The Third Man – Morality
The Third Man raises some serious moral issues but at it’s heart lies the central conflict, is it better to remain steadfast and loyal as a personal value or is ones, “duty to humanity” and overriding consideration?” Throughout the “The Third Man” we find ourselves questioning whether it is morally righteous to take precedence the personal over the social good.
As the camera swings from close-ups to long shots, there is a suggestion by Reed of a tension between distance and proximity that may speak of principles that involve the public and private realms. Thus, in the cinematography, morality is perhaps alluded to.
The ambiguity that is given to us visually and through the presentation of character translates into the ambiguity of moral questions.
The film embodies a critique of cowboy culture. Carol reed extols (praises) subtler means to address that virtue does not embrace Holly’s brash intrusion into the sophisticated war-wearied landscapes of Vienna. Accumulated wrong is adroitly (skilfully) expressed in a crumbling landscape that offers its own statement of moral violation. When Holly castigates Calloway, “I’m gunning just the same way for your Major Callaghan,” he reveals innocence in a setting that embodies complexities far beyond his simplistic mind. Harry Lime presents a character that Holly needs to repudiate before he can gain new maturity and understanding beyond the world of his novelettes. He realises here that at no point does the simple distinction of white and black assist in a simple moral outcome.
Harry reiterates this notion by declaring, :Holly you and I aren’t heroes”. At the great wheel Holly is astounded at Harry’s indifferent to Anna’s fate and human suffering in general. The long shots from the Ferris wheel perceiving people as “dots” promote Limes nihilistic view on life. Holly seeing his “best friend” in new light recognises the ruthless racketeer amid his charismatic childhood hero. His simplistic childhood world is crushed by the realities and moral dilemma of life. It is when Holly learns that the world is far more complicated than he things, that he is filmed in a different light. After he shoots Harry in the sewer, the light signifies his moral growth and stature.
He is the quintessential (archetypal) American through his embodiment of frontier values and self-sufficiency that constitute Wild West justice. In superimposing the western stereotype onto the situation, Holly unwittingly causes the deaths of innocent men, the Porter and Sergent Paine. As a, ‘lone rider’, and a vigilante who “never really did like policemen,” Martins tries to live the fiction and in doing so, fails to discern reality. He attempts to live the “story of a man who hunted down a sheriff who was victimizing his best friend.”
Holly’s blundering into the shadowy complexities of Vienna parallel the traditional western hero in a context where his heroic journey places him in situations where the outcomes he envisions are pitifully inadequate for a broken world he cannot understand. Calloway reinforces the notion of a blundering American treading lightly on European sensibilities when he says, “I told you to go away Martins. This isn’t Santa Fe, I’m not a sheriff and you’re not a cowboy” When Holly and Harry meet in the Ferris Wheel scene, they appear to be eyeing each other before a battle.
Fact and fiction
His inability to distinguish fact from fiction is represented visually through skewed angles and shadows that convey the pitfalls he experiences in his approach to problems. His pursuit of the truth through the skewed angles and shadows his great difficulty in discerning what is real and what is not. His pursuit of the truth through dark alleys and mazes of war torn buildings is a visual representation of the labyrinths in his minds. “I’d say you are doing something pretty dangerous this time…Mixing fact and fiction”. Reed’s direction underlines Holly’s ineptness through the spiral staircase and the clutter of the crowded confusing scene that ensues. Reed provides us with visual cues for convoluted or confused thinking.
The Zither close up, and partly seen, creates a sense of distortion which continues throughout the film. A large proportion of shots are with a heavy tilt which creates a feeling of disorientation with the viewer. This parallels the disorientation of Holly, who as a visitor to the city is as ignorant of the decedent world. We sense a hint of Holly’s sense of displacement in an earlier shot when he confidently walks under a ladder, a visual joke suggesting that he is treading very thinly on European sensibilities. The films night sequences were shot at night with hard light and high contrast. Rarely are we more aware of the conflict between the light and dark both visually and morally than during the chases amongst Vienna’s ruins. The use of shadows is a technique of film noiristic steal creating disproportionate feelings of tension and confusion. We are reminded how appearances can deceive, with the appearance of the balloon man. When the drunken Holly first sees Lime, he chases the shadow. The fact that Holly chases, not Lime but his shadow is symbolic of his chasing of a ghost.
Fact and fiction are intertwined; a definite counterpoint pattern is evident in the dialogue between themes, between outdoors and indoors, light and dark, visual and aural and the high contrast between black and white mirroring Holly’s perceptions. Daylight scenes are linked to Holly, the sewer leads to the underworld of Harry. The false leads are part of the distortions of truth. Holly wants to remain in childhood which mirrors his dangerous of innocence and the naivety of America. High angle shots are structured to denote visually a feeling of inferiority.
