Following tragic historic events such as the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, male protagonists in 1940’s and 1950’s noir films and melodramas were oftentimes depicted with facing moral dilemmas and philosophical conflicts. In the midst of a world wrestling with the effects of its moralistic misgivings, onscreen characters portrayed in the cinema confronted their own inner demons. In such films, there exists no black and white villain, only characters exhibiting moral shades of grey. Calling their ethics into question, the protagonists must resolve their internal quandaries and ultimately face the consequences of their actions. Equally important to the films’ protagonist, is the depiction of its antagonist. In the films, The Third Man (1949) and On the Waterfront (1954), the portrayal of sympathetic antagonists offset the protagonists struggling with moral dilemmas, providing philosophical opposition and persuasive discourse.
Many similarities can be drawn between the two male protagonists in The Third Man and On the Waterfront. Both are unmarried, independent men torn between two opposing forces at odds with one another. In the midst of these conflicting parties, the protagonists must determine where their loyalties lie and which side to trust. In On the Waterfront, a film directed by Elia Kazan, Terry Malloy is caught in a dispute between the greedy mafia leaders and the longshoreman union workers. Similarly, the character of Holly Martins in Carol Reed’s British noir, The Third Man, is pitted in a struggle against the British Army Police and his close childhood friend turned fugitive. In both films, the opposing sides represent contrasting worldviews that challenges the characters’, and essentially the audience’s, perception of right and wrong. The protagonists, Terry and Holly, have emotional ties to individuals on both sides of the conflict; Terry’s brother Charley is one of the corrupt mob leaders and Holly’s close childhood friend, Harry Lime, is a callous racketeer. Offsetting the antagonists are the just and righteous authoritative figures: the priest Father Barry in Waterfront and the army police officer Major Calloway in Third Man, each upholding the moral standards of religion and government. The virtuous characters and the corrupt characters each attempt to sway the leading man toward their own agenda. However, the decision is ultimately left to the protagonist to decide their own fate and moral obligations.
A common narrative trope, Terry and Holly are contrasted with their “brother” counterparts, each reflecting different moral compasses. These brotherly archetypes, Charley Malloy and Harry Lime, are characterized as sympathetic antagonists. In literary and filmic narratives, the antagonist opposes the protagonist (or hero) through physical, mental, or ideological means (Bordwell & Thompson). Not necessarily malicious or wholeheartedly evil, Charley and Lime are nevertheless self-serving and immoral having both gained their wealth through fraudulent activities. Although Charley and Lime adhere to a very different moral code than Terry and Holly, their characters are portrayed sympathetically due to the compassion they show toward the protagonists. Both Terry and Holly are pressured to betray their own brother and best friend and turn them over to the authorities. After learning that Lime has been selling illegally obtained diluted penicillin on the black market (causing those who inject it to die) and faking his own death, Holly must decide whether to remain loyal to his friend or to hand him over to Major Calloway. Similarly, Terry is coerced by Father Barry to testify against his own brother and must decide to remain loyal to the mob and his family or to his fellow longshoreman workers. The viewers are drawn to the protagonists’ moral dilemmas by imagining their own course of action if presented with a similar ethical predicament. Because the opposing force is depicted in the form of a loved one, the antagonist becomes less villainous and menacing.
The narratives in On the Waterfront and The Third Man follow a similar structure that documents the protagonists’ ethical journey to self-redemption. Many parallels can be drawn between the characters: in addition to their fraternal antagonist, the protagonist is further pressured by an authoritative figure acting as their mentor and by a female love interest. Siding with Father Barry, Edie, the daughter of a longshoreman, falls for Terry and convinces him to fight for worker’s rights by bringing down the mob. Inversely, Holly’s love interest, Anna, sides with Lime and tries to convince Terry not to go to the police. In both films, Terry and Holly are persuaded by the opposing sides at odds with each other, each trying to sway them to align with their own moral code. Terry and Holly meet with their respective antagonists to speak one on one about their predicament. When Terry meets with his brother Charley in the back of a car, horns can be heard honking as lights flicker and cast shadows over their anxious faces, conveying the emotional unrest they feel. After first tempting him with wealth and job security, Charley’s offers turn into threats. “You was my brother Charley, you should have looked out for me,” Terry pleads.
Underscoring Terry reservations about betraying his brother is the realization that Charley in fact, betrayed him. He utters his famous line, “I could have been a contender,” after revealing that Charley made him lose an important boxing match to rig the bets. Charley’s guilt is clear on his face and he surrenders his gun to Terry, warning him of the mob’s plans. Similarly, Holly and Lime also converse in a confined moving vehicle, meeting up in a Ferris wheel compartment. For all his wickedness, Lime displays coldhearted logic and eloquence in his dialogue. Looking out the window he remarks, “Tell me, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever if I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped?” Arguing for a Social Darwinistic, ruthless, “eat or be eaten” mentality, Lime tries to convince Holly to see things his way. Nearly convinced, Holly is ready to leave Vienna but has a change of heart after Major Calloway shows him children dying from Lime’s penicillin in the hospital.
As an act of karmic punishment for their corrupt actions, both Charley and Lime die in the films. Choosing to fight against corruption and greed, the protagonists go against their “brother” to side with both God’s law and the government’s. They are both traitors and heroes on opposite sides of the coin, ratting out their best friend and brother in order to support a higher standard of ethics. Perhaps echoing the anti-Communist McCarthyism sentiments of the fledging Cold War, the protagonists adhere to the notion of “doing the right thing” regardless of familial or fraternal loyalty. Occurring at a time in history when friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members were encouraged to rat on one another in the name of patriotism, Terry and Holly’s actions directly reflect these sentiments. Despite this, the antagonists depicted in On the Waterfront and The Third Man possess admirable qualities as well as moral crookedness and provide an alternative ideology than the protagonists.