Appears in: The Third Man (1949)
Setting: Post-war Vienna, Austria.
Villain type: Amoral businessman, hardened criminal.
Harry Lime’s claim to fame is his charisma. Lime is remembered as a dashing villain, whose popularity outlasted and outgrew his relatively brief screen-time in celebrated classic The Third Man. Even if memory of the actual plot is a little hazy, the average cinephile can probably at least paraphrase That One Quote about Borgias and cuckoo clocks, which has seared itself into popular culture. Orson Welles put his star power to good use in stealing the film away from the actual protagonist, Joseph Cotton, making Harry Lime a sly, knowing rogue, with a perpetual twinkle in his smiling eyes.
Yet Harry Lime is a monster. For all his patter about Michelangelo and the Renaissance, his idea of artistic flourish was selling dodgy, stolen penicillin to the desperate, in order to make some fast cash at the expense of the lives of children. Everyone remembers him talking up his devil’s bargain to Holly on the Ferris Wheel; less people remember the pivotal scene where British officer Major Calloway (representing the unrelenting forces of Law and Order), shows Holly the children wasting away because Mr. Lime thought getting rich and filling up his monthly smugness quota was more important than the children of war-ravaged Austria getting proper medicine. This is the moment that Holly makes the painful yet morally-correct decision to set aside the bonds of friendship in favour of justice, and help set Lime up to be caught or killed.
The sneaking desire to see him escape in that climactic sewer confrontation, to see such a watchable character melt back into the sheltering gloom like some trickster-god bent on endless mischief, is a perverse desire. It’s a testament to Welles that he was able to put such a deceptive gloss on such a hollow character, whose amiable disposition and slick justifications ultimately fail to conceal the pettiness of his ambitions or his total ruthlessness.
The cuckoo clock was invented in Germany anyway. Not such a killer argument after all…