Laughter in the film The third man

Daniel C. O’Connell and Sabine Kowal

Abstract

Two types of laughter were investigated in both the English- and the German-language versions of the film noir The third man (Korda, Selznik, & Reed 1949, 1962): ha-ha laughter and laughter overlaid on spoken words. The present authors’ transcripts constituted the database of the investigation. These were compared with other available versions: In English, the original novel (Greene 1950), the screenplay (Greene 1984), and a www.geocities.com transcript; in German, the novel in translation (Greene 1962) and a partial transcript (Timmermann & Baker 2002). Very little laughter is noted in any of these other versions, and what does occur is innocuous (embarrassed, ironic, humorous, or pleasant) laughter. The authors’ transcripts in both the English- and German-language versions, however, reveal abundant negative (cynical, hypocritical, or mendacious) laughter on the part of the criminal characters: The first (Baron Kurtz), the second (Mr. Popescu), and above all, the third man (Harry Lime). This laughter constitutes a notable change from both the medial and conceptual literacy of the novel and other written versions to the medial and conceptual orality of the film itself as a portrayal of spontaneous spoken dialogue. Laughter always reveals the personal perspective of the laugher and is used deliberately and skillfully as a rhetorical device. With the help of the villain’s sardonic laughter, the third man’s evil character is established in less than twelve minutes of dialogue. Such laughter is a far cry from the “instinctive, contagious, stereotyped, unconsciously controlled” ha-ha laughter described by Provine (2004: 215), from his “curious hybrid” (ibid.: 216) thereof (laughter overlaid on spoken words), and from the nonseriousness of laughter postulated by Chafe (2003a).

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