It's 1948. Postwar Vienna is suffering shortages of everything, including medicine. It is administered by a cooperative security force comprised of British, French, American, and Russian soldiers. In a unique arrangement, a representative of each country takes part in each routine patrol, even if they can't speak each others' language.
The city is in ruins. The people, demoralized, desperate.
Holly Martins is an American writer of pulp westerns. He gets a message from an old school chum, Harry Lime, to come visit him in Vienna. Sounds like an adventure-- old times! But he arrives just ten minutes after Lime's body has been carted away to be buried, after a car accident. Instead of a happy reunion, he attends a somber funeral, along with a very small number of Lime's friends. And a young woman, Anna, who walks away quickly when the service is over.
Martins is clearly already infatuated with her and later catches up with her at the theatre where she performs in sad, dispirited, period comedies. Perhaps the most depressing moment of the film-- the actresses, in sumptuous costumes, smiling and cavorting on stage, in some pathetic effort to recapture something magical from a hopelessly distant past-- and the audience half-heartedly laughing.
After the play, she offers him a cup of tea, but it is clear that she is in no mood for sentimental reminiscences.
You were in love with him, weren't you?
I don't know. How can you know a
thing like that afterwards? I don't
know anything any more.
Well, damn right it's written by Graham Greene. Martin's line is freighted with a misguided nostalgia for Lime (we come to understand, even if Martins doesn't, that Lime used him) and Anna's line is freighted with bitter disillusionment.
Holly is one of the earliest incarnations of George W. Bush, blundering into complex situations which he can't remotely understand but determined, nonetheless, to do something about them, and, in the process, causing mayhem and suffering to all those around him. He's the ugly American, the bumbling fool who thinks his native wit will triumph over sophistication and cunning.
Anna wants nothing to do with him. She just wants time to go by. She's filled with fatalism, resignation, and emotional fatigue.
You begin to understand how war saps away hope and passion. And you begin to understand the complex, disturbing attraction of Lime. And it is a wonderful tribute to Greene that he resists the temptation to imbue Anna with some kind of special nobility: it is clear she doesn't care about the victims of Lime's black market activities-- she only wants him back. Because he was the only thing in her bleak life that made her laugh.
You don't even get to anesthetize yourself with this illusory "true love"-- she doesn't know. She doesn't know how you would even know something like that "afterwards"
[spoiler] Then there is the astonishing last scene. The camera stands distant, at the end of a long laneway leading away from the cemetery. Martins, the fool, prevails upon Major Calloway to let him off. Calloway, reluctantly, stops the jeep and lets him out. He stands there waiting for Anna to catch up to him. The camera watches impassively as Anna slowly approaches Martins... then walks right past him as if he doesn't even exist. Martins doesn't move. We fully understand that he is being forced into a tremendously painful realization, and all he can do is stand there and watch her walk away.
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© Bill Van Dyk
2009 All Rights Reserved