This is a cloak-and-dagger story in the manner of a gritty, black-and-white Raymond Chandler flick. The setting is post-war Vienna. The city is divided, being conjointly ruled by the four allied powers. American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) comes to visit his friend Lime, only to arrive in time for Lime’s funeral. He can’t resist investigating what happened, getting pulled into a situation dominated by a creepy underworld, and an overworld almost as creepy. To show this, director Carol Reed produces lots of crooked shots; sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. Though the screenplay was by Graham Greene, Orson Welles’ stamp is apparent throughout.
The climax for many people is a speech by Orson Welles during which we wonder if Holly is going to be thrown out of the Ferris wheel car. The speech is his justification for nihilistic exploitation:
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
A nice question in a critical thinking exam would be to identify all the fallacies in that silly little speech. I’ll skip the post hoc ergo propter hoc. Focus just now on the sick pseudo-sophistication. The Swiss have always had to sustain their peace-loving society by vigilance and warrior-readiness. By the same token, human development of family, calling, music, and adventure flourishes properly only in times of peace. A society that is orderly, and thus knows what time it is, yet produces the homely Gemütlichkeit of telling time with a cuckoo clock, is only praiseworthy. The cuckoo clock could almost be taken as a characteristic symbol of a healthy and worthwhile society.
There are other virtues that are tested and perfected in time of war; but Welles is not plugged into those either.
Granted, the “hero” Holly Martins sees through Welles’ depravity and rejects it; so perhaps it is unfair to say that is the message of the movie. However, he doesn’t get the girl. If you take the female as representing home and future, you could say that the “hero” is presented as true to a just vision even to the point of sacrificing what is most desired; or (more likely) you could say that this is just a final cynical twist of the knife.
Taken to their ideal limit, there are two kinds of critique of the corruption of society: the biblical, and the sophomoric. The biblical looks at the situation through the lens of depravity and grace, ordained right, and natural affections, and distinguishes between appearance and reality. This gives a richness. The sophomore, on the other hand, sneers and says “everyone’s corrupt; I see through both sides.” It is truculent, distinctionless. Ironically, the Christian can “see through” both types to an extent, for he is both types; while the sophomore sees neither correctly.
Orson Welles must be placed squarely in the sophomore column.