Rooting for Harry Lime: ‘The Third Man’ As Morally Ambiguous Heterotopia

The Third Man's film-noir vision of a fractured postwar landscape creates an ‘other space’ (heterotopia), through which its moral realities and boundaries still resonate.

With 2015 the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth year (1915), cinemas everywhere have been celebrating, commemorating, and exhibiting classic movies in which Welles’ portly showmanship dominates the frame. Re-watching The Third Man (1949) on the big screen earlier this year, I was again impressed by how Welles managed to almost entirely capsize the film with his charisma, despite playing Harry Lime — a character that is so far embroiled within shady child-killing and drug dealings that his first appearance presents him almost as a projection of pure living shadow, as though he had stepped out of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and directly into our collective unconscious.

Of course, a cat lovingly nuzzles at his feet, a neighbor’s light comes on, and a baby-faced Lime offers a wry, bemused smile to the audience as though he knew that we were waiting most of the film for his grand entrance. His eyes sparkle, his lips slightly purse, and the viewer is invited to dismiss, or instantly forget, all of the accruing accusations against Lime’s character. For his inebriated friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who has thus far been in doting denial, this proof of his complicity is not satisfactory enough, and a heavy-handed pursuit for The Truth follows; but to an audience that has been more assiduously processing all of the cinematic clues, Lime might just get away with murder.

As I have explored in an earlier article (“’Citizen Kane’ is a Labyrinth Without a Centre”), Citizen Kane (1941) offers a conundrum that purposefully avoids telling the viewer what to think, which means that it can be informative without being didactic. Equally, The Third Man does not glorify the post-war racketeer, but both films are exceptional in creating spaces through which controversial roles and their divisive functions within society can be explored without being thoroughly scaffolded by an overtly moralistic framework.

In a posthumously published article, Michel Foucault presented the concept of the heterotopia. The theory posits that societies preserve themselves by consolidating within their structures ‘other spaces’, or oppositional sites, in which the many features of their ideologies may be concurrently delineated, disputed, and inverted. Although these heterotopias are ‘absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about’, they are also inseparably infused with reality. Termed heterotopia because they are ultimately different from ‘the non-place of utopia’ (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics 16, 1987:22-7), Foucault positioned them both within and outside of social reality. Foucault examined mental institutes and prisons as heterotopic spaces; for post-war Europe and America, contemporary social realities have been transferred to a heterotopia within the boundaries of a contemporary film — The Third Man — and this ‘other space’ has become an explorative space for both the positive and negative aspects of the social sphere itself, rationalised only by the cultural and moral capital that a viewer brings to the screening.

Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, believed that The Third Man ‘doesn’t present any “message”. It hasn’t a point of view (The Man Between 235). Arguably, a point of view is one of the strongest elements of the film. Krasker’s Oscar winning cinematography is shot mostly ‘with a wide-angle lens that distorted the buildings… the angle of vision was to suggest that something crooked was going on’ (Nicholas Wapshott The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed. London: Chatto and Windus; 1990: 228). Reed had labelled this expressionistic use of perspective as not ‘a very good idea’, and it was derided in some filmmaking circles at the time; but nevertheless, it suggests that the audience is privileged to a certain perspective that both the naïve Holly and the corrupt Lime can’t share. Less literally though, being presented with a series of view points about post-war Vienna, including deathly hospitals and cuckoo clock speeches means that there does not need to be a Hays Code-styled postscript to the proceedings; the ‘message’ is left for the viewer to formulate.

When director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene travelled to Vienna to scout locations for The Third Man, they were dismayed to discover that the incumbent misery of post-war Europe had already begun to dissipate. Greene apologised to Reed, offering ‘I assure you Vienna was really like that — three months ago’ (The Man Between 212). Conversely, in the prologue to the film the narrator (also voiced by Reed) explains ‘modern’ Vienna to the audience: ‘I never knew the old Vienna before the war’ with its ‘easy charm… I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market’. In The Third Man, the black market permeates all of society, yet instead of the film condemning it, the bargaining system actively works – after a fashion. Whilst Martins blindly swaggers like a patriotic wrecking ball from one scene to another, he fails to notice that Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is glad that he declined the offer of whisky because she had hoped to sell it, and that keeping fake foreign papers may be tangibly better than accepting the reality of having the ‘wrong’ national identity.

Holly Martins does not fit within the system; he is unwanted both by the police and the men that they are trying to catch. That he manages to pronounce both Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and Dr Winkel’s (Erich Ponto) names incorrectly highlights his isolation in Vienna, where he is incapable of understanding even the rudimentary basics of communication. Of course, Martins has his own linguistic speciality in being able to ‘write cheap novelettes’, but this only means that he ‘sounds like a cheap novelette’. Martins’ perspective on life has been simplified to match the structure of his clichéd pulp Westerns. Of the several types of heterotopia that Foucault suggests, one is where an ‘illusionary or fictional space’ is created, ‘so as to criticize, and expose certain aspects of social… regimes’. In a noir film, Martins has taken it upon himself to invoke and identify with the ‘wrong’ genre. This can serve to both reflexively highlight the fictive pleasures of The Third Man or to distract the viewer from their construction, but in creating an issue of difference and identity, the heterotopic space is undercutting Martins’ certainties, to demonstrate the complexity of his American ‘Western’ social position and moral understanding within the European post-war regime.

