Second #310, 05:10, Image © Studio Canal
Holly Martins has arrived at the home of Harry Lime, after a mandatory stopover with some international military officers at the train station in Vienna. Finding the apartment vacant, Holly is told by an endearingly disheveled landlord (who speaks only a smattering of English) that Holly is ten minutes zu spat—Harry Lime has just left the building. In the still above, the Austrian landlord has not yet been able to fully explain the situation in English—hence Holly’s look of bemused puzzlement. Only a few seconds later, though, that expression will turn to one of mournful astonishment.
The role of Holly Martins may be Joseph Cotten’s most iconic: that of an unassuming American, somewhat reckless, more than a little vain, whose initially absolute code of ethics is unsettled by the end of The Third Man. More a character actor than a star persona, Cotten could blend into a wide variety of roles: a methodical and sinister murderer in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a melancholy artist obsessed with doomed romance in Portrait of Jennie (1948), a stolid “good son” caught in between the tempestuous passions of Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun (1946). But his lanky, athletic good looks and mellifluous Virginia drawl made him a perfect fit for “American everyman” roles: he was an urbane gentleman who could also be a little cocky and boisterous when necessary (as happens frequently in The Third Man, whenever he gets a bit sauced).
Cotten befriended Orson Welles in the mid-1930s, when both men were acting on Broadway and in radio shows; when Welles formed the Mercury Theatre company in 1937, Cotten was one of its original members, starring in productions of Julius Caesar and Shoemaker’s Holiday that year. Their collaborations would be even more fruitful on film, as the two men worked together on Citizen Kane (1941), in which Cotten’s role as Kane’s even-tempered confidante, Jedediah Leland, dispensed its own brand of sophisticated Americana; The Magnificent Ambersons (1943); Journey Into Fear (1943); Touch of Evil (1958), in which Cotten had an uncredited cameo as a coroner; and of course The Third Man.
Journey Into Fear is an especially interesting counterpoint to The Third Man. An adaptation of Eric Ambler’s World War II spy novel co-written by Cotten and Welles, Journey Into Fear stars Cotten as an out-of-his-element American engineer who travels to Istanbul, falls in love with an exotic nightclub dancer, and is targeted by the Nazis for supplying the Turkish navy with vital engineering information. Like The Third Man, Journey Into Fear features Cotten as a naive, vainly suave American who is swallowed up by an alien culture and directly confronted with the violence and ricocheting amorality instilled by the war. Though directed by Norman Foster, there’s some debate as to how much directorial input Welles provided (he was originally assigned the project but had to rush away to Brazil to film It’s All True); at the very least, the innovative pre-credits sequence (one of the first to presage the opening credits of an American film) is distinctly Welles’, with its floating camera that echoed certain shots in Citizen Kane and foreshadowed the acrobatic opening to Touch of Evil. Lest we get too off-topic, it bears mentioning that Welles’ influence pervades The Third Man—maybe not in an overtly directorial manner (there’s no doubt that Carol Reed was at the helm of The Third Man) but as a sort of auteurism of the actor, whose persona and offscreen reputation guides and invigorates the film’s storyline (after all, The Third Man centers around the dark mystique of Harry Lime). The chemistry between Welles and Cotten—friends throughout their decades of collaborative work—also deepens the film’s pathos and makes the still above unexpectedly affective, as Holly Martins’ eagerness to meet his longtime friend will soon give way to astonished grief.
There will be plenty of “star shots” throughout The Third Man—iconic, larger-than-life images of Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles, whose Harry Lime is granted one of the most astounding visual introductions in the history of movies—so perhaps we can save some of the deeper theories regarding the scopophiliac appeal of movie stars for later posts. At this point it will suffice to raise Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage and Kaja Silverman’s reinterpretation of it in The Subject of Semiotics. In the mirror stage, an infant…
arrives at an apprehension of both its self and the other—indeed, of its self as other. This discovery is assisted by the child seeing, for the first time, its own reflection in a mirror… The mirror stage is one of those crises of alienation around which the Lacanian subject is organized, since to know oneself through an external image is to be defined through self-alienation. (Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics)
Christian Metz would agree that part of the appeal of images of movie stars (or of cinematic images in general) is this recurrence of the subject’s mirror stage, in which the film spectator exists simultaneously within itself and without—”knowing oneself through an external image,” achieving self-alienation and identifying with an external subject in order to more fully comprehend ourselves as physically- and mentally-present subjects. When we see Joseph Cotten in the above still, our personae are refracted: we are ourselves (the individual subject that is the film spectator) and Joseph Cotten and Holly Martins. This is why the extent to which we identify with movie characters is so visceral and internalized, to the extent that spectators sometimes mimic the gestures and facial expressions of characters onscreen: through self-alienation, we are the characters onscreen.
Finally, the still above brings to mind Roland Barthes’ concepts regarding the signification of the film still when removed from the movement of the narrative, when separated from its “diegetic horizon,” as Barthes calls it. If, as he suggests, “the ‘movement’ regarded as the essence of film is not animation, flux, mobility, ‘life’, copy, but simply the framework of a permutational unfolding”—the “movement,” one might say, of discreet still images placed in succession, a movement not among them but within them—what does this tell us about Holly Martins in this image? That expression on Cotten’s face, so readable within the context of the film itself, becomes an enigma here, and perhaps more compelling, more entrancing, for its unknowability. I imagine seeing this image without knowing what the film is about or even what the movie is, simply as a fragment of a moment, and being tantalized by the fullness of this experience that I am unaware of, that I cannot possibly know. It is a different kind of identification from the narrativized context of The Third Man itself, but one that is, perhaps, no less immersive.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.