The conceit of the disembodied voice at the start of the voice over is affable and engaging, and we fall for the charm of a voice so clearly on the wrong side of the moral divide, just as people must have fallen for Harry Lime. It also sets us Martins as a New World innocent out of his depth. He walks under a ladder as he is too confident and too neglectful of chance.
In the taxi as Holly makes his way to the lecture hall, the shots of Holly are framed by the vertical bars which separate the driver from the passenger. This evokes a sense of entrapment and naivety to the situation at hand
As Holly steps out, he looks up and out like that of a naive optimist. Calloway recognises that he, “shouldn’t be there.” Reeds camera work, provide effective cues that highlight Holly’s deficient understanding of Vienna. He is ……… of the fact that , “everyone ought to go carefully in a city like this”
His anti-hero status is delivered through camera angles that allow us to see him from above. Holly is mocked by Reed through the lens of the Camera. Calloway criticizing his, “blundering around,” reminding him that Vienna was not Santa Fe, an allusion to his writing of Western novels adding that, “you were born to be murdered”. Martins admits to Anna he is the “dumb decoy duck’ he appears most craven and guilt ridden.
Holly is unperturbed by the two enormous statues gracing the doorway which dwarf him. His naivety is clearly established as he makes maudlin promises to avenge his friend and expunge the stain on his memory. Kurtz tries to convince Holly that, everyone in Vienna is involved in the black market, “I’ve done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the way”.
Film Noir techniques such as reflective surfaces, night lighting, tilted angles and the predominant shadows presents a profusion of representations that defies easy understanding. At no point is there a simple distinction of white and black to assist in a simple moral outcome. The dialogue reinforces this message, “Holly, you and I aren’t heroes; the world doesn’t make any heroes.”
The shadows, visual disorientation parallels perception and show that it is often skewed and limited. The lack of clarity of perception reflects the environment of post war angst and malaise. Alienation is evident of we a confronted visually and physically with the dark side of human nature. The close ups convey the fact that we do not have the full picture and the viewer is meant to feel the disorientation that the protagonist experiences. Facts are veiled and the protagonist finds it hard to construe a world of trickery and subterfuge. Holly can’t see the Baron as evil and is clouded in judgement.
Confusion of “heaven” and “hell” establishes moral ambiguity, difficult to tell.
Holly’s childhood hero is gradually revealed as a racketeer exploiting the innocent and ailing free of any feeling of compunction. The traditional notion of a hero is being critiqued on a variety of levels. The charm and impishness render Harry lovable to Anna, Holly and even a cat. But, he is nonetheless a murderer. His screen charisma show the way in wish the director invited us to mistrust our perceptions. What appears to be a winning smile is a trap for the unwary. Holly gradually increases in moral stature until finally, after shooting Harry; he appears bathed in a warm light and walks steadily toward a still camera, increasing in size as he does. Reed however, stops short of a child’s hero, as he does not win over the stoic Anna. Heroics, like truth is hard to define amongst the shadows and reflections and the skewed angles that provide the audience with virtually no visual assurance during the course of the film. Loyalty to friends is questioned.
Holly adopts the archetypal role of a western cowboy which in his blundering and comical way, is rendered inadequate in the setting. He initially fails to see the convoluted world outside his black and white novels. He is inexplicable the flawed hero, who although receives a stinging rejection from Anna, attains moral stature by realising the stark difference between the real cruel world and his wild west novelettes.
We are left with the memory of the dots viewed from Ferris wheel and the sense that history renders all things temporary. Repudiation of alter egos that are destructive is a necessary precondition for a better world but guarantees nothing. Between personal grief, suffering and the universal good lies in an individual’s choices. His authoritative walk bathed in light signifies a new moral understanding and maturity. His journey from, “happy as a lark” is rendered through his appearance near a train again, this time with the smoke not covering his face but wafting behind him. He now acknowledges the wider social implications. We have established Holly as an uncomplicated fellow, fond of drink and girls. Although he is initially presenting as a blundering fool, he has a deep-seating sense of decency and integrity that finally overrides his weaker traits. Being the nostalgic and sentimental type, Holly places great store on the past on things he and Harry got up to together, but only when Calloway confronts him with the reality of Limes’ atrocities does he see beyond the myth making.
Holly continually has to vacillate between serving moral duty and a personal loyalty. Only when the acerbic Calloway reveals him to the reality of Limes atrocities, does he consent to be the “dumb decoy duck”
Limes initial grip over Martins is symbolically rendered through the zither, which play Harry’s theme. The zither, plucked by invisible fingers is a visual parallel into the way Holly Martins is himself being played like a musical instrument. Harry Lime amid his boyish charm and seductive smile is finally disclosed to be the cynical racketeer with his nihilistic outlook on life. The new extreme close-ups of Holly result in a revelation and power. As Holly comes face to face with Harry on the Ferris wheel, it is symbolically, the last ride of his childhood.
