This week’s Still Dots begins with a reading from the Noir bible, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curled back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan. (Random House, 1930, pg. 3)”
While Holly Martins may not be a blond satan, neither was Humphrey Bogart, and yet he made his mark as one of the most memorable Sam Spades ever to grace the screen. Here we see Bogey as a similarly swarthy Spade, staring blankly as he contemplates the death of his partner, one Miles Archer, whose death sparks the line of investigation that the whole film will follow. Is Holly Martins a Sam Spade figure? It’s possible, but what is clear is that Holly is a detective.
Whatever his position in the noir pantheon, Holly’s face certainly shows the despair and loneliness of the private dick; a sort of one-man-against-it-all mentality. This moment of close alienation comes at a crucial turning/breaking point. Holly Martins has just found out that the man he came to see, who offered him a job and a place to stay, and who has been Holly’s oldest friend, is dead. Wandering like a sleepwalker or a zombie, Holly has made his way through a foreign city, unable to speak or understand almost anyone he meets. Stumbling into the graveyard, a brusque Englishman—Major Calloway, who we will get to know later—tells him that he’s wandered to Harry Lime’s funeral. As he walks up to the service and quick shots show us the faces of those gathered, we are thrust here, upon a satanic Holly Martins, awash in Vienna, surrounded by people and yet alone. His impassive expression is coupled with German benedictions from a catholic priest, but whether or not this is meaningful to Holly, he is certainly overwhelmed and lonely.
A lot could be read into this vapid stare, but nothing is so clear as Holly’s confusion. He speaks no German and knows no one. Even—it seems—his friend Harry Lime, for as Holly stands letting the funerary sensation wash over him, he glances quickly around at all of these people he’s never met, as foreign to him as the city, yet close enough to his best friend to weep over his grave. All of these characters will develop themselves as the film builds, but for now they are a collection of vague faces, no more than the extras wandering through the bustling ruined city of Vienna.
Just like Sam Spade in the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, Holly’s partner has been killed and he doesn’t exactly know why, but damned if he’s not going to find out. Dashiell Hammett himself was a detective. Known as “Sam” before he became a writer, a 19-year-old Hammett found a job at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as a private investigator. Hammett worked at Pinkerton for seven years, until he eventually left, disillusioned by Pinkerton’s involvement in anti-union strike breaking, but that—of course—didn’t end his fascination with detectives. Could Holly be a Dashiell Hammett figure? Perhaps he has been inverted, but Holly is a genre novelist turned detective, and his fascination certainly runs as deep. Nothing can stop him from delving into his friend’s death.
Later in the film, someone will try to dissuade him from his tireless investigation into Harry Lime’s death.
Someone: Can I ask is Mr. Martins engaged in a new book?
Holly: Yes, it’s called The Third Man.
Someone: A novel, Mr. Martins?
Holly: It’s a murder story. I’ve just started it. It’s based on fact.
Someone: . . . Are you a slow writer, Mr. Martins?
Holly: Not when I get interested.
Someone: I’d say you were doing something pretty dangerous this time.
Someone: Mixing fact and fiction.
Holly: Should I make it all fact?
Someone: Why no, Mr. Martins. I’d say stick to fiction, straight fiction.
Holly: I’m too far along with the book.
Someone: Haven’t you ever scrapped a book, Mr. Martins?
His banter is sharp but also telling, as it gets to the bottom of Holly’s determination. He is a writer who fantasizes about being a detective, and with the naïveté and romance that is involved in this fantasy, he is unstoppable even if his mission leads him to certain death. In the frame above we see the beginning of this moment, when a happy-go-lucky writer, abroad in Vienna puts on his game face and becomes the detective fantasy he’s always read about. This frame initiates the plot, and compared to last frame’s Holly, this one has enough determination—even without the knowhow—for us to follow whatever may come.
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.