Orson Welles, A Zither, and Personal Finance

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a movie buff. I’ve forgotten more films than most people have ever watched. Yet, of all of the thousands upon thousands of movies I’ve ever watched, one scene stands out above all of them as the very best. Here it is – if you have five minutes, please watch it.

This is a five minute clip from a scene in The Third Man, which is one of my favorite films. In my opinion (and I don’t believe I’m alone in this), it’s the single greatest scene ever filmed. I could watch it over and over again, from Orson Welles dramatically approaching the Ferris wheel, to the vague threatening nature of the whole scene (aided by the zither music), to the infamous “cuckoo clock” speech at the end. In my mind, this is everything that is right about movies – and nothing else comes close to capturing it.

I won’t even guess how many times I’ve watched that scene above, or the whole film for that matter, but I now realize that part of the power is that it made me not only marvel in the artistry, but it made me think about things: my life and the choices I make.

I want to mention a pair of quotes from the scene above to show you what I mean.

Look down there… Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand 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 … it’s the only way to save money nowadays.

This line was spoken near the top of a Ferris wheel, looking down at the people below who appeared as dots below. I often liken this to the view that a salesman has of the people he sells to, or how a corporate leader views the individuals on the factory floor, churning out the products. What is the cash value of human dignity? Put yourself in that position: if you could magically eliminate a person you didn’t know for $20,000, would you do it? How many people would you eliminate? What does that really say about your values?

Another interesting part is the “free of income tax … it’s the only way to save money nowadays” bit, which expresses the fundamental truth that income that you don’t have to pay a tax on is far more valuable than income that does require an income tax. This is why people invest in Roth IRAs – they generate income that isn’t taxed.

in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo – 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.

The best lesson of all comes from the best impromptu speech in movie history (Welles made that up on the fly): the greatest rewards do not come from complacency. Challenge yourself as much as you can, and you’ll gain big rewards from it, both financial and otherwise.

Great films teach us a lot about life and about money. This weekend, rent a classic film or two and see what it can teach you.

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