The Third Man: Morality and dissolving friendships

The Third Man trailer

Director: Carol Reed (1949)

Screenwriter: Graham Greene

Starring: Joseph Cotton, Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Wells.

The Third Man:  Morality and dissolving friendships

What would it take for one to dissolve a friendship of twenty years and would the  morals of a given situation mean nothing in the face of loyalty? Carrol Reed’s (1949) The Third Man has at its heart I believe these very questions. These questions can be said to be based on Aristotle’s notion of moral intelligence, where one must be able to apply their moral commitments in a variety of settings (Wartenburg, 2007, p. 97).  It is this proposed moral intelligence that is questioned throughout the film as characters gradually learn more of the man that is Harry Lime.

At this point it would be pertinent to look at the film’s general premise and the situation of the main players. The Third Man takes place in post-war Vienna, which has now been partitioned into four sectors controlled by the allies; Russia, France, USA and Great Britain. It is a placethat has been ravaged during the Second World War and its people remain suspicious of the powers that enforce the laws. It is also a place where the black market of goods is flourishing. It is this black market that gives the backdrop to the story and characters that inhabit it. At its crux is the loyalty of one man to his dead friend.

Holly Martins, a pulp fictionist, arrives in Vienna at the invitation and cost of his good friend and entrepreneur Harry Lime, yet he arrives only to find his friend dead and it is at his funeral service that he meets Major Calloway of the British arm of law and order in Vienna. From here starts Martins quest for truth and defence of his friend’s good name. Martins’ believes his friend’s death is murder and Calloway’s reticence to act as the sort of corruption that he has explored in one of his western novelettes. Through his bumbling investigation and interaction with Calloway and Lime’s lover Anna Schmidt he begins to unravel Harry Limes life in Vienna. It is his blind loyalty to Lime at the beginning of the film that develops the notion of the ending of friendship due to one’s awakening of their moral intelligence.

The reality and ethics of post-war Vienna are found in Lime’s dealing in diluted penicillin that has at its roots a verifiable truth of this moment in history (Schwab, 2003). As Martins learns more of his friends illicit activities his loyalty begins to weaken and when he discovers the truth that his friend is still alive he learns that his friend is indeed capable of all that Calloway has espoused. In the Ferris-wheel scene Lime’s lack of morality towards the victims of his dealings is made apparent and Martins subsequent visit to the children’s ward leads him too finally join Calloway in ensnaring Lime.

The dissolving of their friendship on moral grounds is complete. According to Wartenburg (2007, p.114), it is possible to dissolve a friendship fully on moral grounds if one takes into account Aristotle’s belief that one can moralistically dissolve a friendship if the said friend turns out to be a vile and unrepentant individual. In watching the film you will indeed find that this is the case for the now truly dead Harry Lime.

Wartenburg, T.E. (2007). Thinking on screen: Film as philosophy. New York, NY: Routledge

Schwab, U. (2003). Authenticity and ethics in the film the third man. Literature Film Quarterly, 28(1), 2-6, Retrieved from:    /ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=21276838-120c-4ea0-9299-29901db8ecb1%40sessionmgr15&vid=2&hid=25


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