Social Purpose

In his introduction to the Sight and Sound edition of the script, Andrew Sinclair talks of the 'social purpose' as one of the two qualities, along with 'a feeling for documentary detail' that characterized British wartime cinema (quoted earlier). What is the social purpose of The Third Man? To instruct us? Greene, in his preface to the 1988 edition of the book tells the story of a surgeon who took his friends to see the film. They emerged depressed and subdues. It emerged that as doctors with the Royal Air Force, posted to Vienna after the war, they had sold penicillin and had only just realised the possible consequences of their action. This is an example where The Third Man might have been instructive but Greene is not and has never been a school teacher prescribing or proscribing this action or that. The primary social purpose is to forge an understanding of what is right and wrong, an understanding that does not confine itself to specifics but rather to a more general code of conduct.

In his Collected Essays, Greene writes that,

'... with the death of James the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of importance of the human act. It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension.' (Collected Essays, p.91)

It is this sense, a sense of importance of the human act that Greene is trying to expose in The Third Man. If we are to judge Harry to be guilty of wrongdoing, we might also incline to think those Air Force doctors equally guilty, but they were guilty only of a failure to envisage the possible consequences of their action. The act of selling penicillin, specifically, is not in itself wrong. What is wrong is, more generally, the possible consequence of that act - manslaughter.

Setting The Third Man in post war Vienna is helps to convey this understanding. To the poor Air Force doctors, it is no fairytale fiction but, to most of us, it is far removed from our normal environment. This gives us the freedom to judge what is right and wrong in generic terms. Specific situations that we may have encountered and in which our judgements might be prejudiced do not interfere with our judgement of the morality of the actions in the plot.

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