influenced not only by the audible disapproval of certain sections of the audience but by the fact that the fate of Welles’s film was intimately tied up with that of his own future at RKO, Schaefer being entangled in the middle of a power struggle at a studio now looking to showmanship rather than genius to recover its fortunes.

A preview at Pasadena two days later went much better, only 10 cards out of 85 being overtly negative, but executive confidence in the film had been badly shaken. The film had gone over budget and was thought to be too long. Indeed, sensing that the length of the film might be a problem, Welles had apparently suggested cutting a substantial portion out of the film prior to the Pomona preview – roughly 20 minutes from the section where Isabelle reads Eugene’s letter to her collapse – which one of his most knowledgeable commentators, Robert Carringer has argued might well have contributed to the film’s poor reception there. “I was bargaining,” Welles said, arguing (I think rightly) that if the film were thought to be overlong and needed trimming, it was better to take out a single section than tamper with the whole thing and destroy the rhythm; and feeling that this concession of his would lead to the rest of the film being untouched. In fact, Wise and Welles’s assistant, Jack Moss restored the section that Welles suggested they cut but then took out another 15 minutes for the Pasadena preview. RKO were still not satisfied and by now had adopted a policy of showing double-features in its programmes. The sections of the film dealing with the social context and material relating to the Ambersons’ economic downfall were jettisoned; a new, “happy” ending was shot by the film’s assistant director, Freddy Fleck; and the film finally came in at 88 minutes, to be released in a double-bill with Mexican Spitfire sees a Ghost (1942) starring Lupe Velez.

“If only you’d seen how Moorehead wrapped up the whole story at the end,” Welles was to tell Peter Bogdanovich. “Joe Cotten goes to see her after all these years in a cheap boarding-house and there’s nothing left between them at all. Everything is over – her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That’s what it was all about – the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age… But without question it was much the best scene in the movie.” The whole structure was dependent on charming the audience by setting up the splendour of the Ambersons and then tearing it to shreds, but that was lost in the choppy continuity of the final version; and, stranded in Brazil, Welles was to say that “it was cut in my absence by the studio janitor.” There is no doubt he felt betrayed, both by the studio and by colleagues like Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten, who had participated in the re-cutting and the re-shooting. In fairness, Robert Wise in his own defence said that the film is still considered a classic so he can’t have done that bad a job; and Joseph Cotten was to argue that, if he had not collaborated on the re-shooting, the film might not have been released at all. Incidentally there was one person who did take a stand against the whole process of revision: the clue is in the final credits. When Welles is intoning them at the end (“I wrote the picture and directed it. My name is Orson Welles”), it is noticeable that there is no mention of the film’s composer. That most irascible and idealistic of film composers, Bernard Herrmann refused to allow his name on a film where his music had been cut and, in his view, the integrity of the whole enterprise compromised by philistines.

So The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the great ‘Might-Have-Beens’ of film history, and all the more poignant because what is left is intermittently (and there is no other word for it) magnificent. It is a chronicle of the changing social and emotional fabric of American life as the nineteenth century moves towards its close. Like Citizen Kane, it is about dynastic decline and about the bond between a spoilt son and adoring mother that will ruin both their lives and their chance of happiness. In the first ten minutes, in which the story advances twenty years, Welles calmly establishes the society and the fashions of the period; comically depicts the clumsy action of Eugene Morgan which causes him to lose the hand of his sweetheart Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) to Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway); and briskly evokes the insufferable nature of the Minafers’ son George, who is the emotionally warped product, one feels, of an essentially loveless marriage. Everything has been steadily building to the first of the film’s great set-pieces, the Amberson ball in honour of George’s homecoming as a young man of 20, a sequence that is not only a marvel of cinematic virtuosity in itself but adumbrates all the key themes and relationships that are to be developed later.

