Before you read this post, you should read this. Also, ****major spoilers****/will be super confusing without having seen the film, so watch before you read.
The Third Man’s stark pessimism manifesting itself in a post-war Vienna and its eccentric cinematography reminiscent of German Expressionism are enough to make the film worthy of the label film noir. However, writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed are creating a different kind of noir—a film that is as much pulp thriller as it is poignant. The Third Man is both a Holly Martins shitty best-seller and Nietzschean philosophical treatise, entertaining the audience as well as initiating a “crisis of faith.” While this combination makes The Third Man an irregular film noir, it still, nevertheless, is a film noir. The familiar noir archetypes are hidden in unconventional characters: the one-dimensional but eventually self-realizing protagonist, Holly Martins and the charming but unambiguous noir villain, Harry Lime.
Martins is unable to understand the story playing out in front of him beyond his Western fiction writer’s terms. His unawareness of the complexity of what he suspects as a murder is most prevalent in the lecture hall where Martins gives a talk about the contemporary novel. To the students’ dismay, Martins’ hero is Zane Grey (pfft), and he can only mumble when asked by a student, “Do you believe in the stream of consciousness?” However, Martins tells the crowd he is writing a new book, “The Third Man.” It appears that Martins can only think in terms of Western pulp fiction because “the implicit model for Holly’s actions in Vienna thus far has been the world of his Western novels and their one-dimensional heroes” (Palmer). Martins suspects foul-play at the death of his friend Harry Lime and decides that he himself will solve the case despite Maj. Calloway warning him to stay out. These actions are only some examples of his foolishness. The film may even suggest a hint of an attitude of American superiority, even though Martins is pushed around by Maj. Calloway and repeatedly rejected by Anna Schmidt. Film critic Robert Porfirio defines the noir protagonist as a “Non-heroic hero,” noting, “Most central to this hero is the loss, and an awareness of it, of all the fixed ties that bind a man to a community” (84).
Martins suspects foul-play at the death of his friend Harry Lime and decides that he himself will solve the case despite Maj. Calloway warning him to stay out. These actions are only some examples of his foolishness. The film may even suggest a hint of an attitude of American superiority, even though Martins is pushed around by Maj. Calloway and repeatedly rejected by Anna Schmidt. Film critic Robert Porfirio defines the noir protagonist as a “Non-heroic hero,” noting, “Most central to this hero is the loss, and an awareness of it, of all the fixed ties that bind a man to a community” (84). In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey shows his awareness of loss by revealing his past to Anne. This awareness is also represented by his continual look of ennui and his suicide with Kathie as the only escape from his past. Walter Neff, in Double Indemnity, demonstrates his awareness of loss by shooting Phyllis after she confesses her love for him. The entire movie is a confession by Neff to Keyes, knowing his ties with both his work and his friend Keyes are now gone. Holly Martins, however, still believes that he can be the American hero—a character in one of his books that “embody a simplistic division of good and evil and result in unambiguously happy endings for the just” (Hibbs 34). Martins’ own characters in his books can hardly be representative of noir heroes. If he embodies one of his own heroes, then he himself cannot be considered a noir protagonist, and it seems that The Third Man fails to meet the requirements needed to be considered a film noir. However, as the story comes to fruition, Martins becomes quite aware of the loss of both his boyhood friend and the moral fabric of his own world. The first description of Martins comes from the opening narrator: “happy as a lark and without a cent.” Martins comes to Vienna hoping to see his friend Harry Lime, but what he finds is Lime’s funeral. As he investigates Lime’s death, he comes to discover that Lime was involved in some crime. At first, Martins is skeptical, knowing his friend to be conniving sometimes but still a morally upright person. However, soon thereafter, Maj. Calloway convinces Martins that Harry was responsible.