Director Carol Reed sets a fable of moral corruption in a world of visual complexity. It is set in Vienna, far removed from the wistful elegance of its, “Strauss” era and embedded with decadence and corruption. Greene’s story plays skilfully with the historical context and morality. The use of a city occupied by Allies creates a constant notion of chaos. At the heart of the film, one finds the theme of betrayal whether in love, friendship or moral conduct. Vienna appears as a character on her own, a kind of wounded monster that corrupts people but preserves her beauty with dignity. The city partly in ruins lends itself perfectly to a noir novel and especially to the sublime black and white photography. Each image skilfully plays with contrast and angles to create an idea of deformity and beauty, Vienna thus being used as a metaphor for the character of Harry Lime. Vienna is a politically disputed territory which enacts the moral disputation that the film shows.
Lime is identified through his cat, on one hand it lets the wily viewer realise the contradiction that a man who causally causes death and madness amongst children, having an affectionate relationship with a small animal. He is aplomb and calm in the face of tragedy, blatantly disregarding the, “suckers and mugs” which fall victim to his racket.
The murderous fluency of his Machiavellian story of the cuckoo clock is contrasted with his wild desperation as he flounders in the sewer. What makes Lime so malicious is his manipulation of the people he loves and the evident irony he sees in his own decisions and actions. He is neither maniacal nor irrational, merely supremely selfish. Harry escapes into the sewer system like a cornered rat and Reed edits the pursuit into long, echoing empty sewer vistas and close-ups of Limes sweaty face, his eyes darting for a way out.
He is amusing, affable and seductive but has no love for anyone other than himself. Harry’s cynical outlook is fully revealed when he tells, “In these days, old man, no on thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we”
He is corrupt and arrogant but there is reason to suggest that He and holly are aspects of one dimension as they grew up together, and Anna often confuses their names.
Martins admires Lime, Anna inadvertently calls Martins, “Harry”, a clue indicating that they may have intended them to be alter-egos. Lime presents something Martins has aspired to be, “he could fix anything,” from a blunderer, awkward and naive, into a man of confidence of suavity and sophistication He “always made things seem more fun”
A mechanistic, methodical man, he is only determined to catch Harry at all costs
There are visual reminders of childhood, as this is how Harry and Holly’s relationship started. Whilst Holly questions the porter about Limes death, a rubber ball bounces into the room, followed by Hansel. The boy acts as a reminder to Holly of the dangerous world he is mixing up in. Later in the film, the viewer is spared from seeing the resultant horrors of Lime’s penicillin racket; instead the camera centres on a teddy bear. The choice of a fairground as a meeting point for Holly and Lime also reminds us of the children of Vienna as we see an empty carousel. Here visual metaphor would seem to allude to betrayed or lost innocence; that of Limes as a child and of Holly’s as he discovers his friend’s darker side and the children who died.
So much of the filmic brilliance lies in what is suggested rather than what is shown. We are shown in the “mugs” scene Martins expression as he walks along a row of hospital beds, we are shown the nurses dispensing care, but neither see nor hear a single child. It is as if their lives their lives, reduced to zero are too tenuous to make their presence felt. The teddy bear is glimpsed again at the end of the scene, as it is dumped by a nurse into a box, a symbol of one more murdered child and all the broken young lives. The teddy bear brings home the truth that major Callaway manipulates sentiment, to persuade Martins to help him. At the great Wheel above Vienna, Martins asked Harry if he had seen any of his victims to which he replies, “don’t be melodramatic” and points out the dots on the ground. The teddy-bear counterbalances the dots. It comes to represent not just the victims of Harry’s evil, but our humanity and out ability to feel.
As Holly meets Baron Kurtz, the side lighting places a shadow on Baron’s face suggesting his duplicity. “I sold some tires on the black market. I wonder what my father would have said”. The transition at the end of the scene links the baron to the crime scene such subliminally shows where he stands morally. “Suppose you dig up something, well discreditable to Harry” There is irony as policemen walks between them suggesting the tension between law and lawlessness that pervades the film. When Holly presses Porter to tell the police, he says, “It’s not my business” or social responsibility. The cluttered shots, angles, intense music and framing of all the characters all convey Holly’s disorientation. The sharp contrast between light and shadow, incorporates stylistics of film noir in the lighting and non-linear nature of the staircase. Anna says, “sometimes he said I laughed too much,” is ironic because she no longer laughs.
The third man is a visual masterpiece with effective mis-en-scene and a haunting musical score which plays with the morality of the text. Unusually reckless tilted camera angles and wide angle lens amidst the shadowy Vienna cast a sombre moods over the fable of post-war ambiguity and ambivalent redemption. The deliberately unsettling tilted angles reflect the state of the ruined and dark city. The low key lighting, deep shadows and dimly-lit streets all aspects of film noir; establish the amorality or the dark side of human nature. It is through these film techniques that we are guided through to know what is moral and amoral via a cinematic visual style with a unique look.
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