In his affectionate but ironic narration at this point – the amused slight pause before the word “pageant” to describe the ball in George’s honour is particularly telling – Welles is careful to establish that this occasion will be the last of its kind the Ambersons will hold. The sequence has an elegiac air almost before we know it. It will show off the house in all its grandeur before its later decay, and the flowing and graceful camera movement around the setting suggests a kind of aristocratic languor whilst also hinting that things cannot stand still The winds of change are about to blow into that house-almost literally, because when the camera follows Eugene and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) as they enter, one notices a slight wind behind them that rustles through the chandeliers. When Eugene introduces himself to Isabel and George as they are greeting the guests, there is an almost imperceptible but immediate shift in the balance of relationship between mother and son, Isabel’s slight change of posture as she greets Eugene pushing George a little to the background of the frame: it is an arrangement that not only suggests Isabel’s delight at seeing Eugene again but the threat Eugene will pose to George in being the central figure in his mother’s life. George takes charge of Lucy, not immediately picking up the information that she is Eugene’s daughter (it shows how much he has been attending when introduced to his guests) and there will be some comedy at his expense before Lucy lets him in on his mistake. For all the smooth elegance and understated humour of the scene, it is actually also full of misunderstandings, occasional rudeness, pin-pricks of embarrassment (Isabel blushes when she is reminded that if Eugene had not fallen drunkenly on his fiddle, she might not have married Minafer) that are omens of future discord.

The subtle range of mood is heightened by Welles’s (and Herrmann’s) extraordinary use of the soundtrack. The different musical styles (romantic, brash, modern, old-fashioned) provide variations on the theme of old times and new times that runs through many of the conversations. The overlapping dialogue creates a fascinating sound texture where the young people are heard as quick and loud whereas the older generation tend to be slower and more intimate. The sequence builds to a superb final section where George and Lucy converse on the stairs whilst Eugene and Isabel dance to one of Welles’s favourite waltzes, Waldteufel’s ‘Toujours ou Jamais’. Suddenly it is time to say goodnight, the camera lingering on Isabel in shadowy silhouette in the foreground of the frame after bidding farewell to Eugene whilst in the background of the shot George is boorishly trying to set up a date with Lucy which she at first declines and then accepts, as if determined to keep him off balance. All the future themes are there: parents and children; past and present; old and new; and the sudden shadow that is to fall across the Amberson household with the return of Eugene. After that night the Ambersons are never to be quite that magnificent again.

There are at least three other great scenes in the film: the single-take strawberry shortcake scene, in which Aunt Fanny’s emotional agony will cut through the domestic teasing like a sharp knife; the dinner scene, when Eugene has to make a dignified response to an outburst by George (‘Automobiles are a useless nuisance’) that seems to come suddenly out of nowhere to dash the tranquil mood; and Uncle Jack’s quiet revelation to Eugene and Lucy, without looking either of them in the eye, about Isabelle’s fading health and the reasons for it. (Ray Collins as Uncle Jack never did anything finer on film: he brings to the part such sensitivity and vigour.) The critic V. F. Perkins has claimed with some justification that the film ‘has as many marvellous shots, scenes, ideas, performances as most film-makers could hope to achieve in an entire career.’ Yet, in contradiction to the Alfred Hitchcock canard that if you have four good scenes you have a movie, Ambersons never quite hangs together. The Variety review thought that one of the problems was that “it hadn’t a single moment of contrast; it piles on and on a tale of woe”, though the more I see the film, the more it seems to me the most richly varied in mood of all Welles’s work and undoubtedly his most tender. Like other grand American film epics that failed to find an audience – from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) – it might just have been the wrong film at the wrong time, a film about societal and familial breakdown appearing in a post-Pearl Harbour era where audiences were looking for family and social cohesion. What Kenneth Tynan called the film’s “naked emotional intimacy” did not offer the reassurance sought.

Even now the lamentation over the film’s fate might just be premature. If missing sequences from Metropolis (1926) can turn up in Argentina eighty years after the film’s premiere, might there still be some hope that somewhere someone could unearth the missing footage that would restore Ambersons to its pre-Pomona glory? Even as late as the 1960s, Welles was considering whether it would be possible to re-shoot the final scenes with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead who, after all, were now much closer to the actual age of the characters they played; but he really wanted to move his career forward rather than re-visit and revise painful memories. After Ambersons, however, rather in the manner of Eugene’s visits to the Amberson house, doors which had formerly been open to him were now firmly closed. George Orson Welles had got his “come-uppance”; and like George Amberson Minafer whose fate he intones so movingly, “when it came, he would get it three times filled and running over…”

“Orson Welles has got to do something commercial,” wrote George Schaefer at the end of his fateful letter to Welles after the Pomona preview. “We have got to get away from ‘arty’ pictures and get back to earth. Educating the public is expensive.” Welles was never able to deliver what Hollywood wanted just as Hollywood was never able to accept the gifts that Welles offered. With Ambersons, what he was offering was something comparable in theme and stature to a masterpiece like James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’: a meditation on love and loss from a twenty-odd-year old who seemed blessed with the wisdom and compassion of a man of 40. For anyone who cared to notice amidst his ribbon of broken dreams, this precocious boy wonder had matured into an artist of awesome profundity.

