Set in an atmospheric, post-World War Two Vienna, the pulp Western writer, Holly Martins, in The Third Man (1949), goes in search of his missing friend. And, private investigator, Philip Marlowe, in The Long Goodbye (1973) searches for a woman’s absent husband, along with his missing friend (not knowing that the two mysteries are connected).
The two stories involve an honest, ‘average guy’, as he attempts to solve a mystery, one which will prove to be a tragedy, with personal implications. Holly Martins, searches for Harry Lime (allegedly run-over by a lorry): and, Philip Marlowe, a Private Investigator, attempts to work out what happened to his friend, Terry Lennox (who apparently took his own life). Both these ‘average guys’ are seeking the truth — and their friend is at the centre of the puzzle.
One feels that the writer, Holly Martins (currently writing a crime novel called, The Third Man) should be more clued up about Harry Lime, and his dubious, criminal activities — but, Lime outsmarts him almost to the very end. Meanwhile, Philip Marlowe lives in his own world, detached from other people, focused on his cat, seemingly unaware of his unsavoury, scheming friend Terry Lennox.
These are stories about friendship, and trust — or the lack of these qualities. The two ‘nice guy’ characters, or ‘saps’, are really playing to the tune of their amoral friends, who view everyone around them as objects for their own advancement. Both their friends are involved in the criminal underworld; one selling dangerously diluted, stolen, penicillin; the other racking up huge gambling debts.
The Third Man and The Long Goodbye are journeys into a strange land; they conform to the ‘Voyage and return’ plot of Christopher Booker’s, The Seven Basic Plots. Both worlds are strangely dysfunctional, surreal — a carnival of the unpredictable. And, much like a carnival, each of these environments comes with its own soundtrack: one performed on a zither, the other featuring different versions of the song, ‘The Long Goodbye’. In this underworld of sorts, the central character, a kind of ‘Mr Average’, who we identify with, comes face–to–face with a cast of eccentric, and violent characters: ‘McGuffins’. Anyone of them, we suspect, might have murdered the missing ‘friend’, but they are there to satisfy plot points, to act as decoys, and entertaining distractions.
The label of tragedy can also be applied to the stories, where both the ‘friends’ — through their own greed — fall into a criminal lifestyle that leads to self-destruction, and inflicts misery on the people around them. They are heroes who have become monsters.
In terms of genre, both stories fall into the Film Noir category; The Third Man does so stylistically, with expressionist camera angles, and lighting, as well as through the narrative: a main character involuntarily taken on a disorientating journey, being given the ‘run around’, and made to question their long held assumptions. The Long Goodbye, a late Film Noir, subverts the genre, transposing a 1940s Private ‘Dick’ into the 1970s. Philip Marlowe, the macho, hard-boiled hero of the original Raymond Chandler story, becomes a goofy loner, more interested in his cat, than women and partying — a man in a weird limbo, a purgatory-like stasis, a disconnected time traveller, a postmodern anti-hero — imbued with self-depreciating humour (vaguely reminiscent to Detective Columbo, the 1970s TV series Columbo).
Both scripts were adapted from novels to give them bleaker, more ‘cynical’ endings, which (retrospectively) put them more in-line with what we now think as classic Film Noir. They both feature a ‘femme fatal’; although desirable, she remains out-of-bounds, and emerges as the loyal love interest of their missing ‘friend’. We assume, knowing the criminal behaviour of their boyfriend, they are not half as innocent as they appear. And, like the classic ‘voyage and return’ plot, neither Marlowe, nor Martins gets to win her.
An imagined friendship is at the heart of both stories; the unsuspecting nice guy fails to realise that their ‘pal’ uses everyone around them to their advantage. Both ‘good guys’ are being played, ‘strung along’. Their amoral ‘friends’, once admired are gradually revealed to be rotten — they get what they want, by any means they can. In a moment of honesty (mostly for the audience sake) they reveal their true nature. Looking down from the Ferris wheel, Lime describes the people below as insignificant ‘dots’; if one or two of them disappeared, he callously argues, nothing would change. And, Terry Lennox coldly calls his friend Marlowe ‘a born loser’.
Both these ‘ordinary guys’, Marlowe and Martins, lack the amoral character of their ‘friends’, but there’s something of the hero worshiper about the way they look up to them, which resembles Nick Carraway’s admiration for Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Were they always rotten, or were they, somehow, corrupted along the way? We never get to know the answer. In any case, Marlowe and Martins are compelled to kill their ‘friend’ — they choose the ‘moral’ side (to protect other people from suffering from these monsters); the irony of killing someone as a ‘moral act’ is never explored. The deaths seem inevitable, the final conclusion of a tragedy, with the ‘ordinary guy’ forced to slay the monster (in an act of contemporary ‘chivalry’).
Lime’s demise comes about in the spur of the moment, when Martins catches up with him, after a chase sequence in the Vienna sewers. Lime appears to acknowledge that he has done wrong, and must die, and Martins shoots him. While Marlowe clearly murders Lennox in an act of premeditated revenge.
The two stories are tragedies, warnings about amoral behaviour — when someone, who was once admired, turns into a monster, their friend must stop them. Before they can do this they must venture into a strange land; this journey prepares them for the final encounter, when they come face-to-face with the truth. Finally, with the monster dead, common decency can live on.