• Andres Benatar

The Third Man

Harry Lime Character Analysis

Death is never easy to bear. The destruction that often leads to masses of carnage ensuing makes little to any sense, and people rarely take into account the result of such horror. If one person dies, the whole world has the perfect reason to stop and pay enough attention for a News organization’s ratings to skyrocket. When a million people of a foreign nation are slaughtered, then the world just keeps going in response to a mere statistic that should be absolutely horrifying. Sure, considerable damage is recognized, but often meshed into a background that becomes so normalized, that it makes the idea of the horrors of warfare and the destruction that comes with it as the perfect excuse to disavow all forms of traditional morality that had all but up to that point been viewed through a comforting sense of certainty.


When Mass Suffering Turns Moral Men Into Monsters


The character of Harry Lime, played brilliantly by a calm and chillingly charismatic Orson Welles, shows just how much a senseless barrage of violence can turn even the most moral of men into beasts who can be both ruthless yet as neat and calmly carried as a businessman making a delicious profit from their evil acts. Twisted as Harry’s logic may seem from an outsider’s perspective, it has a point in regards to how mass suffering can create the kind of character worthy of the artworks just mentioned. But sometimes, suffering is merely just suffering, and looking for some measure of an answer for it alone feels like wandering through a dark tunnel with a light that is merely a light, and not meant to be an answer.

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a fantastic film. Originally adapted from A Graham Green novel of the same name, The Third Man operates as a unique mystery surrounding an unexpected death, which proves to be nothing more than a cover-up, involving more than just a stunning reveal when the revelation at hand is much darker and most appropriate given the setting the film is set in.


Morality Within A Post-WW2 Vienna


The narrative of The Third Man is set in a post–Second World War Vienna. In just a matter of seconds, a narrator details the division consisting of the Allies: the Americans, the British, the French, and the Soviets, already demonstrating a feeling of irony. One would think that an event as horrific as WWII would bring such diverse nationalities closer together. But the reality of how inherently finite and disposable life could be initially unraveled the darkest illusion pre-modern society lived under, that was there were absolute truths. It was after all the German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche who argued that there were no universal truths. As honest as this declaration was and to a great extent still is, it still garnered its fair share of negativity concerning the Nihilistic evil driving Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In Harry Lime’s case, he doesn’t shed a tear of remorse for all the pain and suffering his actions as a drug dealer bring on others.

Morality is without a doubt a complex subject to discuss given how relative it can be at certain times in history. One thing can be considered right and ethical at one moment, while completely unethical at a later time. The history books are merely records, while we are as human beings are the recorders. Harry Lime’s actions involve stealing penicillin from military hospitals, diluting it, then selling it on the black market, and this alone resulted in the injury and death of many people, the same kind he would label as “dots.”


The Moral Landscape OF Drugdealing In The Forties VS Drugdealing In The Present


It’s a fascinating thing for a film that came out in 1949 to morally judge a man as nihilistically self-aware as Harry who operates to the same capacity as a drug dealer. In the present day, drug dealing has been viewed from a more open and economically significant sense given the many financial waves of abuse pharmaceutical companies get away with while still peddling legal substances that can just as easily have the same toxic effects as common street drugs have. The average drug dealer selling more illegally based substances suffers from the disadvantage of a highly-inefficient and costly drug war. The escalation of what is still a modern-day domestic conflict has done nothing to stop and even has helped escalate the violence between drug culture concerning the cartels, the mass incarceration of non-violent criminals in the U.S., and further economic instability across markets. In order to fund these efforts, taxes are either raised, or more money is printed, hence increasing the inflationary holocaust going on today.


The Big Picture


It’s amazing to see how morality itself is a topic worthy of discussion. To simply live on moral absolutes alone can be a detriment to the progression of society and the individuals that form it. Now, although the central character of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is right to feel betrayed at seeing his best friend change into what is something so opportunistically monstrous, it doesn’t change the fact that the moral absolute he operates under when he tells Harry “You used to believe in God,” shows his own inability to see the big picture. This is made clear not just by the fact that WWII happened, but also by the lack of structural organization within society that followed to a point where order seemed like a practice joke, and one disillusioned people like Harry decided to turn into capital investment, regardless of the consequences.


Is Harry Truly Evil?


As to whether we can all judge a man as morally ambivalent as Harry Lime, knowing the more oppressive state drug enforcement has taken within the modern age, it's hard to say. But, the great thing about a film like The Third Man is that it doesn’t operate on an absolute sense of morality. The character of Holly Martins certainly does, and the final scene of him attending Harry’s second/real funeral shows that very moral disillusionment and what it meant in a post-world war two Europe for many people still trying to make sense years following so much death and societal destruction. The fact that it is Holly who kills his friend Harry out of his own personal preference shows that morality itself is not for the absolutist, but for the one willing to accept both the futility of desiring certainty and the willingness to move forward. As depressing as the final image of the film is where Holly waits for Harry’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli) only for her to then pass him by without even a look, the fact that he accepts it shows both a pointlessness and a sense of wanting to understand what is still in the process of unraveling itself before him and a world still trying to make sense out of a shit load of nonsense.


Want more of Andres? Check this out:

Shame Film Analysis



Andres Benatar is thepyrrhic.com resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.


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