Lost in the Movies: The Third Man

The Third Man

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend," E.M. Forster once wrote, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Albert Camus, faced with the possibility of his mother being killed by terrorists in the struggle for Algerian independence, said, "If that is justice, I prefer my mother." The circumstances in The Third Man - British officer Callaway tries to get naive American author Holly Martins to sell out his criminal friend Harry Lime, for the sake of Anna, a Czechoslovakian refugee - seem far more lopsided in duty's direction. Humanitarianism, rather than questionable nationalism, is set up against friendly loyalty, while the victim of justice is not a mother blown up on a tram, but a sociopathic greedy child-poisoner. Yet in a way, this only deepens the dilemma: the characters have every reason to betray Harry Lime, but one of them almost doesn't and the other never would.

As in The Quiet American, screenwriter Graham Greene stresses the extent to which moral fiber demands personal betrayal. It isn't just a matter of conforming to social standards, as in On the Waterfront where the characters are cowed by fear of the corrupt boss rather than personally loyal to him, and the anti-informing sentiment is an abstract principle - it's just something you're not supposed to do because, well, everyone says so. In The Third Man, it's more a matter of conscience - not conscience vs. society, or conscience vs. selfishness, but conscience vs. conscience. There's no ostracism awaiting Holly for playing "dumb decoy duck" (except that little bit Anna is able to offer, as her own back is up against the wall). A conversation between Holly and Calloway frames the issue succinctly: "We'll catch him anyway," Calloway smugly asserts, to which Holly responds, "Well, I won't have been a part of it." Sternly, Calloway counters, "That's a fine thing to boast about."

What's the trouble with Harry (who, in this case as it turns out, isn't dead)? His deeds are dastardly - diluting penicillin and killing or driving patients mad in the process. He offers no excuses, only cold-blooded rationales for his actions. He has witnesses and whistle-blowers murdered, perhaps killing them himself. Certainly, he's not one for personal loyalty: not only does he threaten to toss Holly out of a Ferris wheel, he aids the Russians in tracking down Anna, in return for their protection. In other words, he's a 100% scumbag. And yet - he is Holly's friend, and Anna's lover. Somehow, on some almost metaphysical level, that's enough. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that he's played by Orson Welles in what could very well be - amongst all the competition - the single most brilliant stroke of casting in cinema history. I can't imagine the part working nearly as well with anybody else in the role.

Not because we're sympathetic to Harry Lime, per se; we know he deserves what he's getting. Yet on some level we can't quite dislike him, not in a personal sense anyway. And we immediately see why Holly and Anna are so attracted to him - he's loaded with charisma and magnetism, witty, fun, a source of life. Them, on the other hand, we sympathize with yet we also recognize how helpless and lost they are without someone like Harry in their lives. One is just a foolish drunk hack writer, the other a melancholy, mopey girl, all too human (that's why they are poignant instead of pathetic) but with little to hope for in this dark postwar world. Harry Lime is life itself to them - so the question is at once existential (is loyalty as much a matter of conscience as duty?) and personal (maybe against their better instincts, the characters - and we - like Harry, we want him out there even if we're not around him personally).

In a series of lectures on existentialism, literature, and film, Hubert Dreyfus places the characters within the framework of Kierkegaard's philosophy, with lower immediacy (following animal instincts), the universal (knowing what is right or just, and trying to obey it), and higher immediacy (knowing what is right and transcending it for something more important, in a "leap of faith"). In doing so, he poses an interesting question: why does Anna do what she does - or rather why doesn't she do anything? It isn't just that she refuses to betray Harry, even warns him: once he's dead she refuses to even acknowledge Holly. She won't betray his memory, let alone his person. Is she, in Kierkegaard's terms, a "knight of faith"? In a sense, yes - she has accepted as her central truth her relationship with Harry and refuses to let anything else intervene, not law and order, or sick children, or the truth about his meanness. It's too late, she has taken her leap. She knows that, defying logic or reason, she is to remain loyal to Harry to the grave and beyond.

