For 100 years history has been able to approach us sifted through movies, and the twentieth century especially produced devils of every kind for both movies and history to brood over. In The Third Man* the devil is neither dragon nor serpent; he wears no horns. He complains of indigestion. He has a beautiful lover. Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is the liveliest fiend in this firmament, a rubble-strewn 1950 Vienna. He dazzles us, and yet he believes absolutely in absolute self-interest. He is being hunted by all four of the great powers currently occupying the city – he sold corrupted penicillin to hospitals. He shattered children. He murdered some and broke others open.
He is meeting Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an old States-side friend, to seek his help, well, to use him too. He has faked his own death, burial and all, to try and escape the hunt, and so has come out of hiding to greet his friend in an amusement park dominated by an enormous Ferris Wheel.
He does not see Holly Martins at first but then abruptly shifts direction and strides, really, he strides toward him in bright Viennese sunlight, a tall man, kinetic and agile, smiling broadly and striding forward in a dark hat and long dark trench coat.
Martins has helped the police. They know that Lime is alive. High above the ground in a car of the Ferris Wheel, a space thick with the possibility that Harry might try to kill his old friend, this exchange takes place:
Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. 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.
The problem with those “dots” is real. Lime is onto something. Most human beings are impersonal ghosts to us – how can they be otherwise when there are over 7 billion. We know of a few of them, but gouts and rivers and lifetime oceans of them pass us by in crowds. More billions walked and talked before our time. Clusters overflow Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Others mysteriously inhabit old photographs of strangers.
We do not know them.
Therefore, efforts to render one human life as essential are threatened by the infinite realms of time and space and by our species’ vast numbers and their intricate unknowable histories. How can we crossover from one to billions, from billions to one?
Our difficulty is one of seeing and feeling. We struggle in trying to imagine their equally sublime existence in a life that was as real, is as real, as mine feels to me. The numbers are crushing, the masses a blur pitching through the eons, a rare name and face emerging from the light-speed rush of all of them. If we cannot imagine them as real, then how can our lives retain meaning, for we are destined to become them. We too are going to step into that slip-stream and be flicked away. If our lives are insignificant, then why be good? Why not take up where Harry Lime left off?
* I cannot say enough good things about this movie. Rent it. Once you watch it, I think you’ll buy it.