A Touch of Evil

When I heard that today is Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 96th birthday, I was motivated to finish my review of “A Touch of Evil,” Orson Welles’s fascinating swan song as a director. You can understand why this was the last film he was allowed to direct. Even in its restored version, it fails to follow through on the promise of that brilliant opening sequence with the bomb in the trunk of the Chrysler.

As I said, brilliant. But let’s get back to Zsa Zsa. Her little cameo epitomizes the problem I had with this film. I was taken out of the story by her brief appearance as a bordello mistress. A glamorous Hungarian in some seedy Mexican border town? Really? And some thought Eva was incongruous in “Green Acres!”

Dietrich was anotherdietrich matter. You feel she belongs in such surroundings. You understand that she’s fallen on hard times since “Blue Angel” and you’re just happy to see her again, playing opposite Welles and smoking that Tiparillo. (Sorry, couldn’t resist an age-revealing allusion…)

That’s the thing:  Dietrich is an audience-pleaser. Welles’s performance is superb in a depressing way. Dennis Weaver’s nervous night clerk at the eerily empty motel where poor Janet Leigh is terrorized puts Norman Bates to shame. But other name-brand actors are wasted in this picture. Janet Leigh, Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff (as a Mexican?) and Charlton Heston (another alleged Mexican). Maybe auteur directors like Truffaut and Godard got a kick watching Welles show-off, but audiences were left in the cold, their needs for a coherent story unmet.

Anyhow, happy birthday, Zsa Zsa.zsa zsa

The Third Man

It’s not difficult to understand what Anna saw in 3-the-third-manHarry Lime, the crooked American whose death is at the center of this film. Amid the ruined city of Vienna, the grim faces of its inhabitants, the climate of suspicion and paranoia that prevails throughout the occupied zones, regardless of which army is in charge, Harry stood out.  He never grew up, “the world grew up around him, that’s all,” Anna explains to Harry’s old friend, Holly Martins.  She refuses to face the truth:  that Harry’s black market dealing caused the deaths of countless children.  She prefers to hold onto her romantic illusions.

Can you blame her?  Three years after the Second World War ended, Europe — as embodied by the once shimmering cultural capital of Vienna — is bombed out, exhausted, physically and morally.  The grand ideals for which the war was fought are nowhere in evidence.  Freedom seems to be particularly lacking:  Holly is shadowed, manipulated and lied to, pushed around by the British occupiers, threatened by the black marketeers.

But there’s Harry, staging his own death to free himself from surveillance.  “He could fix things… [he knew] how to avoid this and that,” Holly says admiringly.  Holly himself is hopeless at fixing anything, barely able to look after himself in corrupt postwar Vienna.  Straightforward American integrity is a liability in this setting.  What’s needed is a clever liar like Harry.

And our first glimpse of him, sheltered in a doorway, unexpectedly illuminated by a streetlight, confirms the impression that he alone is at ease in the darkly-lit world. Look at how he’s smiling.

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Seductive, the way he doesn’t let his guard down even when he knows you.  Even when you love him.  Irresistible to Anna, for sure.  I suspect that Harry Lime is Graham Greene’s alter ego. “I like to have a secret love affair, a hidden life.  Something to lie about,” the author of “The Third Man” once said.

Anything is possible from a man like that:  betrayal, certainly, but also excitement.  He gets his thrills from danger, and danger was everywhere in those days, but his zest for life keeps him one step ahead of the police.  Time and again you think he’s cornered during the dramatic chase in the sewers, but he manages to outwit his pursuers.  We see his fingers poking up through the grate the way a plant sends out new shoots.  Toward escape, toward the air.  Toward life.