Third Man

The Third Man

A titan of the airwaves, Orson Welles would reprise one of his most famous screen roles, Harry Lime of The Third Man, on radio. His grinning villain was the star of The Adventures of Harry Lime, a show produced in London and broadcast by the BBC from 1951 to 1952. The series was effectively an extended prequel to The Third Man, and in the United States, it was called The Lives of Harry Lime—a title that perfectly captures the chameleonic personality of the character.

Welles’s unofficial debut in the world of radio broadcasting took place many years earlier, of course, while he was attending the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. At the well-endowed institution’s radio station, he performed a Sherlock Holmes play that he had written. Welles’s first professional gig, however, was with NBC’s Cavalcade of America in 1935, a show that ran dramatizations of historical American events. He went on to work at other stations, including CBS, where he first met Joseph Cotten, who later became his lifelong friend and colleague. Welles’s prodigious career in radio, which had triumphs as well as disastrous oddities, lasted well into the 1950s. 

In The Lives of Harry Lime, the eponymous hero adopts different guises from episode to episode, sometimes a tourist, sometimes a reporter, but always a full-blown scoundrel. But since the tone of the show is more light-hearted than the movie, the Harry Lime of radio emerges less as a criminal mastermind than a bumbling small-time crook who finds himself in strangely comical straits. Every episode begins in true noir style with the sound of a gunshot followed by the 1949 film’s famous zither theme and Harry’s voice from beyond the grave, introducing the tales of his larger-than-life adventures:

That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in a sewer beneath Vienna, as those of you know who saw the movie The Third Man. Yes, that was the end of Harry Lime, but it was not the beginning. Harry Lime had many lives, and I can recount all of them. How do I know? Very simple: because my name is Harry Lime.

The Third Man

The Third Man

The 29th episode of the series, “The Buzzo Gospel,” also known as “The Dead Candidate,” depicts one of Harry Lime’s many failed schemes. Harry boards a ship to Mylenia, a South American island in the iron grip of a dictatorship, with the plan of infusing the fictional country with Buzzo, a soon-to-be popular American soft drink. Onboard he meets Susie, a fellow American, who mistakes him for a diplomat from the States coming to evaluate Mylenia’s sham democracy. Susie happens to be the fiancée of Joaquimo, who happens to be a consul general in Washington for the Mylenian Republic and a political aide to Admiral Khuchybamba, the island’s dictator.

Rattled by the news of the scrutiny, Admiral Khuchybamba tries to make a good, democratic impression on Harry, the supposed diplomat from the Land of the Free. The dictator has his mistress by his side, Lolita, who talks like Carmen Miranda. In a moment of panic, Joaquimo comes up with an ingenious idea involving party workers collecting names from graveyards in order to ensure a majority win. The master plan would end with an even more spectacular result.

“If you can improve your chances in political campaigns by using dead voters, why not make absolutely sure?” says Joaquimo to the utterly confused Admiral, who is completely distracted by Lolita crooning “Sweetmeat” and “Sugarplum” into his ears. “Fine. But how do you do it?” inquires the Admiral. “Isn’t it obvious? A dead candidate!”

The Third Man

The Third Man

This is where Harry Lime comes in. Welles’s character here is more like Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins, who stumbles upon a strange land, his goal skewed by a larger political plan that exists beyond his knowledge. Instead of evaluating civil rights in Mylenia, Harry’s busy getting himself a date with Susie, where he discovers something else about himself.

            Susie: Come closer.

            Harry: Closer? Not bad.

            Susie: No. Keep your head up. I want to get a look at you.

            Driver: Ah, Señorita, you have noticed it as well.

            Harry: [clears throat] Uh, driver, you're a very nice driver, I'm sure, but I wish you'd go away.

            Driver: No, Señor, no. You will be needing me to drive you to the hospital.

            Harry: Hospital?

            Susie: It's true. You're coming out in spots. Isn't he, driver?

            Driver: Yes, and just wait till you see him tomorrow morning.

            Harry: Spots? What kind of spots?

            Driver: Mylenian measles, Señor. That'll be three weeks at least, Señor—in quarantine!

Poor Harry nevertheless manages to get out of quarantine and confesses to Joaquimo his real identity. This only adds to his long list of bad decisions, for now he is accused of being an American spy and is immediately shipped off to jail. And Campo, the dead candidate, turns out to be not so dead after all. In fact, he’s been working in Mylenia as a sales agent for Freezo, a company Joaquimo dismissively refers to as “another one of those soft drinks.”

The Third Man

The Third Man

The Mylenian dictator’s plan indeed ends in shambles but “The Buzzo Gospel” succeeds in its critique of American policies regarding international relations in 1950s. Reminiscent of Citizen Kane, the episode even takes a dig at the media’s manipulative power by having Joaquimo scream over the telephone that he could “improve that headline” which ostensibly warns citizens about the poll fraud that he himself conceived. The episode’s dip into ridiculous imperialism ends with Harry’s quip: “Yes, democracy has come to Mylenia—by courtesy of Freezo.”

Welles’s radio rendition of Harry Lime is natural and relaxed, possibly because he was no longer being asked to crawl into a sewer (or wrestle with the fact that the producer of The Third Man never wanted him to play the character in the first place). In fact, Welles was so pleased with this particular episode that he developed the content into a film script, which never went into production. (It was, however, adapted into a French novel, Une grosse légume aka The Big Shot.) The radio show’s peculiar humor, mixing human idiosyncrasy with jokes about political ideologies, somewhat suggests the work of The Goon Show, starring Peter Sellers, which was also broadcast by BBC in the mid-Fifties. It is unclear whether the Goons were inspired by The Adventures of Harry Lime, but they did do an episode spoofing international politics titled “Foiled by President Fred” which not only makes references to Harry Lime but features snatches of that inescapable zither music.

The Third Man is screening in a major restoration at Film Forum through July 9.