“You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love–they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce?
– Harry Lime, The Third Man
The wiry strings of a zither produce a high pitched repetitive lull. The zither itself is rare, not only because of how often it is played, or even known outside of eastern Europe, but also because of its paradoxically cheery melancholy. Its high notes and repetitive strumming in Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man opens with an introduction to a war torn Vienna creating a fast tempo infused with darkness, shadows of optimism drowned in the grey rubble of a postwar city. The music is closely followed by a narrator who shares information on Vienna’s involvement in the war and its copious amounts of black market activity.
Vienna’s current political status is its partition into four sectors, respectively by French, American, British and Russian forces who heavily patrol their given quadrants. The near proximity of these government powers sets an uneasy scene; the air is charged with the electricity of nationalism, mutual suspicion, and postwar reestablishment of order. The city is characterized by the unsavory social status of black markets, foreshadowing the vices to be explored. This fog of questionable morality is interrupted when a friendly American walks into this tense image with a smile. His name is Holly Martins. He is an author of pulp fiction Westerns and carries one under his arm, “The Oklahoma Kid,” on his way to his friend’s home.
Holly has traveled from the U.S. on the invitation of his friend Harry Lime. He excitedly arrives at Lime’s home, knocks on the door and is politely interrupted by the landlord who casually informs him that Harry Lime has just died. Harry has been hit by a car, says the landlord, and died on scene before help could get to him. There is a language barrier here between the landlord and Holly, and right away there is another ominous sign, the landlord interchanges heaven and hell when theorizing as to where Harry has gone to, he ends up saying hell. Holly is perturbed by this information. The remainder of the movie branches out from this moment; it is a test in Aristotelian virtue building for Holly whose naive friendship to Harry puts him at odds with the legal allegations charged against his friend. Throughout the film Harry’s character is vilified to Holly’s disbelief and denial. The accusations against Harry place Holly in a moral dilemma that has him trying to find a balance between his trusting optimism and his vacillating skepticism. Holly is too trusting of his memories of Harry in the face of new facts to build an accurate picture of who his friend is. Opposite to this naive moral disbelief is his skepticism of the landlord’s story of Harry’s death that launches him on an investigative mission to find out ‘the truth’ of how Harry died, against all facts and reasonable advice. By the end of the film Holly breaks out of his “Oklahoma Kid” character of the pulp fiction hard boiled detective driven only by his gut instinct, transitioning instead into a more reasonable human being, closer to finding his arete, through balancing his actions.
Holly is in search of his arete. Arete is an ancient Greek word for virtue. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle establishes his practical philosophy for developing human goodness based on training oneself to balance one’s actions to lay in the middle of opposing extremes, and through this balance find arete, or what a virtuous person would ideally do. Aristotle writes “virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason.” (33) Aristotle goes on to explain this mean as being the middle between two extreme choices of action that lie in relational opposition and mutual exclusivity from each other. One extreme is deficiency of the virtue while the other is excess of the same virtue. For example, the virtue of courage lies in the middle of rashness, which is an overabundance of confidence, and cowardice, which is the deficiency of confidence. To fix any vice one must assess whether one’s position relative to the virtue at hand is in excess or deficiency, and from there move on to balance one’s position by leaning more towards its contradictory vice. If one is a coward one must counteract this with rashness to reach the middle ground of courage. Holly’s trusting character lies at one end of the spectrum while Vienna’s dark smog of paranoia lies at the other. The virtue in the middle would be a happy meeting of optimism and skepticism.
The British Officer Calloway injects Holly with his largest dose of skepticism since arriving to Vienna. He tells Holly that Harry was nothing but a Penicillin racketeer who profited off of other people’s misfortune by stealing penicillin from hospitals and diluting it down with other chemicals, which caused deformities and left “the lucky ones dead.” Holly does not believe this assertion due to his optimistic inclination towards the world. Officer Calloway knows of Holly’s plans to find Harry, against all claims that Harry has died, and wants Holly to find his Harry so that Harry can be put to justice for all his obscene behavior. Holly’s optimism does not let him even entertain the idea of turning his friend in. It is not until Holly finds Harry in the Russian sector of Vienna that he begins to discover the vices everyone has told him about his friend in Harry.
Harry threatens Holly when they are riding on the Farris Wheel, opening the door at the highest altitude while Holly holds on to a pole to avoid falling down.
Confronted with Harry’s dark demeanor, Holly’s mirage of optimism starts to crack and let in the grey shadows, and tilted angles of Vienna. The catalyst to Holly’s imminent betrayal of his optimist assumptions of Harry through turning him in to the authorities comes after his trip to the children’s hospital with Officer Calloway. The camera never shows us the children, but rather shows us a reaction shot of Holly’s face in disgust and sadness towards the cribs, and Calloway’s remarks that make the children sound monstrous. The sentimentality reaches its peak in the depiction of a teddy bear’s disposal, signaling a child’s death. After this visit Holly walks about with much more determination in his pursuit of Harry. When the two finally meet, Holly is in the middle of so much skepticism that he doesn’t even trust a shadow on a doorstep, which turns out to be Harry. He has finally let facts influence his actions, as opposed to merely reacting to his inclinations and optimist faith. He starts chasing Harry and informs the police of his whereabouts. Once Holly finds reason to be skeptic towards Harry he is also faced with the pessimism bred by watching such injustice go unpunished in the children’s ward. In his path to reach arete Holly chases Harry down into the sewers, where they realize the ultimate moral battle of good versus evil. Holly lets go of all his unjustified beliefs of pure optimism and sees Harry for the criminal he is. Harry ultimately dies from a gunshot on his way to once again escape detainment by the authorities.
The mixture of Holly’s natural optimism and the forced skepticism lingering over postwar Vienna led to a sense of justice at the film’s closing, along with a sense of Holly’s growth from naive tourist embodying his pulp fiction characters, to a socially aware character employing reason and relevant facts in forming his opinions and actions. In doubting his optimism, Holly underscored his faith with reality, and was thusly able to act with righteous virtue and conviction at the film’s closing. He is unhappy in the loss of happy beliefs, but he sees the value of having acted in a virtuous way out of immaturity.