Tuesday, January 27, 2004

”Harry Lime had many lives…and I can recall all of them. How do I know? Very simple…’cause my name is Harry Lime.”

Classic film buffs and fans are in general agreement that The Third Man, the 1949 thriller directed by Carol Reed and based on the novel by Graham Greene, is a genuine cinematic masterpiece. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp Western writer, journeys to postwar Vienna to meet up with his old chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon his arrival, Martins learns from Harry’s lover (Valli) and friends that Harry is dead, but as Holly probes into the events surrounding his death, he learns that Harry is indeed very much alive. Lime, however, is living on borrowed time: wanted by the police for his black marketing/war profiteering activities, he is chased in a memorable climax through the sewers of Vienna, where he meets his demise.

The character of Harry Lime, as played by Welles, is barely in the movie for more than ten minutes, but he remains so unforgettable that his presence is felt throughout the entire story. (His introduction in the film is also one of the silver screen’s most memorable entrances.) Welles was recruited some time later by British producer Harry Alan Towers—on behalf of Lang/Worth syndications—for a radio series based on the movie; the result being The Lives of Harry Lime, which was first broadcast over tiny “pirate station” Radio Luxembourg August 3, 1951.

The radio program transformed Harry from the film’s amoral scoundrel to a more lovable, steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor con man, a “prince of knaves,” as described by John Dunning in On the Air. Indeed, though the radio Harry was a dyed-in-the-wool rogue, his victims were often greedier than he was, so he remained sympathetic (and almost admirable) when fleecing them. (Harry also had standards, drawing the line at both murder or blackmail.) In addition, because Lime snuffs it in The Third Man, it was always noted in the introduction of each episode that these adventures took place before the events that transpired in the feature film version.

In Radio Drama, Martin Grams, Jr. observes that The Lives of Harry Lime (and a second series that Orson appeared in, The Black Museum, which he narrated) was granted a large budget, which allowed guest stars like Sebastian Cabot and Dana Wynter to appear in various episodes. (Listening to the show today, it doesn’t sound all that expensive—I get the feeling that Welles might have been skimming some off the top to finance Othello [1952].) The series was directed by Tig Roe and most of the scripts were penned by Ernest Borneman—Welles also contributed some scripts as well, including the show’s premiere episode, “Too Many Crooks.” Welles even lifted the plot of one of his scripts, “Man of Mystery,” for his 1955 feature film Mr. Arkadin (1955). The opening and closing theme for the series was the same zither music composed and played by Anton Karas that was featured in the 1949 movie—the popular instrumental, “Third Man Theme,” became a #1 hit in 1950; in fact, whenever my father talks about the film, he invariably adds the word “theme” to its title.

Last night, I was entertained by two entries of The Lives of Harry Lime; in the first, “The Elusive Vermeer” (from May 16, 1952), Harry meets a man who offers him a lucrative business proposition selling fine art to American tycoons. In the second, “Murder On the Riviera” (5/23/52), Harry stops to help a beautiful motorist and ends up involved in a murder case after finding a dead body in her car. Both shows are fun, relying on interesting plotting and the charm of Welles to propel them along. In addition, I also took a half hour to watch an episode of the 1959-65 TV series (for which the title reverted back to The Third Man); a syndicated show starring Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as an even more sanitized Lime—in this version, Harry’s gone corporate as the head of a Viennese import-export operation and an international troubleshooter (shades of The Man Called X). “Listen For the Sound of a Witch,” broadcast September 29, 1960, features old-time radio vets Joe de Santis and Ralph Moody, plus Raymond Bailey (The Beverly Hillbillies) and an incredibly young Suzanne Pleshette (she looks like she’s 15 in this one). It’s sad to see the Harry Lime character watered down in such a fashion, but I did enjoy the television episode; I just wish I could have seen one of the earlier entries when Jonathan Harris ("Oh the pain, the pain...") played Harry's sidekick Bradford Webster.

The Lives of Harry Lime was later brought over to this side of the pond in 1952, and all 52 episodes were broadcast via U.S. syndication. (All of these programs—plus the 52 broadcasts of The Black Museum—are extant for OTR listeners to enjoy today.) Again, my opinion of the program is a little colored by my admiration and affection for Welles and his work—but if you’ve seen and enjoyed The Third Man, you’ll flip for the radio show as well. (And if you haven’t seen the film, put the computer down now and get thee to a DVD player. Criterion has the definitive version, with two nifty bonus extras: the “Ticket to Tangier” episode of The Lives of Harry Lime and the April 9, 1951 Lux Radio Theatre treatment of The Third Man, with Joseph Cotten reprising his role as Holly and Ted De Corsia as Harry.)

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