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The Catholic conscience of a noir classic

Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in The Third Man’s famous Ferris wheel scene

It’s considered by some as the best film noir ever made – and it is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. The Third Man, starring Orson Welles, was rendered especially compelling by Anton Karas’s mesmeric Harry Lime Theme, played on the zither.

The movie, directed by Carol Reed, is a haunting thriller set in the dark and threatening world of post-war Vienna. It produced the oft-quoted social comparison between Italy and Switzerland. At one point, Welles – speaking as the elusive crook Harry Lime – proclaims: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

I remember that being recited to me, as a schoolgirl in Dublin back in the 1950s, by a neighbouring schoolboy who was reckoned to be sophisticated in his knowledge of movies and politics. It was a quotation that had strong appeal to the adolescent mind – the idea that drama and mayhem are more conducive to creativity than order and peace.

It’s now suggested that The Third Man, from the book by Graham Greene, was not just a thriller, but also a morality tale, which is the product of Greene’s sometimes anguished Catholic conscience.

The writer Ian Thomson, who has published a collection of Greene’s journalism (as well as an award-winning book about Dante), claims that the film pivots on both Greene’s Catholicism and his religious doubts. “Greene had found in Catholicism a sense of melodrama – an atmosphere of good and evil – that served him well for a film shadowed by the atom bomb and the brutality of Stalin’s technocratic Russia,” he says. I would say an “awareness” of good and evil, rather than an “atmosphere”, but faith surely helped Graham Greene to ponder on the great issues of moral choice.

Thomson claims that the key passage in the film is when Harry Lime – who is selling fake medicines that will result in death or brain damage to children – looks down on nameless crowds from Vienna’s Ferris wheel and asks whether it really matters if unimportant people die. “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings,” Lime says of the masses.

Seventy years on, it remains a classic movie. It also raises serious moral issues. Whether Switzerland’s or Italy’s history is to be preferred is less significant than whether we respect every human being as a unique and significant person; even if, to a devilish cynic, they are just “dots” on a map.

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I can’t claim that I know Thérèse Coffey, Amber Rudd’s successor as minister for Work and Pensions, but I have met her.

The occasion was hosted by the Irish Embassy, and she struck me as lively and spirited, and yet a woman of common sense. She comes from an Irish family in Lancashire – as her name would indicate – and she had a Catholic education which took her to Somerville College, Oxford. I understood from her conversation that Ms Coffey – aged 47 and single – remained an observant Catholic. She voted against same-sex marriage in Parliament, which is why, apparently, she will not take on the “women and equalities” sector in Amber Rudd’s brief.

She has also shown some sympathy for the profession of the turf accountant, which, in truth, is well within the Irish tradition … She’s not a Brexiteer, but she believes in carrying out the Government’s programme conscientiously. Thérèse is considered very capable.

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Last weekend, the BBC reported that there was a climate change demonstration in Venice which attracted 600 participants.

It did not report that, simultaneously, there was a pro-life march to Stormont, Northern Ireland, which attracted 20,000 people.

Defence of the unborn is one of the most genuinely ecumenical movements in Northern Ireland, and the Belfast marchers came from all sectors of the community, and all generations too. They are opposed to Westminster imposing a liberal abortion regime on the province, which could happen.

Brexit occurred because voters felt ignored by an elite. It is not only unjust for the mainstream media to sideline issues which they consider unfashionable; it is also dangerous to democracy.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4