Sunday, April 7, 2013

Zither me this

Historic tidbit for a rainy day, from Gordon Corera's The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6; Harry Lime was modeled on Britain's Benedict Arnold, Kim Philby.

It's well known that Philby traveled to Vienna in 1933 after graduating from Cambridge,  where his Communist sympathies were further nurtured thanks to the near open street warfare between Nazi and Communist operatives, and also by his meeting the woman who became his first wife, Litzi.

After the couple fled to London to escape the violence in Austria, Philby was introduced to another Austrian Communist living there and working as an academic.  The professor, impressed by Philby's intelligence and natural charm, recruited him for secret work for the Soviet Union, instructing Philby to publicly disavow his previous political beliefs and embark on a career suitable for a British intellectual.  That's how he came to enter Britain's intelligence service.

The Soviet recruiter had chosen presciently.  Philby was a natural secret agent.  Betrayal came easily to him, especially with women--including, eventually, his wife Litzi.  He rapidly moved up in the ranks of MI6, and one day in 1941 found himself supervising the work of the novelist Graham Greene, who in 1948 created the character Harry Lime for Alexander Korda's film, The Third Man.

In that Cinema classic, Lime had been the friend of a writer (an American named Holly Martins) who comes to Vienna thinking he will re-unite with his old friend Harry.  Instead he is first told that he's been killed in a traffic accident, later finds that not to be true, and that Lime is not the man Martins thought.  Consider this bit of dialogue between Martins and a British Major who has been investigating Harry Lime's black market dealings in penicillin;
Martins: I guess nobody really knew Harry like he did... like I did.
Calloway: How long ago ?
Martins: Back in school. I was never so lonesome in my life until he showed up.
Calloway: When did you see him last ?
Martins: September, '39.
Calloway: When the business started ?
Martins: Um, hmm.
Calloway: See much of him before that ?
Martins: Once in a while. Best friend I ever had.
Calloway: That sounds like a cheap novelette.
Martins: Well, I write cheap novelettes.
Greene--though far from a writer of cheap novelettes--may well have thought of Philby as one his best friends while they worked together.  As they spent a lot of social time in each other's company during the war.  Until Greene unexplainedly quit MI6 to take a much less prestigious job with the Ministry of Information, where he finished his war service.  Why the break?  Maybe this dialogue from the film can shed some light;
Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?
In the film Holly Martins becomes enamored of Harry Lime's Austrian paramour Anna Schmidt (which is not reciprocated even when Martins intervenes to save her from the Russians).  One wonders if Graham Greene knew Litzi in the same way.

One wonders even more how what Greene reveals about his old friend Philby in this film could have been missed by Philby's colleagues in MI6 (who Corera informs us went en masse to the film when it first appeared in theaters). Philby's career in Intelligence was not apparently harmed until the defections of his friends Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean years later.  Even after that episode Philby continued on MI6's payroll while working as a journalist in Lebanon, until he too had to flee to Russia one step ahead of British law enforcement.

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