British Film Noir and The Third Man (1949)

Similar to other international noir genres, British film noir hardly fits the rigid categorical definition of noir based on Hollywood films. It does, however, contain many of the conventions and traits of Hollywood film noir such as a focus on the underworld of society, base emotions, and melodramatic events that portray an unjust and often cruel world. This essay will discuss many of the conventions of British film noir and how the compare with American styles, while providing a thorough analysis on Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).

      Similar to American noir, directors often used camera angles and lighting for emphasis of melodramatic effects. This, however, was used less consistently in comparison to American films, especially those directed by German émigrés such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, who were rooted in German expressionism. Such typical camera angles and lighting were, however, seen throughout The Third Man and can be seen in the following video clips and images.

Third Man – Clip 1

Third Man – Clip 2

    While women were included in the British noir more than in France, women typically were not associated with the femme fatals found in American films. Women were generally portrayed as ‘damsels in distress,’ or victims in need, rather than as conniving perpetrators. When such traits are to be found in women, they are more likely to be portrayed sympathetically since they have to deal with a disturbed or inadequate husband. This exception is consistent with British noir which typically contain “representation of male trauma or insecurity” (Spicer 85).

British noir was heavily influenced by the Victorian melodramas of 1930’s British cinema. Robert Murphy argues, the plots of British noir films typically portray a “violent, unpredictable world where justice is something that has to be fought for. Right generally triumphs but only after the villain has wreaked havoc – murdering the innocent, misusing power to perpetrate injustice and enjoying the fruits of his wrongdoing” (Spicer 86). Reed’s The Third Man fits squarely into this description. Post-war, but military-occupied,Vienna is quite clearly filled with violence and injustice – murder is central to the plot and innocent children are killed in Harry Lime’s profit driven racketeering. Orson Welles’s character, Harry Lime, is therefore a perfect fit to Murphy’s description of a villain. Lime is wreaks havoc not only on the lives of the innocent children he has killed, as well as their families, but on the lives of those who trusted him, namely Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt. In the end, as Murphy declares as typical, justice prevails and Harry Lime is held accountable for his crimes and killed by his dear friend. By having Harry Lime killed by Holly (although hesitantly), justice is given for the victims of the watered-down vaccinations as well as to Holly and Anna.

      Early British melodramas were highly censored with restrictions gradually loosening. By the time of the 1930’s and 1940’s lax censorship paved the way for the violence and darkness of film noir. Because of this films began to focus on the underworld of society, typically of the film noir genre (Spicer 87).

Much of British noir focused on the lives of ordinary people as well as the national angst following the horrors and consequences of War War II. In Josef Somlo’s On the Night of the Fire (1939) and A Window in London (1940), for example, the plots “concern young, upwardly mobile, working-class couples whose lives become complicated by murder” (Spicer 88). National angst was seen in several films and post-war trauma that “draws on the cynicism, worldliness and social” disorientation of the time. There was also a shift in crime thrillers and murder mysteries to plots filled with resistance and espionage.

Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites argue that in British noir films are more likely to see “women more as possible victims of men’s violence or betrayal. This argument can be clearly seen in The Third Man, where Harry’s crimes leave Anna (as well as Holly) torn between loyalty and a moral responsibility to justice. Some films, such as Wanted for Murder (1946), show characters who might normally be cast as villains instead as victims and “damaged men” (Spicer 90-91). In other films, like The Third Man and They Made Me a Fugitive (1947),  “no excuses are made for [the villains] behaviour and he is murdered rather than redeemed” (Ibid).

Another common trait among British noir is crime and punishment. As Robert Murphy points out, “private eyes, insurance investigators, former policemen, gangsters with a sense of honour, are all hard to find in British films of the 1940’s” (Spicer 93). Instead there was a “cycle of films dealing with spivs and racketeers – symptomatic of a disturbing rise in black-market activity” (Spicer 94). This trend is of course seen in The Third Man, as Harry Lime is mixed up not only in the black market sale of vaccinations but of obtaining consumer products from Britain.

Robert Murphy also points out the significance of light and dark. Aspects of light and dark can certainly be seen through film techniques but also through that of characters. In the case of The Third Man, Holly and Anna represent light while Harry clearly represents darkness and shadow.

Bombed-out Vienna

Bombed-out Vienna

British noir films also often focused on the legacies and aftermath of World War II. Cinema and society in post-war Britain witnessed a tension between the strong desires for respectability and security, and with the exciting, dark aspects of the war. Many films therefore featured bombed-out buildings, the lives of returning soldiers, or the consequences of war. Although it does not directly concern the war or the lives of soldiers, The Third Man does take place in a post-war, bombed-out Vienna occupied by four countries. The film in fact opens with Holly have to deal with military border-security and soldiers.

British noir films were often chastised for being morbid since they dealt with the “underbelly of society” while simultaneously hailed as inauthentic for having been influenced by international noir styles (Spicer 103). These films, however, represent a fascinating history and long tradition of British cinema which shared both similarities and differences with American film.

by Alex Daley


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