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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

The Third Man and the Death of MAN

The Third Man is ostensibly a film about split loyalties in a divided city, Vienna, after the First World War. Based on a book by Graham Greene, it tells the story of a Westerners writer, Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) down on his luck, following up an invitation by his childhood friend Harry Lime (played by Orson Wells) to come and visit him in Vienna. Upon arrival it soon transpires that Wells is a black-market racketeer in Penicillin and is wanted by the police for his share in dealings which led to hospitals dealing out diluted Penicillin to children with horrendous consequences. Although told that his friend has died, Cotton stays in the city and gets entangled with Wells' old crones and business partners, as well as with his lover (played by Valli), only to discover that Wells is not actually dead but hiding. After meeting Wells a couple of times, Cotton is faced with the moral dilemma of whether to betray his friend and turn him over to the police or betray his own conscience and allow Wells to get away with the crimes he committed. Cotton's final decision, although crucial for the climatic ending of the film, is almost irrelevant in terms of the moral dilemma he is faced with. For him, either decision involves a loss which will thereafter transform his life. If he chooses to turn Wells in he will lose a link to his all-American past, to the exhilarating promise, however false, that his relationship with Wells held.

If he chooses to smooth over the terrible truth of the crimes which his friend committed for the mere sake of money,(mercifully, we are not treated to any images of the atrocities but to their effect on Cotton's face), he will lose his last claim for remaining a part of an honest and non cynical world, which the end of the war, as is symbolised by Wells' eventual death, might bring. Is life in such a world, however honest and humane, worth it without the presence of his friend, for whom he had travelled across half the world? This dilemma is spelt for him by Wells' himself earlier in the famous Swiss Cuckoo speech. It is not an unusual dilemma for a protagonist to be facing. The choice between a personal happiness, however marred by others' pain, and between personal misery sweetened by a sense of moral justice is one which occurs often, especially in films of that era. Another example for such a choice is the one Bogart is faced

with in Casablanca when he decides to give up his claim over Ingrid Bergman and allow Victor Laszlo to keep her, signifying Bogart's admission that Laszlo's chances of winning the struggle against Nazism in Europe were dependent upon Bergman's presence and therefore his need for her were greater from Bogart's merely romantic needs, signified by her other lover.

The age of Existentialism, with its sense of the absurdity of moral integrity in a corrupt world, has clashed with the Nazi threat and it was no longer possible to divorce personal responsibility and happiness from the fate of humanity, at least in Hollywood terms. We could no longer choose personal happiness because our conscience would not let us and because if we did so we may be condemning the world to destruction. Or so at least the ideologies behind film making in Hollywood at the time wanted us to believe they were saying. As we will see later, the message which was beamed across the screen was somewhat more complex.

The question I am concerned with is not whether our protagonist has made the right decision, which in Cotton's case was to shoot Wells after a wonderful chase scene through the sewerage tunnels of Vienna. He could not have made any other decision, given the social climate in which the film was made. In simplistic terms, Wells represents immorality which has no place in a post-war era where efforts are supposedly concentrated towards creating a better world for all, based on the moral men forged through bitter fighting.

Are these options constructed culturally or are they a reflection of a real life situation? on one level this is a rhetorical question, but one which must be answered, however briefly. The answer has to be informed by deconstructionist discourse. There cannot be a conclusive answer to the question whether those options are realistic, in the sense that they relate to options most viewers might face during their lives. The question itself limits the definition of film-making in particular and of art in general, as a form which reflects our thinking rather than shapes it. I believe that art in general, and cinema in particular (the moving image being the most popular form of art in this century),have both functions simultaneously and cannot separated from each


As I said earlier, Cotton's situation was of one he could only lose in, whether the loss was that of his friend or of his own humanity. What is more interesting is in investigating what were the processes that led to presenting Cotton with those options.These options are deeply immersed within certain definitions of what I shall refer to from now as Masculinity and Femininity in men. I am aware that these terms are in themselves controversial and I use them reluctantly, lacking better terms at the moment.

What are the values Greene's assigns to the Masculine (Wells) and the Feminine (Cotton) in the Third Man? And who is The Third Man?

