The Third Man

There could be no better moment for The Third Man to reappear – just not as a cosy patriotic treat. Rather, it is a cold premonition of no-deal Britain

We are where we are in no small part due to endless British war films convincing a generation born in the 1950s that they had lived through the Blitz and could only be happy back in it. But The Third Man is a postwar movie. American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to meet, then mourn, his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but the city he finds tells a bitter truth about life after wartime. “Smashed and dreary,” the screenwriter, Graham Greene, wrote in the novella drafted as a treatment.

“The classic period of the black market,” the voiceover calls it, an ugly scuttle of murky characters and fraught borders, an impoverished place carved up by predatory powers. The screen fills with parallels between then and our soon-to-be now. Official versions of Harry’s death hum with organised disinformation; his lover Anna is a refugee, terrified of being caught with the wrong papers; malign Russian influence lurks.

But most of all, there are the vultures. To the crooks Greene found at work in the Viennese debris, the godsend of war was allowing them room to get rich. No Deal will be the same: a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tip a whole country into a handful of pockets. Disaster capitalism is just the modern name. There must be a catastrophe – because only that upheaval can allow the firesale of public assets and small businesses, the accompanying wave of deregulation, Britain remade as an offshore hidey-hole that asks no questions (and where those who do ask regret it).

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