Skip to main content
BFI logo

Home

Film

Television

People

History

Education

Tours

Help

  search

Search

Screenonline banner
Harry Lime
 

One of the most memorable villains in British - and world - cinema history

Main image of Harry Lime

Harry Lime, as realised on the screen by Orson Welles, is one of the great characters in cinema and also one of the most tricky. He exerts a fascination on audiences despite the fact that, in simple plot terms, he's an outright villain. He has sold penicillin on the black market and people, including children with meningitis, have died or been mentally inacapacitated as a result.

When, aboard the Great Wheel, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) confronts him with what he's done he brushes the charges away. He looks down at the people below, mere specks from that height, and says: "Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money...?" This is a harsh, merciless speech by any standards and yet audiences retain sympathy for Harry.

It's a sort of cinematic conjuring-trick to make a murderer attractive. The critic David Thomson puts it like this: "Lime is ... proof of how the court of movie has let iniquitous monsters go free because of charm, smart lines, and knowing where the camera is. Because of Welles, there is never quite enough horror in The Third Man ..."

Welles was, by 1949, damaged goods. The wonder-kid of Hollywood had found his star fading after his first Hollywood projects, including Citizen Kane (US, 1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (US, 1942), had flopped, and he had begun a restless life, moving mainly around Europe trying to get his favourite projects off the ground. Desperate to raise money for his adaptation of Othello, he accepted a flat fee of $100,000 for his appearance in The Third Man when he could have had $75,000 plus ten percent of the gross. He would have made a fortune.

Welles seems to have regarded this assignment as a lucrative diversion and perhaps this explains why he brought a winning frivolity to Lime, as exemplified in the famous speech he himself wrote or improvised for The Third Man:

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and what did that produce - the cuckoo clock!

Welles's performance takes the edge off the corruption in Harry's character: it's not just what he says, though, there are also more subtle shades of performance.

In his dramatic first appearance, Harry, smiling in a doorway, is illuminated from above by the light from a window. In this kind of light, Harry could have looked scary and diabolical, like a vampire or a ghoul in a horror film. Instead it's as if a spotlight has been turned on to reveal a music-hall performer, an entertainer: he could almost begin to sing or tap-dance.

In other words there's an element of deception in the way Welles plays Harry. But it's important to remember that his crimes are never glossed over. Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes sure of that. The conundrum of The Third Man has to do with why otherwise good people - above all his girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) but also the film's audience - remain loyal to Harry despite what he's done.

Rather than seeing The Third Man as performing a moral sleight-of-hand it might be better to think of it as exploring how emotion and affection often know no morality. The dark implications of this are left essentially unexplored in the film: instead Anna's loyalty is portrayed as a form of personal courage.

In the novella Harry's power over people has a more malevolent aspect: "A racket works very like a totalitarian party", Calloway says; and this racket's f├╝hrer is Harry Lime.

Rob White

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of AnnaAnna

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

Thumbnail image of Holly MartinsHolly Martins

The Third Man's hapless American hero, looking for his friend in Vienna

Thumbnail image of Major CallowayMajor Calloway

The cynical policeman who is The Third Man's most moral character

Thumbnail image of The Third Man - Character StudiesThe Third Man - Character Studies

Related People and Organisations