Listening to 1951’s Orson Welles “The Lives of Harry Lime” in parallel with the 1957 radio series “Europe Confidential” can be a surreal experience — and never more than in this episode about a stolen painting that changes from Rubens to Van Gogh through the art of script recycling.
Harry Lime: Work of Art, 1951
In the original, Lime is his usual charismatic international thief, smuggler, ladies-man and con-man. This time he’s out to charm his way to one of a wealthy woman’s old masters.
Europe Confidential: Stolen Van Gogh, c. 1957
In “Europe Confidential,” syndicated as part of a broader title called “World’s Greatest Mysteries” with Basil Rathbone offering introductions, the only continuing character is Mike Connoy, played by Lionel Murton. Connoy is billed as “Paris correspondent of a famous American newspaper,” but this is one of the episodes where he is merely the “as it was told to me” narrator — for a rewritten version of what was originally a Harry Lime script.
And this time he’s one step farther from the story. Our narrator says he only read the original news reports, so there’s no breaking-news journalist in the plot. In the real world, columnist Connoy wouldn’t keep his job for long that way! Sadly, for this blog, that means there’s not much discuss about radio fiction’s “portrayal” of journalists — except that they can make excellent narrators, and that using the Connoy character that way probably saved producer Harry Towers a bundle on fresh scripts.
At least some of the plot shifts are intriguing…
In the original 1951 story, international thief and con-man Harry Lime (“The Third Man”), voiced by Welles himself, is in Argentina to steal a painting, an original Peter Paul Rubens.
In the 1957 version, Connoy tells us about an art thief named Larry (not Harry) in Madrid (not Buenos Aires). And he’s after a painting by Vincent Van Gogh (not Rubens).
Incidentally, the Canadian collector who digitized copies of the Europe Confidential transcription disks mentioned that there were no episode titles on the disks themselves, just numbers. As a result, the titles on MP3 files at his website and the copies at the Internet Archive are improvisations. (In this case, that includes a phonetic spelling of “Van Geoff” in the MP3 filename; if someone corrects the name, the link above may stop working.)
Back to the plot: With Welles as the star, the original caper was told in the first person and had an amusing double-twist ending. As in all Harry Lime stories, we can be pretty sure Lime will not die or go to jail for long, since he must remain free to — eventually — meet his end in the sewers of Vienna in the movie “The Third Man,” dramatically foreshadowed at the start of each radio episode.
In “Europe Confidential,” there’s a triple twist, since Welles former collaborator Harry Towers (producer of both series) wasn’t constrained by Lime’s back-story or future-story.
The result is a somewhat different ending, and some closing remarks from Connoy. But in losing Welles’ Lime as the main character we don’t get as strong a replacement, and we still learn nothing about the American reporter-narrator, unlike some “Europe Confidential” episodes where Connoy is more action-hero foreign correspondent. There are also no lessons in media ethics or technique.
However, there is one bit of U.K. Fleet Street trivia in term you wouldn’t hear from a typical American. At the end of the episode, Connoy speculates about a follow-up to the events of the story — if only one could cover a meeting of a couple of the characters behind bars.
“That would have been a real human-interest story,” he says, “although it might have required a lot of sub-editing before publication.”
“Sub-editing” is a British term for what U.S. newspapers just call the work of the “copy desk.” Or, when an article needed more work in the old days, “the rewrite desk.”
Coming from the American reporter Connoy is supposed to be, either of those would be a better term — all the more because the story itself is a rewrite — and an export product that may have been heard more in England, Australia and Canada than the U.S.A.
(See the last three blog posts for my previous Europe Confidential items, which I’ll eventually combine and polish into a chapter-length “page” essay here: Europe Confidential.)