Why The Third Man Made Me Happy

     Although Wikipedia is not a credible source for any sort of research, it does give a good sense of general opinions, especially on culture. What the Wikipedia masses have determined, then, is that The Third Man is a “1949 British Film Noir” that “many critics rank as a masterpiece.” I do not dispute the masterpiece claim; the movie is brilliant, from its sharp camera angles to its powerful performances. The claim that can be disputed is that it is a film noir. It is a film noir in style; the obligatory ciaro-scuro lighting, labyrinthine city and subjective cinematography are all present. In themes, however, the movie fails the noir label.


Hide your nieces; Joseph Cotton's back!


     Spicer lists several thematic elements that Noir films usually follow. The first one, one that has appeared in each film we have watched, is the theme of “Existentialism,” or, as Spicer qualifies, of “Alienation and Paranoia” (Spicer 64). Spicer defines Noir’s existentialism as its “sense that life is absurd and meaningless,” which really is more Nihilistic than Existential (Sartre, theExistential, finds meaning in the world, so I don’t like Spicer’s use of the term) (Spicer 64). This is a trait that has shown up in every film we have watched so far. Both Phyllis and Uncle Charlie displayed this sort of nihilism, and both Neff and Young Charlie face down this lack of meaning, and are at least partly ruined by it. Now, there is a sense of Nihilism in The Third Man; Lime extols the philosophy on the ferris wheel. Yet, it is not allowed to triumph in the film as much as it is in Double Indemnity and Shadow of A Doubt.

     There are two examples that show this. The first is Holly’s decision to turn on Lime. Initially resistant, Holly finally bends upon seeing the children in the hospital, the victims of Lime’s penicillin racket. By accepting that these children are more important than his friendship, Holly is choosing an absolute morality over the Existential Nihilism represented by Lime. Killing children is something that can be ignored to make a profit; it is morally wrong. To be fair, Gilda and Farrell had a similar triumph over a nihilistic character; unlike The Third Man, however, that ending was more of a product of the production code than a deliberate directorial choice. Holly’s choice to turn Lime in is a vital and integral part of the movie which cannot be written off.



This, ladies and gentlemen, is the face of Nihilism.

     Spicer disagrees; he states the film has a “refusal to endorse conventional morality,” made apparent in the final scene (Spicer 190). Anna’s refusal to stop for Holly proves, Spicer says, that his victory over Lime is “hollow” (Spicer 189). First, calling the victory “hollow” because of this scene implies that everything Holly did was to win Anna over. However, his decision because of the children’s hospital comes after he made the decision to fly home and forget about Anna—she was not a factor in his final choice. The ending, then, is not about morality, or Nihilism, but instead about love. Holly wants one more chance to talk to talk to Anna, even at the expense of missing his flight. Even his final line–”I haven’t got a sensible name”–is a comment on the senselessness of someone in love as opposed to anything about the unfairness of the world in general. One gets the sense that after smoking his cigarette, Holly will pick up his bag and follow Anna off the camera—in a continuation of the story that the camera cannot, or will not, capture.


I hope there's not a body in that cart he's leaning against.


     Of course, failing to contain one theme does not make this film not a noir. However, it is a major factor to miss. I left Double Indemnity and Shadow of a Doubt feeling dirty, as if the world is a darker place than before the film started. I left The Third Man with a hope that even if the world is shadowy and askew, that there are some moral choices that are easy to make, and that even being forced to kill a friend doesn’t keep him from falling deeply in love.


Or maybe it's just the romantic in me.




Hello, is it Me You’re Looking For?

The scene in which the titular character is introduced in Charles Vidal’s Gilda is vital to the film. Gilda is revealed to both Johnny Farrell and the audience at the same time, and as much of the movies revolves around their relationship, this scene is invested with importance, even before it happens. The scene’s dialog, mise-en-scene, and cinematography all reveal both the character’s interiors and the plot that follow in the film, making it an impressive piece of filmaking.

