Rooting for Harry Lime: ‘The Third Man’ As Morally Ambiguous Heterotopia

Rooting for Harry Lime The Third Man As Morally Ambiguous Heterotopia.jpg
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With 2015 the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth year (1915), cinemas everywhere have been celebrating, commemorating, and exhibiting classic movies in which Welles’ portly showmanship dominates the frame. Re-watchingThe Third Man (1949) on the big screen earlier this year, I was again impressed by how Welles managed to almost entirely capsize the film with his charisma, despite playing Harry Lime — a character that is so far embroiled within shady child-killing and drug dealings that his first appearance presents him almost as a projection of pure living shadow, as though he had stepped out of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and directly into our collective unconscious.

Of course, a cat lovingly nuzzles at his feet, a neighbor’s light comes on, and a baby-faced Lime offers a wry, bemused smile to the audience as though he knew that we were waiting most of the film for his grand entrance. His eyes sparkle, his lips slightly purse, and the viewer is invited to dismiss, or instantly forget, all of the accruing accusations against Lime’s character. For his inebriated friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who has thus far been in doting denial, this proof of his complicity is not satisfactory enough, and a heavy-handed pursuit for The Truth follows; but to an audience that has been more assiduously processing all of the cinematic clues, Lime might just get away with murder.

As I have explored in an earlier article (“’Citizen Kane’ is a Labyrinth Without a Centre”), Citizen Kane (1941) offers a conundrum that purposefully avoids telling the viewer what to think, which means that it can be informative without being didactic. Equally, The Third Man does not glorify the post-war racketeer, but both films are exceptional in creating spaces through which controversial roles and their divisive functions within society can be explored without being thoroughly scaffolded by an overtly moralistic framework.

In a posthumously published article, Michel Foucault presented the concept of theheterotopia. The theory posits that societies preserve themselves by consolidating within their structures ‘other spaces’, or oppositional sites, in which the many features of their ideologies may be concurrently delineated, disputed, and inverted. Although these heterotopias are ‘absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about’, they are also inseparably infused with reality. Termed heterotopiabecause they are ultimately different from ‘the non-place of utopia’ (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics 16, 1987:22-7), Foucault positioned them both within and outside of social reality. Foucault examined mental institutes and prisons as heterotopic spaces; for post-war Europe and America, contemporary social realities have been transferred to a heterotopia within the boundaries of a contemporary film —The Third Man — and this ‘other space’ has become an explorative space for both the positive and negative aspects of the social sphere itself, rationalised only by the cultural and moral capital that a viewer brings to the screening…


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