Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, Harry Lime.Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, Harry Lime.Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, Harry Lime.
I spent a number of months in Europe after I graduated from college in 1971. Although the war had been over for more than 25 years by then, I was struck by a very pronounced attitude of cynicism on the part of many Europeans regarding uniquely American ideals and principles, which were widely considered to be naive. To me, this film accurately captures this cultural and moral conflict, which lasted for decades and may even survive to this day. "You and your American principles," they would often scoff at me with mocking derision. In many ways, the character of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American who crashes into post-World War II Europe, is a victim of a serious cultural divide. Unlike the Europeans, Martins always has the option of fleeing from the chaos and returning to the United States. For that alone, he may be resented by the local Viennese.
What does Anna (Alida Valli) know about the illegal activities of her lover, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), which includes the sale of diluted penicillin to Vienna's hospitals? For children with meningitis, watered down penicillin was not only useless, but it created an immunity from full strength penicillin so that these afflicted children could never receive effective treatment. Corrupted penicillin is a glaring symbol of a totally corrupted Vienna. Harry surely understands the consequences of his business, but what about Anna? Even after the truth about Harry's conduct is clearly revealed to her, she still sticks by him to the bitter end. Love conquers all? Stand by your man, regardless of the misery that he is causing to his innocent victims? While I don't blame her for rejecting the romantic overtures of Martins, who is somewhat of a schnook, what's with her anyway? She reminds me of the Europeans who never once caught a whiff of the burning flesh from the overworked crematoria of the concentration camps that blackened the air all around them. She is deeply in love with Harry, so just shut up about children with meningitis. OK, Anna, whatever you say, sweetheart. Perhaps those silly 18th century costume comedies in which you appear will provide the escape from reality that you so desperately seek. At least you manage to crack a weak, forced smile on stage, which is the only smile that we will ever see from you.
From beginning to end, the unusual camera angles, the dark, somber, haunting sidewalks of Vienna, and the conquered city's eerie, drenched cobblestone streets contribute to the overall foreboding atmosphere of the film, which was remarkably photographed by Australian Robert Krasker ("Odd Man Out", "Brief Encounter"). From every direction and without advance notice, unforgettable images and characters appear before us, emphasizing an overall mood of mayhem and unpredictability. We witness, for example, Anna's landlady, draped in a bedspread for warmth in a state of deep distress by the sudden invasion of her house by "officials" representing not one foreign nation but four of them. Then we observe a ludicrous, bureaucratic "cultural re-education conference" offered to the Viennese by the allied victors, presumably to rehabilitate them after seven years of Nazi domination. And from where on earth did the balloon seller come as he pathetically peddles his merry merchandise on the dark, abandoned streets of Vienna, which are not only completely void of children at the time but of all people?
And what of the inquisitive, confused character of Holly Martins, played with the usual, smooth agility of Joseph Cotten? As the writer of mass marketed western novels that even a young British sergeant happens to read, why is he broke, and what kind of job would Lime have offered him in an unfamiliar, German-speaking Vienna that is gripped by post-war disorder, unemployment, and foreign occupation? Construction work, perhaps?
While some reviewers disliked the zither music of Anton Karas, I think that the unique, high pitched sound contributes to the general atmosphere of nervous tension and uneasiness that prevails. Would you prefer Strauss waltzes instead? They wouldn't be nearly as effective in conveying the overwhelming atmosphere of chaos, even insanity, that plagues Vienna on so many levels at the time.
Finally, we are brought to the hidden network of grand Vienna's underground sewers. What could be a more fitting symbol of the underlying foulness that lurks beneath the thin, shallow surface of what we call "civilization"? This subterranean labyrinth provides the perfect setting for the ending of an extraordinary film that very effectively portrays a world that has succumbed to a state of disorder, misery, and even madness. Ultimately, it is all destined for the sewer. Bal-loon?
- Oct 26, 2016