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Harry Lime's girlfriend - and that's not the only mysterious thing about her

Main image of Anna

Alida Valli - or simply 'Valli', as she's credited in The Third Man - plays Anna Schmidt, girlfriend of Harry Lime (Orson Welles). An Italian born in 1921, Valli had a brief career in Italian films (interrupted by some years spent in hiding after she refused to work with the Fascists) before being spotted by David O. Selznick.

She appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (US, 1947) before being cast in The Third Man at Selznick's suggestion. Valli was very beautiful - Welles told his biographer Barbara Leaming that she was "the sexiest thing you ever saw in your life" - but, in the film, she's not really glamorous. Instead she's reserved, quiet, hiding behind a mask. Some critics felt she took this too far and seemed wooden. Dilys Powell, for instance, in The Sunday Times (4 September 1949) commented that Valli "does not seem to me to have yet justified her reputation".

Anna undergoes a transformation in The Third Man. At first she's fragile and full of sorrow. She speaks in a murmur and sometimes shrinks to the edges of scenes, as if trying to avoid scrutiny, as when, partly obscured by the door-frame, she listens to Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) discuss her forged papers. She has lost hope because she thinks Harry's dead: she puts up no resistance when Calloway confiscates her papers and love-letters from Harry. Indeed she as much as tells Calloway that her papers are false when, in answer to his question about what kindnesses Harry did for her, she indicates the documents.

She constantly urges caution on Holly (Joseph Cotten), wishing he would stop following up his suspicions, trying to pull him away from the scene of the porter's murder, insisting he not protest at Calloway's behaviour. Passive, melancholy, seemingly defenceless: Anna's a doomed, melodramatic victim.

Yet when she realises Harry is alive, and that Holly poses a threat to him, she suddenly becomes an active, wilful character. "He's alive - now this minute he's doing something," she says to Calloway in a whisper, nearly dumbfounded by the news. She becomes like a femme fatale, to the extent that she instigates action, refusing to be dictated to. Now she follows her own rules defiantly. She rips up the new papers Holly has arranged for her once she realises they're the price he has demanded in order to set up Harry for capture. She even tosses away the coat Holly gives her to keep warm. And later she bursts into the café where Holly has lured Harry, warning him off before he can be ambushed (and, incidentally, getting in between the two men so Harry cannot shoot the gun he holds).

As Anna walks off screen at the end of the film, leaving Holly behind, rejecting him utterly, she faces a bleak future: perhaps Calloway will help her, perhaps she'll be taken by the Russians. But she holds her head high with utter self-assurance.

The French critic Marc Ferro has suggested that Anna, as her name begins to suggest, is a version of Antigone. In Sophocles' tragedy Antigone (daughter of the dead King Oedipus) will stop at nothing to give proper funeral rites to her brother Polynices, even though her uncle Creon, King of Thebes, has expressly forbidden it. She goes to her death in defiance of Creon's command (and despite his pleas that she compromise). The only thing that matters to her is to do what she understands to be the right thing by her brother.

The comparison should not be taken too far but it gets at an important aspect of Anna. Her devotion to Harry is unequivocal and, perhaps, irrational. No matter what he has done she will love him and seek to protect him, even if it means sacrificing her best opportunity to flee the Russians in Vienna.

In this she's like Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) in Carol Reed's earlier Odd Man Out (1947), taking loyalty to the point of self-destruction. She and Holly are polar opposites, each other's moral inverse. Anna's morality is rooted within herself, in an absolute feeling for Harry. Holly's morality depends on external information and a sense of public justice: his view of Harry depends on what he learns, on different contexts.

Rob White

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