When Martins attempts to compromise Calloway’s theory on Lime, he likens himself to the ‘rider who hunted down a sheriff who was victimising his best friend’. Yet, because Vienna and its cultural situation are alien to Martins, he consistently opens himself up to severe reprimands by the society he passes judgement on: ‘This isn’t Santa Fe, I’m not a sheriff, and you aren’t a cowboy’. Even when Martins is supposed to deliver a talk on the modern novel – which it is falsely presupposed is an area he is au fait with, Martins has absolutely no idea what he is doing. The meeting room clears. Martins is working within the bartering system: he has been given hotel lodgings and a stipend in exchange for his services; but he fails to ‘place’ himself within the (knowledge) economy just like he can’t place James Joyce within a pantheon of novelists.

Martin’s inherent ability to reduce all social situations to the wrong basic elements leaves his attempts at moral interference desperately short of the effect he was trying to achieve; Anna tells him, ‘For heaven’s sake, stop making him in your image. Harry was real.’ On the contrary, instead of being able to impose a positive framework upon the proceedings, Holly manages to be responsible for the deaths of the porter (Paul Hörbiger), Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), and Harry Lime.

The type of heterotopia here is one of compensation, where ‘real spaces are imbued with order in the attempt to offset the jumbled and disordered nature of social reality.’ Because Martins is not in control of his immediate surroundings, his reliance on his own perspective causes him trouble. When Hansl (Herbert Halbik) appears in the crowd outside Lime’s apartment building, the little boy proceeds to distinguish Martins as the foreigner. This not only fixes Martins further on the fringes of Vienna, but it also causes the crowd to assume that he is the murderer. Appropriately, the differences between language reflects the differences between societal boundaries; Martins, is appropriate candidate as the murderer because to the locals, he literally represents their fears of the ‘other space’. Only by vanishing into a movie theatre is he allowed to be safe because films, such as The Third Man, can represent a heterotopic haven for the ‘otherness’ of society.

Reed manages to prevent the audience from losing all empathy with Martins, as he does still come across as a stock character of innocence trying to be socially redemptive. In particular, the hospital scene where Martins is presented with off-camera dying children makes a disruptive and tonally uneven attempt to strongly steer the moral direction of the film. Pauline Kael disliked this scene because ‘We’ve been enjoying all this decadence and stylish acting… and then we’re forced to take evil seriously.’ Antithetically, according to Gene Philips, this episode actually reinforces the artistic merits of the film, because the film ‘not only entertains but also — in Greene’s use of the term poetic cinema– suggests human values as well’ (Gene Philips, SJ. Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction 1974:72). Reed uses ‘poetic cinema’ to present the anonymity of the children dying due to Lime’s penicillin racket. The fact that the camera refuses to show the children, only showing the other characters’ reactions to them, strongly suggests that the children are to be given the strongest sympathies of the audience, and that Lime might just be unforgivable.

In a position similar to an audience that could be easily ‘led’ by the shift in moral direction, Martins easily loses control of himself once he has accepted that Lime is still alive. He takes himself to the point where he becomes the ‘dumb decoy duck’ in trying to catch his own friend. Andrew Sarris is willing to place Martins in a similar category of injustice as Lime, as Martins has been placed in an ‘emotional wasteland created by his inability to feel any guilt for his action’ (Robert F. Moss. The Films of Carol Reed. 1987:183), this action being to ‘betray,’ ‘then execute’ his friend. That Martins gets this idea from Calloway shows how heterotopic spaces are liable to collapse and invert, leaving behind a proliferation of competing ideologies and stances.

Despite the hospital scene, Lime as the villain displaces Martins as the hero to such an extent that the audience has several good reasons to prefer the ‘evil’ character. Ignoring Welles’ charisma for a second, Lime is sober and calm whilst Holly is characterised as drunk and obtuse. Even Anna prefers Lime, accidentally calling Holly, ‘Harry’, twice in the film. Lime is the consummate exhibitionist; he hides in the shadows like a villain but reveals himself into the light as likeable and easy-going, retreating into the sewers only when confronted by the threat of violence against him. The character even had Karas’s musical score named after him, bringing, ‘evil seductively near’. Therefore, it must be assumed that Reed wanted the audience to feel some compassion for Harry Lime. Furthermore, it is in his most antisocial speeches that he is at his most attractive. When Harry tells Martins, ‘would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving – forever… would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?’ he offers a mock version of the biblical scene of temptation (Matthew 4: 8-9). In The Third Man, the Devil has the best lines, not only because they are humorous, but also because they best demonstrate the function of the heterotopic space in film — not to merely only offer an entertaining spectacle, but to ask difficult questions of the viewer and their society.

As Lime and Martins part from the big wheel, Welles delivers his thematically pivotal lines:

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — and they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Although Welles himself improvised these lines, they are fitting for both the scene and the heterotopic drive of the film. In selectively using history to show that social upheaval and change could become beneficial to society, the film creates a didactical paradox where moral certainties are clouded. The Third Man appears to be suggesting that perhaps the pursuit and understanding of both social stability and social instability, in both film and in post-war Europe, can be of some use in creating active and reflective spaces that move away from a world of unequal social sterility and lobotomised deference; to force us to engage with and challenge what we are told is correct and true. This compulsion should as true today as it was in 1949, which is why I always root for Harry Lime.