The Third Man, Moral Choices, and Psychological Motives
My approach to literary and film
analysis tends to pay a lot of attention to aesthetics, the artistry with which
the works do what they intend, and to politics, the power relations which
control their creation and act within them. However, philosophy and
psychology also may generate insights. A former 105 student, having seen
this movie, said that Holly Martins deserved a reward for killing Harry Lime
(and that Anna Schmidt ought to have been that reward). This thesis expresses
very concisely an interesting moral perspective on the film's ending. I think
it's a moral position Reed and Welles both encourage and complicate (undermine?)
by giving Harry and Anna such extended opportunities to present their own views
of things. Note that, in Greene's novelization of the film, he does
have Anna walk off with "Rollo," the original name of the Holly Martins
character, whereas Reed refused to give the movie that kind of "happy ending."
The post-war, pre-cold-war context of these choices also raises
interesting problems for our sense of justice. Consider the following questions.
1) Why, from her perspective, does Anna not speak to or acknowledge Holly in the last scene? What does the future hold for her if she does not (remembering the passport) and why is she willing to risk that rather than take his hand? Many would say her choice is neither moral nor rational. Why does she persist?
2) With what character(s) in Hawthorne might you compare Anna and why? What difference does it make that this character is female rather than male? (Remember that this could have been the story of three male friends: Holly, Harry, and Harry's Vienna buddy, Albert.)
3) Harry's character is perhaps the most relentlessly analyzed by all the characters in the film. What makes him tick? Is he really as free from guilt about his activities as his speeches and actions make him appear, or can you see signs of psychological distress distorting his character?
4) How do you answer Harry's "cuckoo-clock" speech in the "Great Wheel"
scene with Holly? Remember that Welles is quoting, "as the man said," a
real Russian, a radical literary critic named
Vissarion ("Furious Vissarion")
Belinsky. Real people act on that general principle every day in
making real world decisions. Think about the choices made by businessmen
in modern, post-war America that balance the probable deaths of innocent
customers against the profits to be made by selling products with known defects,
or those made by politicians who consciously or unconsciously pursue re-election
and expansion of their current powers by making decisions that cost people their
lives or that keep millions in poverty. Should they be immune from
prosecution while only the politically marginal crooks like Harry Lime get
4) In what way is Holly "doing the right thing" when he shoots Harry? To what standard of conduct does this appeal, and what are the consequences of living by it? Does the rest of his conduct fit that moral motive, or is he also pursuing things that could be considered immoral (e.g., the relationship with Anna, success in writing about things he is ignorant of)?
5) What has happened to Holly when he shoots Harry? Especially, for whom has he fired the shot? This applies to all three characters involved.
For Calloway, who is shouting "Shoot him, Martins!" but cannot see the situation (i.e., that Harry is mortally wounded, has no weapon, and cannot escape)?
For Harry, who nods in agreement after Calloway shouts, knowing that arrest might mean being turned over to any one of four authorities--should he have gone to trial?
For Holly, himself, who shoots Harry with Paine's gun, the weapon of the only man in Vienna who seems to have read his books--isn't that odd? What is Holly killing when he shoots his old school friend, and what lives on in its place?
Remember that we're on the lookout for theses which might turn into interesting papers having to do with The Third Man and/or Casablanca. However, scholars always are alert for ways to apply the rest of their learning, thinking with interdisciplinary flexibility about their topics. Combinations of resources including the Hawthorne stories, other films you know well, and secondary sources, could produce the best thesis for you.