The dialog in this scene is packed with meaning. Before Johnny and Ballin even enter, Gilda is singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” a song both meaningful in its lyrics—it is about a woman who’s actions lead to an earthquake—and in its foreshadowing—Gilda later sings it in the casino to get back at a possessive Johnny. Also, the first lines spoken by Gilda, “Me? Sure, I’m decent,” delivered with a glare at Johnny, reveal to the audience a past history between Farrell and Gilda. It also conveys a sense of irony on repeat viewing; Gilda ends up being indecent, both to Ballin and to Johnny, and she is met with much indecency in turn. In addition, Gilda cannot stop saying Johnny’s name. She uses it almost as punctuation, ending every sentence with a “Johnny Farrell” or a “Mr. Farrell.” This provides a nice piece of dissonance for the audience when she comments that Johnny is “such an easy name to forget.”

But how could you forget that face?

The mise-en-scene, too, makes this scene a premonition of the events to follow. There is a mirror placed behind Gilda, so when the camera switches to a wide angle view of her, the audience can see both her front and back, a nice hint at the power she finds in her sexuality. The lighting, too, adds to the importance of the scene. Johnny’s face is covered in shadow until he steps into the bedroom and sees Gilda. Then his face is hit with light, a metaphor for both Gilda’s beauty and Johnny’s feelings for her—he sees her and is reminded of both. In addition, the blocking hints at the conflict yet to come. Ballin crosses between Gilda and Johnny, but turns his back to Johnny to kiss Gilda. Gilda and Johnny do not break eye contact, so the audience is clued in to the eventual love triangle.

Fun Fact: The original title for the Shawshank Redemption was going to be "Gilda 2: Jailbreak!"

Finally, the cinematography reinforces the importance of Gilda’s introduction. Johnny and Gilda’s conversation is shown through a typical shot/reverse shot, but excludes Ballin entirely. Even when he speaks, the camera remains on either Gilda or Johnny, focusing on their reactions. Ballin has to physically enter the frame of the camera in order to get some screen time, and even then the camera still holds Johnny and Gilda in the center. It is a well crafted scene, and it sets a standard that the rest of the film, with its cheese ending and its convoluted plot, fails to live up to.


Murder on the Hitchcock Express

Herbie Hawkins is an odd character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. He is kind, but seems socially inept, wandering into the Newton’s house during dinner. He enjoys talking to Mr. Newton, but only on the subject of the perfect murder. The only real affect he has on the story is his alerting the Newton’s to female Charlie’s screams in the garage. However, Herbie is very important to one particular agenda of the movie: re-writing the script of the detective story.

Outlandish theory: Herb is actually trying to come up with a plan to murder his mother.

Early in the film, after Uncle Charlie has arrived but before any talk of dead widows, Herb and Mr. Newton discuss detective fiction on the Newton’s front porch. Herb points to an unseen story and says “That little Frenchman beats them all. You can talk all you like about Sherlock Holmes.” This conversation, though seemingly unimportant, actually puts the film in a very specific context. The “little frenchmen” is, presumably, Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous detective featured in dozens in novels and short stories. The stories of both Sherlock Holmes and Poirot were whodunits—formulaic mystery stories in which the killer was revealed at the end of the story after the astute detective unravels a series of clues. Usually the killer is then arrested or dies, and justice is served. These stories were massively popular in the time period leading up to Shadow of a Doubt, with the first movie adaptation of a Christie story coming in 1928 (IMDb). Following is a typical ending to one of these stories, from the BBC version of Christie’s Death in the Clouds, with David Suchet as Poirot:

In alluding to these concurrent stories, Hitchcock is not trying to mimic these whodunits, but instead subvert them. In the Christie’s stories, the killer is never revealed until the end; in Shadow of a Doubt, the killer is revealed in the middle, with definitive evidence coming when Charlie finds the newspaper article with the names of the widows and matching them to the inscription on the ring. In addition, most of the whodunits end with justice being served, whether through imprisonment or death of the murderer. Shadow of a Doubt, however, while killing off Uncle Charlie, does not feature the final revelation. Young Charlie keeps the murder between herself and detective Jack, a shade-of-gray moral choice that goes beyond the simple “the villain goes to jail” ethics of most mysteries. In addition, the film even goes so far as to mock these simple tales; Herb, who is constantly discussing the perfect murder, is entirely oblivious to Uncle Charlies attempted garage murder of Young Charlie.