As the story comes to fruition, however, Martins becomes quite aware of the loss of both his boyhood friend and the moral fabric of his own world. The first description of Martins comes from the opening narrator: “happy as a lark and without a cent.” Martins comes to Vienna hoping to see his friend Harry Lime, but what he finds is Lime’s funeral. As he investigates Lime’s death, he comes to discover that Lime was involved in some local racket. At first, Martins is skeptical, knowing his friend to be conniving sometimes but still a morally upright person. However, soon thereafter, Maj. Calloway convinces Martins that Harry was responsible for a black-market scheme where he would dilute stolen penicillin to sell it with the result that the children who ingested the drug would go mad. Martins is so disappointed with his dead friend that he remarks to Anna, “He’s better dead. I know he was mixed up but not like that. I suppose he was laughing at fools like us the whole time.” A good childhood friend turning out to be a criminal does not exactly line up in Martins’ American Western fiction writer’s brain. Then, much to his dismay, Martins finds Lime alive. If Martins is unaware that the story in front of him has denied the validity of his pulp western fiction hero model, he becomes aware whenever Lime says to him, “Holly, you and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make heroes.” The ultimate display of Martins’ awareness of the loss of a coherent moral framework holding the world together is at the end of the film when he shoots Lime. Lime is no longer his boyhood friend, but a racketeer who has destroyed the moral fabric of Martin’s western and fictional worldview.
Harry Lime, too, is an unconventional noir character who is unambiguously the criminal of the film but is also attractive and unapologetically self-justifying. According to Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, film noir narratives are “manipulated so that at times the moviegoer sympathizes [and] identifies with the criminals” (21). Although he is not definitive of all noir criminals, the murderer in M is a case-in-point. He begs for understanding at the end of the film with his tears before the self-declared jury of other criminals. He claims he cannot help murdering children, but they commit crimes because they are lazy. The resulting effect is the feeling of ambiguity at which crimes are morally acceptable when no crimes should be. In The Third Man, however, the depravity of Harry Lime is seen in the children’s hospital whenever Maj. Calloway takes Martins there. No one denies that Lime’s racket is deplorable, especially not Holly Martins. The ambiguity in Lime is not about his criminality, but it is found in both his attractiveness and self-justification. As James Naremore points out, “His entrance is so impressive that it tends to make the audience forget exactly what crimes Lime is supposed to have committed” (77). The moment Lime’s face is shown is unforgettable for both the audience and Holly Martins. Lime is an attractive figure who already seems more in control than the protagonist of the film. Lime responds to Martin’s question about his belief in God, saying, “I still do believe in God, old man. But the dead are happier dead.” He goes on to claim that nobody thinks in terms of human beings anymore. He brings Martins up into a Ferris wheel and says of his penicillin scheme:
Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds 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.
His “thesis is that care for individual lives runs against the utilitarian logic and instrumental rationality of modern politics, in both its socialist and capitalist guises” (Hibbs 36). In Lime’s modern age, governments are not thinking about human beings when they go to war or drop atomic bombs. Rather, there are state interests at stake despite the interest of human lives. As Lime says, “They’ve got their five-year plans and I’ve got mine.” Film critic Phillip Kerr claims, “He’s quite right, of course. That’s what I mean by moral hypocrisy. What’s the difference between what he’s done and what they did?” (Kerr). The realization of the double standards between world powers and individuals is disorienting for the audience, and this revealing of hypocrisy is the ambiguity, which is definitive of film noir; instead of a corrupt police force, The Third Man depicts a corrupt state. Martins cannot understand this change in his boyhood friend, as he later betrays and eventually kills Lime. Naremore points out, “After Lime is gone, the film does nothing to assuage the sense of moral ambiguity he has created” (80). Although Harry Lime is clearly defined as the criminal in the film, the moral ambiguity he creates is enough to make him a film noir criminal.
Holly Martins and Harry Lime both defy normal expectations of their respective noir archetypes. As some have pointed out, film noir is a rejection of the “familiar reference points” in pre-war films: distinctions between good and evil, high and mighty heroes, and honesty (Borde and Étienne 24). It is only fitting that some noir films must defy noir’s own conventions and own familiar reference points, and such is the case with The Third Man.
AJ – 6/6/17 ♜
Borde, Raymond, and Étienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, 17-25. New York: Limelight, 1998. Print.
Hibbs, Thomas S. Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. Dallas, TX: Spence Pub., 2008. Print.
Kerr, Phillip. “The Third Man: Seeing Greene.” The Criterion Collection. N.p., 21 May 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. Berkeley: U of California, 1998. Print.
Palmer, James W., and Michael M. Riley. “The Lone Rider in Vienna: Myth And Meaning In The Third Man.” Literature Film Quarterly 8.1 (1980): 14. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, 77-93. New York: Limelight, 1998. Print.
The Third Man. Dir. Carol Reed. Perf. Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles. London Film Productions, 1949. DVD.