Updated on 04.06.07

Orson Welles, A Zither, and Personal Finance

Trent Hamm

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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  1. david says:

    Personal finance aside, that is the first time that I’ve ever seen a clip of “The Third Man,” which I have heard is one of the greatest films ever made. Based on that 5 minutes, I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing.


  2. Drew says:

    The single greatest scene ever filmed? Maybe, but I don’t know. The ending of “The Third Man” might rank more highly in my far-too-long book.

    But as far as one of the greatest films up there, “The Third Man” is there. I’m even willing to pony up the cash — can I say that on a “financial” blog? — and buy the new Criterion edition even though I own the old, that’s how much I love this movie.

    As far as the financial aspect of the film goes, I’d forgotten how that scene works so well in the larger context of the film that deals with the Viennese black market. The metaphor is never lost throughout the movie. Brilliant stuff.

  3. rhbee says:

    You remind me of my childhood when my family was military and one of the perks was that a movie ticket only cost a dime. I saw this film then when I really didn’t know what it meant but was still amazed at the music. And the view from the roller coaster reminds me of a novel by WT Tyler called the Ants of God which it turns out we all may be. Finally, it may just be serendipity at work but I just finished riding the roller coaster ride offered up on JD’s blog that he used to illustrate graphically the wild ride of the real estate market since 1890.

  4. Matt says:

    “… 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.”

    Of course, not having to pay income tax is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be a major factor in your investment decisions. Would you choose a tax-free muni paying 4.5% over a taxable S&P 500 fund returning, on average, 11%? You need to compare after-tax returns when comparing investments. Too many people make bad decisions because of supposed tax benefits (the biggest one being the idea that mortgage interest is good because it’s deductible).

  5. Lana says:

    “The greatest rewards do not come from complacency.”

    I couldn’t agree more, and this thought reminds me of a quote from a book I’ve been reading, Radical Careering by Sally Hogshead. My boss passed it to my work partner and I to read, with the thought that they may buy a copy for everyone in our department. (It’s a brilliant book, you should review it!)

    Anyway, the quote is: “You can be comfortable, or outstanding, but not both.”

    It applies to money just as much as work.

    I’m 23, I’m working on paying down my debt, going home for lunch every day instead of out to eat with my coworkers, passing on going out for drinks most times, too. But I want my finances in order now. I want my 401(k), even if I can only contribute 4% while I pay off debts, to thrive in these years while I’m ahead of the game. I want my finances to be outstanding.

    Does it sometimes suck to have to tell people that I’d rather not go out to dinner, or to a movie on Saturday night because my budget is already wearing thin on the last paycheck? Sure.

    But then, I’ve always found that the best company to have are people with whom you can do absolutely nothing and have a good time.

  6. Jenners says:

    You included this column in your Retro recommendations yesterday, but the video link doesn’t work anymore.

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