Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Foolish Protagonist of "The Third Man" (1949)

It has never ceased to amaze me how radically my perception of a film can change over time. But it really shouldn't amaze me.  We have many experiences in our lifetime.  If we honestly and rigorously process those experiences, we are bound to undergo major changes and find ourselves with more deeply developed ideas of the world.  Something that seemed right to us twenty years ago may seem totally wrong to us today.  The motivations and actions in a film will weigh differently in our mind.  A plot glitch that we were once willing to accept (if we even noticed it) may now be too glaring to get past.

I first saw The Third Man (1949) when I was twelve-years-old.  The film had much to hold my attention - stylish direction, clever dialogue, intriguing characters, moody (Chiaroscuro) lighting, and a twisty mystery plot.  I have gone on to see the film many more times in the last five decades.  As I get older, I find that I have less and less affection and respect for Joseph Cotton's protagonist, Holly Martins.  The last time that I watched The Third Man, I saw Martins in a worse way than I have ever seen him before.  I now saw a breathtaking conceit and infuriating stupidity in the man that made it impossible for me to feel anything but contempt for him.  "Wait," I thought to myself, "this guy's an idiot!"

I think that, even as a twelve-year-old boy, I saw foolishness in Martins.  But I was still at a time of life when my own judgment was far from perfect.  I could identify with Martins and accept his missteps.  I shouldn't have.  Unlike me, Martins was not a twelve-year-old boy.  He was an adult man who should have known better.

Nothing about Martins suggests maturity.  We know that Martins is not a stable, self-sufficient adult because he admits in an early scene that he is broke and has no prospects.  Martins has arrived in Vienna to accept a job offered to him by his childhood friend, Harry Lime, but he learns that Lime died after being struck by a speeding truck.  The police regard the death of Lime, a notorious racketeer, as suspicious.  Martins, determined to learn more about his friend's abrupt demise, blunders around with the unrestrained arrogance that you'd expect from a bratty little boy.  The police have been unable to solve this mystery, but he is sure that he'll be able to accomplish what the police can never hope to accomplish.  That's fantasy.  Even Martins' work as a writer of pulp Western novels betrays his childish imaginings.

I found others online who agreed with me.  Rob White of BFI Online wrote:
Holly Martins is, at the start, a figure of fun, a writer of pulp Western novels with an erratic temper, a bit of a fool, liable to fall in love with a woman at the slightest provocation. The running joke in the film (and in Graham Greene's novella) is that Holly mistakes reality for one of his novels: he sees cheap plots and conspiracies everywhere and, in so doing, misses the point entirely. He takes a dislike to Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), suspecting him of smearing Harry's reputation when in fact Calloway's sparing Holly the worst details. Referring to one of his novels, The Lone Rider of Santa Fé, Holly says, with typical bravado: "The lone rider has his best friend shot unlawfully by a sheriff. The story is how this lone rider hunted the sheriff down." In his mind he's the lone rider and Calloway the sheriff.
He learns that a kindly old porter (Paul Hoerbiger) witnessed his friend's death. The porter understands that he will put his life in danger if he becomes involved, but Martins demands with a self-righteous furor that the man tell him what he saw.  This recklessness on Martins' part gets the porter killed.  The porter's neighbors had seen Martins visit the porter earlier and they suspect that it was he who murdered him.  Martins is surrounded by the neighbors, who openly accuse him of the crime.  And the crowd is right.  The fact is that, indirectly, Martins was the murderer, just as guilty if he had put his hands on the man himself.  He flees as the crowd converges on him.

Martins eventually learns that Harry was stealing penicillin from military hospitals and selling the drug in diluted form on the black market. His scheme caused sick people in dire need of penicillin to die.  It ends up that Harry faked his own death to avoid prison.  Martins helps the police to lure out Harry, who ends up being shot to death as he attempts to escape.  

White wrote:
Anna (Alida Valli), Harry's girlfriend, remains dedicated to [Harry], dead or alive, whereas Holly in the end is Harry's executioner.  The shooting takes place off-screen and it's chilling: no matter that Harry is a murderous racketeer it seems wrong that his best friend should so completely turn on him.

When Anna, at the end of the film, ignores Holly and walks away from him, there's a sense of justice. She punishes him for his betrayal. His good intentions and naivety count for nothing. His wild flights of fancy and his sentimentality, which might be harmless traits in other circumstances, end up seeming like grave moral lapses.
For the record, I still think that The Third Man is a great film.  I just don't like Martins too much.

Reference source

Rob White, "Holly Martins," BFI Screen Online.

No comments:

Post a Comment