An as-told-to tale of blackmail

The best rewrite of a “Lives of Harry Lime” episode that I’ve heard so far, transformed into a “Europe Confidential” episode with the addition of a journalist narrator, is this tale of political blackmail in which a racketeer anti-hero comes to the rescue of a former enemy.

Clay Pigeon (1951)

Senator Payne (c.1957)

In the original broadcast, Orson Welles’  “The Third Man” character, the shadowy Harry Lime, is back in America. He has been asked to put his underworld skills to work to help an old foe. The governor of an unnamed state has become a “Clay Pigeon” for a blackmailer.

“For money and hate, Lime goes anywhere,” Lime says, agreeing to help.

Welles is the narrator, with a constant smirk, raised eyebrow, and ever-present anti-hero ego befitting his character from the film.  Six or so years later, Welles’ former collaborator Harry Allan Towers produced the “Europe Confidential” series, with an American foreign correspondent as its central character, and transformed the “Clay Pigeon” script into a tale set in Paris, featuring as blackmail victim a vacationing American politician, “Senator Payne.”

Basil Rathbone’s rather generic introduction to the episode is ironic, saying that reporter Mike Connoy goes “speeding to the scene” wherever a story calls — but in this episode Connoy stays in his office, listening to a Lime-like racketeer tell him the story. At least Connoy is eye-witness to the final surprise at the end.

“I’m always interested in a story,” Connoy says early on. The racketeer tells him the Senator’s investigations are what forced him to flee to Europe, a plot element that would have suited Harry Lime, too.

The as-told-to storytelling device works well here, and I enjoyed the tale more without Welles as both protagonist and narrator. Splitting the storytelling between two actors’ voices helped. Lionel Murton plays Connoy; the other cast members aren’t identified, but their European accents add variety to story and its sometimes flowery prose. (Even Welles and the cheery “Third Man” zither music in the background of “The Lives of Harry Lime” begin to get old after a while.)

Dialogue and description are lifted verbatim from the earlier script with surprising ease. “The wind from the Seine…” is described colorfully in one story; it was “the wind from the East River” in the other.

As far as teaching us anything about journalism, Connoy proves to be a good listener and a good summarizer at the breaks in the racketeer’s story. Finally, like the 1950s journalist he is supposed to be, the columnist delivers an “objective” moral after the bit of a twist at the end, a hint of complexity in the racketeer character’s final action.

“So that’s the story… I don’t set out to explain people. My business is merely reporting the facts. I’ll leave you to judge the answers for yourself.” — Mike Connoy, journalist

“I’ll be reading tomorrow’s paper, so make it good,” his racketeer source says on the way out.

Footnote on adaptation

Graham Greene created the Harry Lime character who, name changed or not, is at the center of both these stories. For more about the film, here’s a TCM article collection. If he or Welles wrote anything he wrote about the radio-recyclings of the  character, I haven’t found it.

But Greene did write about the transition from screenplay to book, which I had assumed went in the opposite direction. “The Third Man”  film story came first, as he noted in this preface, which was reprinted in The New York Times: 

“To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film or a play. But ‘The Third Man’ was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture.

The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film, in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.” — Graham Green, 1950.

There are no journalists in “The Third Man” itself, so I haven’t made a “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” page for it. The main character is a writer, played by Joseph Cotten. He is an author of adventure westerns and had been offered a job in publicity by Harry Lime.

However, for any readers who are getting to like old-time-radio through this blog, there was a “Lux Radio Theater” production of “The Third Man” in 1951. Here it is, an hour-long version at the Internet Archive’s Lux collection. Cotten reprises his role as Holly Martins, who describes himself as “a hack-writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.” He might be describing almost any Hollywood portrayal of a journalist.
(Footnote: The character Harry Lime was not played by Orson Welles in this Lux production, but the actor who voiced the role is not singled out among the dozen men named at the end. Long-time old-time-radio listener Norm Schickedanz thumbed through his copy of the book Lux Presents Hollywood, A Show-by-Show History (C.J. Billips & A. Pierce, McFarland, 1995) to let me know the mystery voice of Harry Lime was movie and radio actor Ted de Corsia.)

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1950s, adaptations, Drama, Europe, foreign correspondents, Orson Welles. Bookmark the permalink.

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