“Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax”

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’
Share this article

The peculiarly modern kind of evil embodied by Harry Lime in The Third Man is also the animating spirit of Boris Johnson’s government.

Who is the most memorable villain in the history of cinema?

There’s no shortage of strong contenders, from Ernst Stavro Blofeld (he of the fluffy white cat) to the soft-spoken cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter. But for me, one stands head and shoulders above the crowd of deranged serial killers and criminal masterminds bent on world domination: Harry Lime, as portrayed by Orson Welles in The Third Man.

It’s not just the unforgettably charismatic performance by Welles, the superb screenplay by Graham Greene or the seedy allure of post-war Vienna, as captured in dramatic chiaroscuro by the film’s director, Carol Reed. What’s special about Harry Lime is the way his character embodies a peculiarly modern kind of evil, and one that – as we have seen in the past few weeks – appears also to be the animating spirit of Boris Johnson’s government.

The film follows the efforts of Holly Martins, a naïve American author of western novels, to find out what has happened to his old friend Lime, who appears to have been killed in a car accident on a Viennese street. But was it an accident? And is Lime even dead?

Gradually, Martins discovers that Lime is not the man he imagined him to be; in fact, as British military policeman Major Calloway tells him, he is “the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”. Calloway describes the nature of Lime’s racket to an incredulous Martins:

“There hasn’t been enough penicillin to go round. So a nice trade started here. Stealing penicillin from the military hospitals – diluting it to make it go further and selling it to patients. Do you see what that means?”

Martins doesn’t at first, and asks: “Are you too busy chasing a few tubes of penicillin to investigate a murder?”

Calloway has to spell it out to him: “These were murders. Men with gangrene legs. Women in childbirth … And there were children, too. They used some of this diluted penicillin against meningitis. The lucky children died.”

After Martins has discovered that Lime has faked his own death, he meets his old friend and they take a ride on Vienna’s Ferris wheel. Looking down on the city beneath them, Martins asks Lime: “Have you ever seen any of your victims?”

Lime responds, chillingly: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 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? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax.”

He goes on: “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we?”

Audiences in 1949, the year the film was released, might have understood Lime to be thinking about the governments that had just been waging a world war, at huge cost in human lives and suffering. But in the summer of 2020, his words have a different but no less sinister resonance.

Over the past few weeks, details have emerged of how our own government has handed health-related contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds to crony corporations, political associates and dubious offshore companies linked to government advisers. Many of these companies have no track record in the medical sector. And they have not just profited massively from the Covid-19 pandemic, many have also delivered dangerously defective medical equipment.

Ayanda Capital, for instance, – owned by a holding company registered in the tax haven of Mauritius – appears to have delivered roughly £150m worth of facemasks that do not meet NHS safety standards. The deal was brokered by government adviser Andrew Mills, who is also a senior board adviser to Ayanda, and is estimated by Jolyon Maugham QC – the campaigning lawyer who has been investigating this and other contracts – to have generated profit of at least £50m for the company’s owners.

Meanwhile, contracts to run the test and trace system were handed, without competitive tender, to accountancy firm Deloitte – a major donor to the Conservative Party – and to Serco, a company run by the brother of a former Conservative MP; the very same Serco that, in 2019, was found to have been engaging in wholesale fraud and false accounting relating to a recent government contract. The company was fined £22.9m by the Serious Fraud Office for these offences. Deloitte, which had acted as Serco’s auditor, was fined £4.2m for its part in the same scandal.

The failure to deliver an effective test and trace system came as no surprise to anyone with any knowledge of these companies’ track records. And make no mistake: this failure, like the failure to provide effective PPE to hospital and care home staff, will have led to hundreds, if not thousands, of horrible and avoidable deaths.

Still, perhaps some of the profits made on such contracts will have made their way to the arts. Both Deloitte and Serco like to boast of their arts’ sponsorship – Deloitte has given money to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House, for instance.

As Harry Lime observes in The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Lime would no doubt have been equally contemptuous of Switzerland’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, the country had recorded 230 deaths per million from the virus. The figure for the UK was 686.

For every one of those tens of thousands of insignificant “dots” that have stopped moving since February, a great deal more than £20,000 has been made by the companies that have been enabled to profit from this human catastrophe by Boris Johnson’s government.

And a lot of this profit, like the proceeds from Harry Lime’s trade in diluted penicillin, will have been “free of income tax, old man, free of income tax”.