Yet Dreyfus contradicts this elsewhere, denying Anna this title and instead casting her as a knight of resignation - a knight of faith would believe, against all reason, that she would be reunited with Harry whereas Anna seems to accept his faked death, the revelation of his crimes, his traitorous re-emergence, and his eventual real death, all with equal stoicism, sad but moving on with her life - not expecting the happiness to ever flame up again. Both she and Harry are seen by Dreyfus as beyond the ethical (Harry negative, she positive - sinner vs. saint) whereas Holly and Calloway embody the ethical (Holly negative with his vigilante sense, Calloway positive with his circumspection and responsibility). However, her religion is one of martyrdom and sacrifice rather than deliverance. Well, it's just one man's theory, and one I find unsatisfactory in some areas (I think his observations on Hiroshima Mon Amour are stronger) - I have trouble see why Anna should be pigeonholed when her grief seems to be a complex mixture of faith and resignation (and I think his reading of Holly is grossly simplistic).

However, I do find the questions fascinating and indicative of the rich moral texture at play. Anna is, in some ways, the most intriguing character in the film. Everyone else has fairly clear motives, with Harry and Calloway knowing exactly what they must do and why they must do it. Holly's choices are trickier, but his reasoning process is straightforward. Yet Anna remains an intriguing, elusive figure. We can understand her in the abstract - having loved and been grateful to Harry with a depth borne out of deep trauma and terror, she can never unstick herself from the psychological/emotional commitment she made in her time of desperation. Yet to actually leap into her mind, to feel what she's feeling, fills us with a bit of awe and confusion. It leads us to a point where somehow the tendrils of justice and equanimity lose their hold, and we fall into an abyss where all that matters is what grabs us in our gut (is this lower immediacy? higher? it's immediacy, that's for sure). It's a dangerous place - so many of the world's destructive ideologies or murderous pathologies have been born there - but it's an essential part of the human character and in its own way, almost rather noble. It's certainly necessary in some quantity, and we can parse out where it should be limited or fenced in but once we do that we're already engaged in another kind of thinking or believing altogether.

Anyway, the ideas at play are not the first things that reach out and grab you in The Third Man. It's just simply one of the most entertaining films of all time - something I could probably put on anytime and fall under the spell of. It has three of the greatest scenes ever (maybe four, if you include the sewer chase) - if I was making a list of fifty or one hundred favorite scenes then the appearance of Harry Lime in the doorway, the Ferris wheel ride culminating in the immortal "cuckoo clock" speech, and that gorgeous closing shot would all show up, probably more entries than any other film could command. Yet The Third Man is not exactly a slick mechanism; the first time I watched it I was baffled - the jaunty music didn't seem to fit, the aggressively skewed angles were distracting, and the pace and banter were so fast. It wasn't the dark, moody noir I expected, or at least not only that. Eventually of course I came to adore the music and particularly its effect on the movie, and I realized that The Third Man is that mixture of light and dark, a world-weariness savored on a crisp afternoon day rather than in the dead of night.

This tone, this sensibility is - pace Anna - resigned but still committed, not believing blindly and foolishly nor cynically stepping back and giving up. It's believing in the struggle or the cause, whatever it may be, without having illusions. In a way, though they have come to different conclusions (and can never be together again), Anna and Holly are on the same page. Calloway has done his job, Harry is dead, but Anna and Holly are still alive in a hostile world, dreamers who've realized that, while the world does not respond to the dream the dream doesn't cease to exist. Anna accepted this long ago, and Holly is coming to comprehend it himself (though we don't believe that his romanticism will entirely evaporate, or with it his foolish and harmful gestures). Yet both of them - one by standing still, the other by striding past - are demonstrating their faith, flimsy as that falling leaf yet firm as those bare, spindly trees.

The Third Man appears at 6:30 in "Noir and Naturalism", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".

Tomorrow: Tokyo Story
This morning: Taxi Driver

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