Neil Sinyard

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.

It would be simplistic to view Welles’s subsequent career in terms of decline or anti-climax: there were great things still in store. Nevertheless, Kane was to prove an all-but-impossible act to follow. It was to be the first and last film in which he had total control. For nearly every subsequent film, there are at least two versions – the one that Welles wishes to make, and the one that was actually released. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was the film in which its hero and its director get their “come-uppance”: its reduction from 131 minutes to 88 by a panicky RKO after hostile previews remains one of the most appalling acts of vandalism in screen history. Because of various privations, Macbeth (1948) had to be shot in three weeks; because of different privations, Othello (1952) took three years. In spite of a 58-page memo by Welles defending his conception, Touch of Evil (1958) was cut and re-edited by Universal studios on its initial release. His career was to have more than its fair share of disappointments as cherished projects came to nothing, leaving him at times looking a bit like Kane in Xanudu: a king in unwilling exile in a kingdom of his own devising. Equally, though, he was still able to create some of the most dazzling moments in all cinema: the Amberson ball near the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons, their world seen in all its splendour before the decline; the Hall of Mirrors finale in The Lady from Shanghai (1947), piling layer upon layer of visual deception; the astounding opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil, to show how everything is interconnected and being sucked into the main path of the narrative; the breathtaking but brutal spectacle of the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight (1966), which signals the end of Merrie England. These are all caught in that unmistakable virtuoso camera-style of his that he said “describes that sense of vertigo, uncertainty, lack of stability, that melange of movement and tension that is our universe.”

Welles’s style reflected his world-view: it was impossible to separate one from the other. He was fascinated by two main character types: the innocent who has his eyes opened to the guilty world around him; and the egomaniac who wants to dominate that world. He anatomised the corrupting effects of power. The situation that aroused his strongest emotion was the act of personal betrayal, occurring between men who had seemed the best of friends or closest of confidantes: Kane and Leland, Harry Lime and Holly (The Third Man (1949)), Othello and Iago, Quinlan and Menzies (Touch of Evil), Falstaff and Prince Hal (Chimes at Midnight). “Betrayal is the big thing with me,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “it’s almost a prime sin”. The theme resonated with him because he saw himself as the victim of many such betrayals in his own life. The critic Penelope Houston memorably described him as “the man the cinema has on its conscience”. In his obituary on Welles, director John Huston (who was playing the leading role in one of Welles’s numerous unfinished projects, The Other Side of the Wind) declared: “What a shame – and I mean that literally – that one of the finest talents motion pictures has ever had was rejected out of hand.”

Yet to what extent was it the industry’s fault that, in Janet Leigh’s phrase, “his genius was not more fully used”? Was the betrayal in some way self-inflicted? Was there an element of playing the martyr almost as alibi for the possibility of artistic failure? Here was a man with gargantuan gifts – probably the most all-round talented artist the cinema has ever seen – who somehow, in some way, let it slip through his fingers: one even thinks subliminally of Harry Lime poking his fingers through the grating in The Third Man in a vain bid for freedom. Failure in Welles almost seems willed sometimes: the films returning obsessively to the theme of decline and fall, and his most memorable characters sinking as low as it is possible for man to go: Harry Lime dying in a sewer, Quinlan perishing in effluent.

