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Patterson Film Series: The Third Man


Last week the Patterson Film Series featured The Third Man. As a piece of filmmaking, what is there to say? Reed creates two of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, both focused on Orson Welles. The first is our introduction to Welles in the dark street, which is about the most perfect minute and a half ever committed to celluloid. The second is the Welles-penned conversation between Martin and Lime on the ferris wheel. Martin is so tied up in his half-wit moral dilemma that he can barely see that his life is in dire peril. Welles displays about as much charisma as one actor can convey in three minutes of film, all while demonstrating an absolute lack of any moral sense. It’s genius, all genius.

The Third Man finds its way on to our schedule mostly because of its political agenda. I decided to screen Third Man for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, it’s simply a work of aesthetic genius, and our students are better off for being more conversant in the art of film. More important, however, are The Third Man’s political implications. Third Man was penned by Graham Greene, and I like to think of it as one of his cautionary tales about the inadequacy of Americans where foreign relations are concerned. In this sense, he’s a bit like Niall Ferguson. Both Martin and Lime come to Vienna and immediately become lost. Martin is literally lost, completely incapable of dealing with the city in any productive way. He can’t speak the language, can’t understand the women, can’t find his way through basic ethical problems, and comes to construct a narrative based on the American dime Western with himself as protagonist. His is, briefly put, in over his head. Lime is lost in a much more profound way; he has become detached from any moral sense whatsoever, so much so that he refuses to produce even a rhetorical moral defense of his criminal activities. Maybe Martin and Lime were always like this, maybe not, but that’s rather the point; men like Martin and Lime are inadequate to the demands of empire, and the United States is presumably chock full of them. The Russian and British officials have some sense of what’s going on, as the Russians understand themselves to be the villains of the piece, in the sense that they don’t really accept the priors of everyone else, but they’ll be polite about it. The British major is a true Fergusonian (or perhaps Kiplingesque) imperial officer, understanding the demands of realpolitik but at the same time possessing a moral center that allows him to both detect evil and to fight it.

One student had an interesting read on the film, suggesting that Martin and Lime could be mapped onto the Marlowe-Kurtz relationship. I’m comfortable with seeing most everything in the light of Heart of Darkness (Scott is Kurtz; I’m Marlowe) but I had never thought of The Third Man in precisely those terms. I don’t think it’s quite right, and I suspect that the similarities we detect come much more from the shared cultural position of Greene and Conrad, but the analogy is nonetheless productive. The relationship is almost one of parody, as the competent Marlowe becomes the inept Martin, the moral Westerner Kurtz becomes the amoral Lime, and colonial Africa becomes ultra-sophisticated Vienna. You can still detect a critique of colonialism in there; if we can’t expect Kurtz to behave properly, then what happens when men like Lime find themselves in power. The anti-American sentiment is also still apparent, as the fact that the sophisticated residents of Vienna are smarter and better educated than our protagonists is lost upon the Americans because they can’t understand German and don’t have the faintest grasp of Joyce. Like I said, I don’t think I quite agree, but the purpose of such analogies is to illuminate rather than to provide a conclusive interpretation.

While I’m on the subject, be sure to read Rodger’s posts on his Global Politics Through Film course. Here are the entries thus far:

Twelve O’Clock High
Saving Private Ryan (very good discussion)
The Quiet American
Black Hawk Down
Breaker Morant (also a Patterson Film Series entry)
Red Dawn (which is glorious in every way, and soon WILL be a Patterson entry)
The Great Dictator
Wag the Dog

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