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BY OLIVER LANE
Aristotle. Kant. Rousseau. Nietzsche. These are names that would seem right at home on the syllabus for almost any ethics class around the world and for obvious reasons. But what about Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock? Graham Greene? Carol Reed? You probably would be forgiven for dismissing the latter two as irrelevant for the instruction of moral lessons.
Yet their collaboration in 1949 on the seminal film, The Third Man, created a piece of cinema that encapsulates much of the complexity of human ethical behaviour so well that I propose it should be taught as part of every introductory ethics class, no matter the level of education, the faculty in which the course is located, or even the language of instruction.
Many might justifiably dispute what place any piece of film should have in an ethics class in the first place. And I would respond by highlighting the unique benefit of cinema: Nothing brings concepts and events to life more vividly than a good movie. Reading Aristotle serves a purpose, and I am by no means arguing for its displacement from ethics syllabi, but cinema has the distinctive ability to allow its students to ask themselves ethical questions in real time. “What would I do in this situation?” “How would I feel?” It is this direct involvement that, to me, renders cinema an indispensable medium with which to examine ethical behaviour. And few films do this better than the morally ambiguous classic, The Third Man.
Here is a quick synopsis of the film: Set in Vienna soon after the end of World War II, the film focuses on Holly Martins, an American writer offered a job in Vienna by his friend, Harry Lime. But when Martins reaches his destination to accept the offer, he is told that Lime is dead. Martins proceeds to meet with Lime's acquaintances and colleagues in an attempt to investigate his suspicious death. It is a visually-stylish thriller—a paranoid story of social, economic, and moral corruption in a depressed and destitute 20th century post-war but devastated European city.
This striking, shadowy thriller was filmed expressionistically within the shattered, bitter, and divided metropolis. Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, whose “death” does not keep his character from dominating the screen during his brief appearances, and gives a fascinating but frightening performance, rich with ethical complexity. He embodies “evil,” he is Mephistophelian and raw but simultaneously charming and beguiling.
Nothing is entirely what it seems in this film. Hence, and as such, I believe it is symbolic of the reality of human experience. This is precisely why ethics classes should utilise it in order to present aspects of the human condition and situation. The various characters in the film are representative of the reality of human nature: No one is either entirely morally “good” or “bad.” Rather, we have highly complex moral outlooks.
One key reason why The Third Man is so apt is due to the fact that it differs from a filmic norm that permeates cinema; that films tend to present characters as seemingly metonymic of good and evil respectively. We see it everywhere: Superman versus Lex Luthor. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Yet The Third Man presents a much more realistic depiction of the truth, which is that each of us ultimately has great moral ambiguity, and that actions in the real world are never absolutely and completely either good or bad.
In the film, we learn that Harry Lime runs an illegal—and amoral—racketeering enterprise. This venture takes advantage of the thousands of wounded and sick who are in desperate need of penicillin (then the only infection-fighting antibiotic). His goal is to use this method solely to make money. Lime’s striking indifference to the terrible suffering of the ill and wounded is shocking and morally deplorable, yet actions like this take place all the time in real life. For example, the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris accompanied by the extremists’ complete indifference to the hundreds of lives that were lost; or, perhaps closer to Harry Lime’s fictional actions, the current examples of pharmaceutical companies raising drug prices to the highest level they can demand regardless of their much lower costs of development and production.
In this way the film is highly realistic; it does not subscribe to the idealistic notions of human behaviour which many films promote. Furthermore, one would expect that someone of such evil unethical intentions as Lime would be portrayed as unpleasant, nasty, and hateable. Yet he is witty, enchanting, and entertaining. Thus an ethics class can use this film as a demonstration of the complexity of human morals, and to establish how moral good and evil are never disparate concepts. Rather, they are abstruse and nuanced.
I believe that The Third Man rewards repeated viewings and a place in every ethics class because it goes far beyond being a clever and exciting mystery-thriller. It subverts all preconceived expectations by featuring an attractive embodiment of successful villainy and ineffective heroism. Combine that with an enjoyable sense of cynicism, a bleak view of romance, and a calming sense of chaos, and you have a film that condenses to perfection the real-world complexity of behaviour. Upon meeting Harry Lime, one sees, potently, a smiling justification for everyday corporate evil in the post-war modern world.
Could Aristotle, in his writings, illustrate that?