Welles was a fascinating and charismatic magician of the cinema, even as he metamorphosed from the Kane of his youth to the Falstaff of his later years: a crown prince who had become something of a court-jester. Even as one is dazzled by his direction, one should not underestimate Welles’s greatness as an actor, one who, in Derek Jarman’s admiring estimation, “could punch holes in the screen”. Yet even here how typical it is that his most memorable screen incarnation, Harry Lime occupies only about eight minutes of the film’s length and that his greatest moment on screen was a spur-of-the moment improvisation: his impromptu, off-the cuff speech on behalf of Lime (perfectly in character and delivered with matchless irony and breath control) about the Renaissance, the Swiss and the cuckoo-clock. As with Charles Foster Kane, so with Welles: you are left with a sense of sadness and waste. Yet, with Citizen Kane, you are left with a sense of awe at the creator behind it. Also, like the reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, who has investigated the character but misses the key to the puzzle, you are tantalised by a mystery. The magnificence of Welles is as incontestable as that of the Ambersons but it is an incomplete magnificence, fragments more than monuments: why? Is the clue to this incompleteness professional, artistic or biographical? Might there be a “Rosebud” in Welles’s life? As Kane’s most faithful friend, Bernstein (and how curious it is that he has the same name as Welles’s guardian as a young man) says: “That Rosebud you’re trying to find out about… Maybe that was something he lost…”

Neil Sinyard

Now go to: The Magnificent Ambersons

Barry Lyndon

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.

Typically, Kubrick’s style in the film, augmented by John Alcott’s magnificent photography, is daring and unusual. The beauty of the film – in my experience, only Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) can match it for visual splendour – is overwhelming to the point of oppressiveness, because décor and houses reflect the way the characters have become prisoners of their obsession for possession, prestige and position. Rather than standard scene setting, Kubrick often uses a reverse-zoom, so that we see the individual but then pull back to see him in relation to the tangled society of which he is part and which in turn is to entangle him. Some critics thought it a repetitive stylistic device, but I think it works, giving us a perspective denied to the character himself, wrapped up as he is in his own pursuits; it also has the effect of diminishing the character, making him look smaller in the tide of events than he realises and foreshadowing his receding fortunes. Kubrick felt that his story should not be told in the conventional way. ‘Barry Lyndon is a story which does not depend upon surprise,’ he said. ‘What is important is not what is going to happen but how it will happen.’ This will determine not only the narrative structure (the use of the narrator) but also the tempo, a feature of the film greatly admired by Martin Scorsese who loved the way it broke all Hollywood rules of pace.

There is a particularly fine stretch before the end of the first part of the film, which illustrates these facets of theme and style and prepares for developments in the second half. It is the moment when Barry has resolved, as the narrator tells us, to fix on an advantageous marriage as a way of advancing in society. It is then he sees Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and starts his campaign. When he makes his move on her, it is very formal, rigid, calculated (and must have been fearfully difficult to act) but then these are people of rigid lives and Barry is a calculator: his approach feels as much like a chess move as a surge of emotion. ‘It’s very romantic,’ Kubrick said, ‘but at the same time I think it suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose.’ An outraged Lord Lyndon (Frank Middlemass, in one of those splendidly over-the-top performances so beloved of the director) cries, ‘He wants to step into my shoes!’, bringing on a consumptive attack that will allow Barry to do just that. Mission accomplished: except that, in a favoured Kubrick tactic, the second part of the narrative is to be a dark reversal of the first. When Lord Lyndon’s son (Leon Vitale) disrupts a music recital by leading in Barry’s son Brian in the young lord’s shoes (‘Don’t you think he fits my shoes very well, your Ladyship?’), it will trigger a shockingly violent outburst that will forever deny Barry’s entrance into high society.

Everything will build finally to a ritualised duel, accompanied over the soundtrack by music by Handel so menacingly orchestrated that it sounds like a march to the scaffold, and probably the most suspenseful sequence Kubrick ever directed. His casting of Ryan O’Neal in the title role was much criticised, but I think O’Neal brings exactly the combination of selfishness and softness to the role that the director required as the upstart hero swindles and seduces his way into the palaces of privilege, only to pay a heavy price for gentlemanly aspiration as he discovers that class rigidity, snobbery, and cruelty lurk behind this society’s mask of elegance.

With every film of his later career, Kubrick took audiences and critics out of their comfort zone and, over ten years after his death, we are still coming to terms with that achievement. ‘Real is good,’ he would say, ‘but interesting is better’. He never made a genre film without elevating and transforming it; the performances in his films look increasingly extraordinary as he encouraged his actors to search beyond naturalism; even his use of music is provocative and challenging. For me, Barry Lyndon is the jewel of his career, a melancholy and majestic masterpiece which, on its own, would justify Orson Welles’s description of Kubrick as ‘a giant’.

Neil Sinyard

Written on behalf of the Keswick Film Society, February, 2010.

You might also be interested in Neil’s review of a new book about this film.