Today’s frame falls smack dab in the middle of what is Calloway getting something off his chest. Its sharp tenor is worth including:
Calloway: I told you to go away, Martins. This isn’t Santa Fe . . . I’m not a Sheriff, and you aren’t a cowboy. You have been blundering around with the worst bunch of racketeers in Vienna . . . your precious Harry’s friends, and now you’re wanted for murder.
Holly: Put in drunk and disorderly, too.
Calloway: I have. What’s the matter with your hand?
Holly: A parrot bit me.
Calloway: Oh, stop behaving like a fool, Martins.
Calloway goes on to tell Holly that he needs to be careful because he was “born to be murdered” (an insult I wish made it into more films). All of this is not to say much in terms of analysis. I am simply in awe of the snappy writing and performance. Calloway, in two elipsis-linked sentences, voices all of the frustrations with Holly’s character that have plagued us for the entire length of this project. He does all this, and flourishes with a couple of stunningly sharp admonishments. As much as Holly is our hero and our eyes through which we see the film, one cannot help but be impressed with Calloway here. We must remember, too, that in the original novel that this film is based on, the story was told from Calloway’s perspective, and a bit of that main-character stink might still be on him.
That, of course, brings up the question of heroism in this film. This is not a film with one shining hero, nor is it one with a definite villain. As a sophisticated noir, its chiaroscuro gradient extends to the characters as well as the images, portraying most everyone in some shade of gray (or since it’s a British film, grey). Holly is a flawed figure, we have seen, but he seems to be a genuinely good person. He is certainly interested in preserving his own morality even to the point of self parody–thus his bizarre devotion to solving the mystery of his friend’s death at all costs. Our counterpoint, thus far in the film, would be the slimy Baron Kurtz, who seems to be suffering from some sort of genetic mutation that left him without any scruples. In between these poles we have the thuggish Popescu, the brusque and arrogant Doctor Winkel, and our harsh and paternalistic Brit, Major Calloway.
Our other main characters may be harder to qualify. Anna, whose courage, intelligence and strength we have praised again and again, has little of the moral code that defines Holly’s heroism. It seems that Anna, complex person that she is, is more interested in mourning the loss of her lover, Harry, and staying out of trouble than she is in finding out the truth. So though she is certainly better than Holly in so many ways, she may be less heroic, at least in the conventional sense.
Harry too, is an interesting figure. A martyr in the bloody aftermath that is Vienna after World War II, Harry is constantly being badmouthed by Calloway (his first introduction of the character was to say that dying was “the best thing that ever happened to him”) and constantly being defended by Holly. If we were to use our moral spectrum to determine who is more right, clearly Holly is our most moral figure, but his blind trust in his friend leads us to believe that at least some of what Calloway has to say must be true. Still, Harry dominates the story as a figure of questionable morals, reminiscent of a certain Tycoon that we are already familiar with:
So, despite its traditionalist setup with gangsters, cowboys, detectives, and cops, The Third Man portrays a distinctly complex code of character morality. And why is this morality so different from the forms so commonly portrayed in Hollywood Studio pictures from the same era? Certainly part of the reason is the strict censorship laws in place in Hollywood, but another part must be the moral code of the world in which such a film can be produced. And perhaps, it has something to do with the film’s setting.
Postwar Vienna is certainly not a part of the boisterous and productivist American capitalist system, nor is it one of the many Socialist communities developing in the postwar state, but it lies somewhere between the two; even legally so, since it is governed by an international coalition including (in order of Capitalist structure) America, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. And, in this economic system, lies the secret to this film’s more complex moralism. In Max Weber’s most notable work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Morality, he breaks down the distinction as a religious one. Weber analyzes the key tenets of Protestantism (the Protestant Ethic) and finds that, in practice, they are directly linked to the tenets that Capitalism is based on. Or as Weber put it:
“In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture . . . Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose in life” (Weber, 53).
But if we take this understanding the other way, since taking Weber’s point to heart, both economic systems and religious/moral systems influence each other, then we can see that a non-capitalist system would not be able to impose the same strict Protestant moral code as our hyper-Capitalist American system. And with a cast of characters nominally coming from all over the western world, a pair of English screenwriters, and shot on location in bombed-out, recovering Vienna (under multiple authorities both Capitalist and Socialist), it only stands to reason that this moral code would be much more complex.
We will soon see more moral complexity and ambiguity developing around this film’s world, but suffice it to say, neither of the characters pictured in today’s frame are truly heroes. But neither are they villains, or really even anti-heroes. They are just complex characters embroiled in something complex.
And, as a sidenote I’ve been meaning to include for a while, one completely unrelated to the rest of today’s post, I’d like to draw your attention to the similarities between our western novelist, Holly Martens, and the western novelist in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Eli Cash–portrayed by co-writer Owen Wilson. Eli Cash and Holly Martens are both men trying to fake their way into being something they are not. Eli is trying to be a literary novelist, a cowboy, and a member of the Tenenbaum family, and Holly (at least since last week’s stills) is trying to be a literary novelist, a cowboy, and a detective. It’s hard not to see the connection when you see self-serious Cash talk about his work.
Eli Cash’s Introduction:
And Eli’s drugged out interview, reminiscent of Holly’s drunken speech:
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.