Paradoxical Shifts in The Third Man and Vertigo

The Third Man (1949)

Vertigo (1958)

Though Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) were made nearly a decade apart, both films challenge representation of male dilemma in similar ways.  The filmmakers of Vertigo do this more radically by making the protagonist Scottie’s (played by James Stewart) obsession to bring back his lover monstrous in its persistence.  Susan White, in her book Vertigo and the Problems of Knowledge in Feminist Theory, writes that “critics have sought in Vertigo a proving ground for a complex array of theories on ontology, psychology and epistemology of cinema in its relation to gender, history and the aesthetic realm,” which helps explain the complexity of the film (279).  The filmmakers directly deconstruct masculinity through Scottie’s vertigo and unhealthy obsession that consumes him in the latter half of the film.  Both films have an awkward paradoxical shift.  The protagonist of The Third Man, Holly (played by Joseph Cotten) finds out his friend Harry (played by Orson Welles) has faked his death and runs an illegal penicillin trade.  Scottie finds out that his lover Madeleine (played by Kim Novak) has not only faked her own identity (her real name being Judy) but also her own death.  The shifts in both films complicate the dilemmas that afflict the male protagonists.  It places their friend (Harry) and lover (Madeleine/Judy) as the victims of their desire whereas before they were the victims.  Harry and Madeleine initially make Holly and Scottie victims of their plots but then become the victims themselves once the truth emerges.  This entry of the exhibit will explore how the paradoxical shift in both films helps articulate dilemma and challenges the cinematic representation of masculinity.

Vertigo (1958) – Climax

The Third Man (1949) – Orson Welles Appears

In Vertigo the shift not only reverses the noir pattern but complicates the film in unfathomable ways by developing a new representation of masculinity.  The plot follows Scottie, a retired detective who suffers from acrophobia, who is hired by his friend Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore, as a private detective to follow his wife Madeleine in order to find out the mystery behind her recent strange behavior.   This whole scenario is a ploy constructed by Gavin who hires a woman named Judy to impersonate his wife, whom he has already killed, in order for Scottie to witness “Madeleine’s” fake suicide.  Scottie sees Judy, who resembles Madeleine since she was the one hired to impersonate her, after Madeline’s death and they form a relationship.  Judy plays along for while (even to the extent where she morphs her entire appearance to look like Madeleine) until Scottie figures out that Judy and the Madeleinehe knew are the same person and that he has been tricked.  Scottie now possesses the power to destroy the fake Madeleine/Judy which grants him a “masculine” authority over her that had been stripped away from the beginning of the film.  Yet, the masculine authority gets obliterated by the monstrous turn in Scottie’s demeanor.  His obsession overpowers his mind as the filmmakers attempt to convince the audience that Scottie has murderous intentions.  Scottie’s lack of sanity deters any possible masculine qualities that he may possess.  In this moment of truth his emotional demeanor emphasizes his lack of masculinity even more.  I understand this as not a lack of masculinity but a new representation of masculinity seldom explored in cinema until this time.  How Scottie encounters his dilemma through an emotional reenactment of Madeleine’s fake death in order to provide catharsis provides an innovative male reaction to trauma that challenges the stereotypical male reaction.  Scottie’s lack of emotional control counters the stern emotional control associated with male protagonists in cinema up until this point.

The paradoxical shift in Vertigo helps articulate Scottie’s dilemmas by intertwining them at the climax of the film with the reenactment of the fake suicide.  Subtle hints in the film reveal that Scottie may know about Judy’s secret before the big reveal.  The necklace becomes Scottie’s confirmation as it was the same necklace she wore when she impersonated Madeleine.  Climaxes bring most of the elements of the plot together, which the filmmakers do at the climax of Vertigo, but since the audience already knows the ploy the paradoxical shift in the film really happens when the audience finds out.  This happens when Judy reveals the silver suit hanging in the closet after her first encounter with Scottie since the fake suicide.  This splits the film into two parts.  As James Harvey writes in his article Movie Love in the Fifties, “he was her victim; last half, she is his – reversing the noir paradigm.” (35). The reenactment of the suicide apparently cures Scottie’s acrophobia since he climbs the tall tower that prevented him from saving “Madeleine” the first time.  It will also serve as catharsis to inherently cure him of his obsession by killing her.  He does not kill her but instead he kisses her.  She gets scarred by a figure in the shadows, which happens to be a nun, and falls to her death.  All of his dilemmas intertwine at this scene but the ambiguous ending leaves a lot unanswered.   Is he cured?  The paradoxical shift helps articulate Scottie’s dilemmas by forcing him to encounter the past again in order that he may heal, which we never know if he does.

Vertigo (1959) – Ending

In The Third Man, Holly encounters a similar shift when he finds out that his friend Harry is alive, but his role as an author and reluctance complicates this scenario.  As an author and friend of Harry’s, Holly finds himself in a difficult position.  Unlike many protagonists in film noir, Holly remains outside the justice system because of his occupation and therefore questions the system when they come to him for help.  Holly’s decisions and reluctance make him almost an anti-hero at the climax.  He challenges the stereotypical masculine role by remaining reluctant, but then fulfills his role as hero at the end when he shoots Harry.  The shift in The Third Man places him in an unwanted position.  His uncertainty about everything after the shift challenges the decisiveness associated with masculinity.

Since Vertigo challenges masculinity more radically than The Third Man a majority of this entry focuses on Scottie’s dilemma.  The films share similar plot elements (both Harry and Madeleine/Judy fake their own deaths) but Vertigo remains the stronger challenge to masculinity because of how Scottie’s erratic behavior upholds to the very end; whereas, Holly embraces his role in the ploy to capture Harry and even kills him at the very end.  This makes Vertigo a more radical film.

-Emmanuel Roberts


Harvey, James.  Movie Love in the Fifties.  New York: Knopf, 2001.  35.

White, Susan.  “Vertigo and Problems of Knowledge in the Feminist Film Theory.”  Alfred Hitchocock: Centenary Essays.  Ed. Richard Allen and S. Ishii-Gonzales.  London: BFU, 1999.  279-98.


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