Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, with five Oscar nominations, has polarized audiences. Some see the film allegorically — Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, represents the great Western urge to command and conquer, albeit one addicted to hard drugs and enhanced breasts — while others condemn the coal black comedy as a celebration of everything wrong with America’s financial institutions, a place where those responsible for massive stock losses and insider trading often receive little more than a slap on the wrist. After all, Belfort remains in the public eye, making money off his rather grim tale.
Regardless of Scorsese’s intent, what audiences can agree on is that The Wolf of Wall Street is a meditation on greed, joining a long list of films that peel back the curtain on scammers, deadbeats, and hustlers. As Belfort, DiCaprio, on several occasions, shrugs at the dirty tricks required to make a buck. And it is in these moments that Belfort calls to mind the classic film character Harry Lime from Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Personified by the great Orson Welles, Lime is a man who solely looks out for number one, who “dies” in Vienna at the start of the film, only to slowly reemerge after his old pal, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), begins to decipher just what Harry has been up to in Austria: racketeering, specifically the theft and black market peddling of diluted penicillin.
In one of The Third Man’s greatest scenes, Martins is finally able to lure Lime out of hiding. They meet in an open, public location: the Prater Amusement Park. Lime brings Martins for a ride on the Wiener Riesenrad, the park’s Ferris wheel, and the two exchange barbs in their enclosed gondola. Learning that his lover, Anna, has been seized by the authorities for deportation, Lime hardly flinches. “What can I do, old man, I’m dead, aren’t I?” Lime chuckles. When Martins suggests he turn himself in, he replies, “Holly, you and I aren’t heroes, the world doesn’t make any heroes.”
But the true sticking point in this scene — and the moment that Scorsese echoes so deftly throughout Wolf — comes as Martins asks Lime if he has ever seen any of his penicillin victims, the men, women, and children dying in hospital beds. Lime takes a sharp breath. Now hovering high in the air, he strolls to the gondola’s door and slides it open. Glancing at the world below, he says:
You know, I don’t ever feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped moving, 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. It’s the only way to save money nowadays.
Replace the gondola with a corner office and Harry Lime here could be Jordan Belfort, he of the “Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive” and “Everyone wants to get rich” platitudes. These two men see eye to eye. But where Harry eventually meets his comeuppance in The Third Man’s stunning final set piece deep within the sewers of Vienna (where else would one go to find a rat?), Jordan comes from contemporary America, where, with enough money, you can bend and contort out of any true punishment. This lack of discipline calls into question just what modern society values, what ideas define our era, what future generations will consider when writing our history, and it ties in nicely with Lime’s parting words to Martins as he steps off of the Wiener Riesenrad:
Remember what the fellow said. In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, 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.