This subverting—and mockery—of the typical mystery plot is one way in which Shadow of a Doubt is a film noir. Many of the later noir films are also liberated from the traditional detective plot. Double Indemnity, released the next year, begins with the revelation of the murderer. This movement away from the entertaining, Scooby-Doo unmasking allows the filmmakers to focus less on plot and more on character. Indeed, in Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie’s internal dilemma over whether to reveal her Uncle is far more thought provoking than the detective’s attempts to solve the crime. It allows for the complex psychological character studies that appear in many film noirs, and usually makes for a more engaging film.

A children's show, or a brilliant satire of its own genre?

Little Red Goldfish

        In the beginning of Double Indemnity, as insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) waits for the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson in her living room, the camera follows Neff as he walks around the room describing the sights and smells. Neff, in his narration, mentions the “bowl of those little red goldfish” sitting on a table behind a couch in the room. It would initially appear to be an insignificant detail; however, it is one of only two physical objects described in the room, along with the photographs of Mrs. Dietrichson’s husband and daughter-in-law. These two characters later become central to the plot, making those photographs important foreshadowing pieces of the mise-en-scene. It makes sense, then, that the only other object mentioned, the fishbowl, is important. However, the fishbowl never has an impact on the plot; instead it is important as a symbol for Walter Neff. Neff believes he is in control as he makes the plan for and executes the murder of Mr. Dietrichson, but eventually it is revealed that he is just swimming in Mrs. Dietrichson’s bowl.


Note the fishbowl on the left, and the fishman in the center.


       In the scene in which the fishbowl first appears, Neff is cocky and cool. He flirts casually with Phyllis while simultaneously giving his sales pitch, revealing a sense of control. Retrospectively, however, this scene is also when Phyllis begins to lure Neff into murdering her husband. Subtly, she mentions accident insurance, then quickly drops the idea. This sets up their next meeting, in the same room a few days later. Phyllis then explicitly asks for the accident insurance, specifically without him knowing. Neff, again exuding a level of control, accuses her of wanting to murder her husband and leaves; however, he later admits that “the hook was too strong,” and that he was unable to put the idea of Phyllis out of his mind. The fishbowl also makes an appearance in this scene. First, while Phyllis is pouring Neff a drink, the camera freezes on the two of them standing next to one another and above the fishbowl. Then Phyllis sits down on the davenport in front of the table, and Neff follows, lowering himself to the level of the fish bowl. It is not until Neff is sitting down that Phyllis springs her trap, and the cinematograph and the blocking (is that the right term?) hint that even though Neff believes he is in control, he is actually swimming in a bowl of Phyllis’s design.  


A whole new meaning to sleeping with the fishes.

           The Fish Bowl as a symbol for a false sense of control is further evidenced by its next appearance, when Neff is selling auto insurance to Mr. Dietrichson. This time it is Mr. Diedrichson who is sitting on the davenport below the fish, because in this scene he is being lured into a false sense of control, even though he is unwittingly signing his life away. Also, when Neff brings the papers to Mr. Dietrichson, he sits next to him and the camera faces them straight on with the fishbowl in between center. The two men, who are both unknowingly swimming in Phyllis’s trap, frame the symbol of their lack of control.

            In the final scene in the living room with the bowl—the scene in which Neff kills Mrs. Dietrichson—Neff, who has discovered that Phyllis has been using him the entire time, comes in to accuse Phyllis of her crimes. Before Neff enters, however, Phyllis turns off the lamps on the table with the fishbowl. Once the light is turned off, the fishbowl is not seen again, which symbolizes both Neff’s discovery of Phyllis’s machinations and of Phyllis’s desire to keep Neff from finding out that he is not in control.   When Neff does enter, he tellingly sits on the arm of the davenport, refusing to lower himself to the fish bowl’s level. He has finally escaped from Phyllis’s control, and thus is out of the symbolic fishbowl. Of course, once he has broken free he is wounded by Phyllis, and in his final scene he is laying on the ground gasping, like a little red goldfish that jumped out of its bowl.


Goldfish love cigarettes; tragically, they cannot light them underwater.