Joseph Cotton is a man who as a child was probably seen as effeminate, a wimp, someone who was not very good in concealing his weakness, emotional confusion and sexual ambivalence. He reads and writes in a genre that is based on a particular view of masculinity (the Western), while it is clear from his own behaviour that there are hardly any point of affinity between him as a man and the men he portrays in his novels. It is as if he projected his desired role of a man into his novels. All the characteristics he did not possess, but perhaps wished to through the social pressures put upon him to become a Strong Man, he places in his characters. And in Orson Wells.

Orson Wells is everything Joseph Cotton isn't. He is tough and charismatic. He is confident in his actions even when his actions are totally devoid of any moral integrity. He is elusive, both with his feelings and with his person. He can disappear when the going gets tough and he can "disappear" his more awkward feelings by using humor and emotional blackmail. He finds it easy to be himself, at least publicly. And he can make himself absent when he is required by his environment to take responsibility. He can even disappear from the presence of his relationship without too much shown anguish. He is self-sufficient, careless, daring and not self-conscious. He can make a woman love him despite his absence and emotional impotence, while Cotton struggles to be open with the same woman.

The relationship between the two is built upon Cotton constantly trying to reach out to Wells, expressing anguish at not being able to find him and upon Wells showing little concern for his friends’ devotion, taking it for granted. When they do meet, Cotton is meek and trying to appease Wells, while Wells humors his feelings away, reducing Cotton to the state of feeling totally inadequate and confused. Wells know that both Cotton and the woman love him and will do anything to maintain the myth that will sustain that admiring and demeaning love. What they both love in Wells is his hinted softness and intimacy, which he will never allow himself to display as it will destroy the mystique that binds them to him. He is dependent upon their clouded view of him. If they took in his darker side and saw that it is that which controls him, they will lose hope for building contact with him. He has to keep that hope alive in them which he does by remaining elusive and never allowing them a peep through his glamourous mask.

The Third Man (who in the film is the body Wells uses to bury in his own grave in order to fool the authorities into believing he is dead) is Greene's secret portrayal of what a man could become if allowed all aspects of his personality to show. It is so secret that Greene himself would only allow it to be as a dead body. In narrative terms, Cotton and Wells are two aspects of the same man. One is seen as the traditional masculine man (Wells) and the other is the traditionally effeminate man (Cotton). In Greene's world, there is no place for a man who is both in touch with his maleness and femaleness. Therefore the polarization into two different characters who strive to meet, to unite, to become one. That attempt ends in a failure and in the annihilation of one (Wells), only to leave a destroyed other (Cotton). Not only it is not possible for these two aspects of The Third Man to become one but the Masculine has to be killed off by the Feminine. And the moment of the killing is significant. After a few moments where Wells is for the first time shown to be truly bewildered by his situation and perhaps ready to change, haunted in Vienna's elaborate and labyrinthian underground sewerage (in itself a symbol for his lost soul), he is pushed to a corner and is killed. This is the moment when he is weakest. He has finally come up against his vulnerability and then he dies.

The possibility for the two characters to become close, which could have been achieved by greater emphasis on the sexual attraction between the two, is ruled out by Greene's narrative. Greene's bleak view of reality is that it not possible to a man to be both strong and weak, let alone for two men to be lovers.

The last sentence in the film comes from Cotton, symbolizing his predicament : "I haven't even got a sensible name..." Rather than facing the disgrace of men's love, he chooses to kill one and resolve the situation. Men's love is simply not possible, not even in fiction terms. Greene chooses loneliness and further isolation for the feminine in man rather than the destruction of the masculine myth, which now remain intact but dead.

The film's penultimate scene shows Cotton shooting Wells, which seems to be done by Wells invitation as he realises it is no longer possible for him to maintain his mask and remain alive.

Rather then come out and face the consequences of his actions, which will involve, as well as going to jail, dropping his pretense that the crime she has committed have got through to him and made him unhappy. He rather die than stop acting. And he dies in the hands of one he loves, which adds a tragic flavour to his character, well in keeping with the image he strove to maintain.

He chooses being tough and dead rather than weak and alive, which is Cotton's lot. Cotton loses all: his friend, the hope for a reconciliation and the woman he loves, which will now mourn the dead Wells. At the end of the film, all relationships are dissolved: Cotton's and Wells', Wells' and the woman and Cottons' and the woman. What we are left with is a desolate view of man's

ability to integrate and accept his unmasculine aspect, a few isolated and despairing individuals and a grim future for the survivors.

October 1990

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