The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, July 09, 2004
 

Third Man and Quiet American thesis


Worth snagging is a thesis - History and Ambiguity: Graham Greene's The Third Man And The Quiet American In Print and On Screen by Valentina Reshetova - looking at these literary explorations of American foreign policy.

Greene would, I suspect, be unsurprised at the examples of brute naivety to which the current administration have treated us. And - needless to say - history, and the foreign affairs company he's keeping [1], suggests that the odds of a President Kerry succumbing to the disease are fairly short.

I've only dipped into the thesis so far - I'm only halfway through the Quiet American (grave lacuna in the education!) - but there is a deal of thought-provoking stuff on the Third Man.

The author doesn't seem to see the film (I don't know the book) for the comedy that it is [2]. For instance (p20a), the distinctive Robert Krasker cinematography - full of dutch angles and deep shadows - is clearly tongue in cheek [3]. So many shots are not on the level that one feels a little seasick at times - the excess is for effect, to satirise the crude, mechanically produced sensations of the cheap novelettes that the anti-hero Martins writes for a living. And, by extension, the equally crude efforts of the US to project its power in the world. (That the guy's genre is cowboy stories is, of course, no coincidence!)

And she fails to give full value to the apparently bumbling bureaucrat [4], Crabbin (p21), who invites Martins to speak at a cultural function: Crabbin is fairly clearly flagged as some kind of clandestine operative (his classy but mute lady friend suggests there's more to Crabbin than meets the eye). He certainly doesn't seem to know or care much about the arts.

And the film is certainly not a one-note piece of anti-American agitprop. As well as Crabbin, it's never clear quite what Calloway is getting out of his gig: there's no evidence that he participates in the revenues of illicit trade, but he's surely in a good position to do so. Lime's Prater Wheel speeches evoke the area bombing of German cities - as done by Bomber Command [5] - one of the weaker moral points of the Allies' prosecution of the late war.

As well as naivety and ignorance - he manages to kill at least two of those who help him, to my recollection - Martins commits the crime of enthusiasm, in a place where occupied and occupiers are weary. In contrast to the physically and mentally shattered Austria - and the bankrupt Britain - of 1947(-ish), the continental US was untouched and raring to go [6]. It was bouncing like Tigger telling the world what needed to be done, whilst extorting its pound of flesh wherever possible [7].

Recipients of American bully-pulpit advice might have wanted to tell Uncle Sam, in the vice-presidential expression, to Go fuck yourself. But poor relations must bite their tongues.

The famous final scene (p46), played over the equally famous Anton Karas zither score, is a final test of credibility. On the one hand, as Reshetova points out, it is a downbeat, rather than boy gets girl, ending. On the other hand - Martins, for all his faults, has a US passport: he is a meal-ticket. Anna has suffered untold humiliations to escape her fate in the East [8]; once safely endowed with US residence, she knew she could ditch the guy. The fact she chooses to cut off her nose to spite her face by spurning him makes no sense: it's sentimental, worthy of a cheap novelette. I suspect she changes her mind.

(For us to leave Martins with him thinking he had a moon-June thing going on with Anna, whilst we knew she was only looking for a green card - that would have been downbeat and credible!)

  1. Several pieces here on the subject - for the full set, start with the June 17 piece.

  2. She says on p32
    Among all this shady criminal activity, the film does contain a few light moments of humor among the tension.
    Most of the moments of humour are dark: for instance, the scene where Martins is shown the ward of children supposedly harmed by Lime's diluted penicillin, when the nurse tosses the teddy-bear back into the box: symbolises Calloway's manipulation of Martins, the film's manipulation of its audience, and the tear-jerking moralism of American foreign policy. It's the sentimentality, cynically used and gullibly fallen for, that's being satirised, of course, not the death of the child. Not that Martins even knows that these children's illnesses have anything to do with duff penicillin: he can't even speak the lingo!

  3. Technically, it's superb stuff: comedy is essentially a serious business, and there's no guying or winking to the audience, in the manner of the Carry On films, say. The subject-matter would make that sort of thing tasteless, in any case.

    Krasker I mentioned on November 10 2003.

    One of Krasker's most famous shots from Brief Encounter has the camera tilting from the perpendicular as the heroine contemplates suicide beneath the oncoming express train. His photography in Brief Encounter is relatively mainstream.

  4. With that kind of Hugh Grant genial dithering.

  5. I believe that the daytime precision bombing of the USAAF was not really that precise. Do they get credit for trying, or marks deducted for insincerity?

  6. The thought of another US depression through lack of European demand for US goods motivated the Marshall Plan, in part, at least.

  7. Pursuant to the American Loan, in 1947 the UK Treasury moved to restore an element of convertibility to sterling. Only after large amounts of currency reserves had disappeared in the futile attempt to shore up the existing $4.03 parity was the experiment ended.

  8. War invites metaphors of rape and prostitution as much as it encourages the real thing. The depredations of the Red Army against the girls and the women of Germany is well documented. I think it's safe to assume that, at a minimum, Anna had traded sex for her liberty a good many times.

MORE

The online script for The Third Man I mentioned on May 25.


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