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The Third Man contains a number of complex and psychologically rounded characters. In many ways, however, these characters also merely represent particular themes, issues and ideas which are essential to our understanding of both the film and the city of Vienna in 1949. It is not uncommon, nor is it bad technique, to represent characters in this way. While The Third Man makes use of this method, it would be wrong to argue that characters such as Holly, Harry and Calloway lack psychological depth. They do, however, represent certain ideological positions as part of their general character make-up. Lynette Carpenter's reading of the film is insightful when she observes that the film's 'character relationships' are 'symbolic of the national political relationships'. (1) For this reason I suggest that it is almost impossible to consider character and theme separately in The Third Man. Reading character and theme together, furthermore, is a highly instructive approach to this challenging text. In the first of two articles on this subject, I argue that a close analysis of the film's characters reveals a detailed consideration of the themes of shedding illusions, the law and mitigation, good citizenship and friendship.
Our Man in Vienna
Holly Martins is the first character we see in The Third Man after the introduction to life in post-war Vienna. Arriving in war-torn Vienna on a train, fresh from the United States, Holly is in many ways like the spectator of the film. Both Holly and the audience find themselves strangers in this strange city. The journey they take through the bizarre moral and emotional labyrinth of this narrative, they take together. In this sense, for whatever else he is in the film, Holly is very much our guide and proxy in this threatening and extraordinary landscape. In his inexperience and his bumbling we perceive something of our own response to the complex situations he encounters. In his moral outrage at the actions of Harry, we find a comfortable expression of our own horror. Finally, at the end of the film as Holly 'wises up' to the ways of the world and the often dead-end street to love, we sense a similar maturity in our own thinking. Having stumbled through Vienna's moral maze together, we can hardly miss the feeling that our newly acquired world weariness is just a little tinged with the discomfort of Holly's guilt over betray ing his boyhood friend. We have lost our naivety and shed the illusions of youth at the price of developing a certain cynicism and sense of self-recrimination. (2)
Central to an understanding of Holly is his embodiment of the green and innocent American. Holly is the fresh-faced citizen of the New World who, despite his stubborn determination, finds himself tangled in a web of old world sophistication and decadence. This was not a new theme in the cinema in 1949. The novels of Henry James, adapted for the cinema, are just one significant example of the use of the theme of the naive American in film since the 1940s. Contemporary films such as Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1997) and The American (Paul Unwin, 1998) also give testament to the enduring use of this theme. What The Third Man brings to the character of the American innocent abroad is Holly's particular value system, based on the black and white morality of the westerns he writes, such as The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. As James Palmer and Michael Riley have pointed out, The Third Man considers this theme from a European perspective, using the 'mythos of the American west' to examine the encounter between cynical old world Europe and American innocence. (3) As …