Second #806, 13:26, Image © Studio Canal
Don’t let that painted-on smile fool you: Baron Kurtz is one of the few unambiguously vile characters in The Third Man, a slimy racketeer either directly or indirectly responsible for at least one murder during the course of the film. Seen above with a mini Doberman and a copy of one of Holly’s books (The Oklahoma Kid) cradled in his arm, Kurtz is one of those characters who seems to know every dingy alleyway, every rain-slicked sidestreet, in Vienna with unsettling familiarity. As Jeremy mentioned on Tuesday, we can already guess that Kurtz is up to no good, despite the fact that we know next to nothing about his character (so far, we’ve merely seen him suspiciously eying Holly at Harry’s funeral). This presumption will be corroborated before too long, especially in an upcoming scene that has Kurtz supplying Holly with a severely dubious account of Harry Lime’s death.
Many of the characters in The Third Manhover somewhere between upstanding moral righteousness and self-preserving amorality—neither good nor bad, they’re flawed human beings struggling to withstand the disquieting, dehumanizing fallout of World War II. Previously iron-clad codes of ethics have little bearing in the Vienna we see here, even (or especially) for Holly Martins. The scaffolding that’s erected on the right-hand side of today’s frame—yet another visual reminder of a disfigured city slowly rebuilding itself—might as well represent the moral resolve of individuals in this postwar world, a moral resolve unquestionably weakened, but (perhaps) still standing.
Kurtz, on the other hand, gives us someone to unquestioningly root against. That gaunt, skeletal face, the pale skin, the beady eyes—the character is practically a textbook illustration of villainy, and if he ever questions the extent to which he preys upon his beleaguered countrymen for economic gain, the audience never observes it. True, Kurtz sheepishly admits to Holly that the war forced him to commit crimes he previously would have thought himself incapable of committing, but this confession is limited to selling tires on the black market—an offense which, we will soon discover, is among the least of Kurtz’s atrocities. (Thankfully, we’ll be revisiting Kurtz’s striking gargoyle-like visage several times in Still Dots, providing ample opportunity to discuss the murky depths of this character’s dishonor, not to mention the long career of the actor who played him, Ernst Deutsch.)
The Third Man has been slyly equating our hero with the boisterous cowboys he writes about in his cheap paperbacks—Holly Martins is himself both the Lone Rider of Santa Fe and the Oklahoma Kid, a Boy Scout on a mission—and the movie here finds an opportunity for some self-reflexivity. Holly ends the previous scene, in fact, by informing Sergeant Paine of the plot to The Lone Rider of Santa Fe: the story of a man hunting down the sheriff who’s victimizing his best friend. (What’s more, Holly storms out of the Hotel Sacher like a gunslinger throwing open the swinging doors of a saloon. Holly has no qualms about fashioning himself to be one of his own cowboy heroes.) Immediately thereafter, when they meet at the Cafe Mozart, Holly identifies Baron Kurtz by the book he holds in his hands: Martins’ own The Oklahoma Kid, which has a scowling gunman surrounded by hastily-illustrated playing cards on its tawdry cover. The presence of Holly’s cheap novelette throughout this scene acts as a disparaging subversion of Holly’s own self-styled moral righteousness: cowboy vigilantism has no place in this city, a fact that Holly will learn all too well by the movie’s end. (Kurtz himself gets a little meta-cinematic in this scene when he says to Holly, with no provocation, “it’s wonderful how you keep the tension…the suspense,” and adds that “at the end of every chapter you are kept guessing.” He’s talking about The Oklahoma Kid, of course, but he might as well be complimenting Carol Reed and Graham Greene, not to mention the very film in which he appears.)
Finally, about that bug-eyed, ever-watchful dog that Kurtz perpetually keeps close to his breast: the old theory that pets, at some point, inevitably begin to resemble their owners (or vice versa) is perfectly illustrated here. Clutched in his hand like the infamous white feline forever crooked in the arms of James Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, that hyperactive black dog, with its skittish gaze, uncannily complements Kurtz’s own oily duplicity. Somebody involved with this production, it seems, is not a dog lover, especially considering the adorable kitten that serves a completely different purpose later in The Third Man. (Not to mention a shrieking cockatoo that completes the movie’s trifecta of animal symbols—something to which we’ll return when the time comes.) Baron Kurtz is rarely seen without his obedient pet close by, which suggests, perhaps, that he hopes to hold both the people around him and the city of Vienna itself in the palm of his hand in a similar fashion. Kurtz and his dog join a storied legacy of film characters whose personae are reflected by the animals they own, including: that bizarre pug that makes a surreal appearance in the opening of Dune (1984):
Nick and Nora Charles’ legendary Asta, who, with his sophisticated inquisitiveness, warmed his way into the hearts of Thin Man fans (as well as countless crossword puzzles):
Buffalo Bill’s nightmare-inducing Precious from Silence of the Lambs (1991), whose mere presence conjures terrible images of putting lotion into baskets:
And, of course, innumerable other examples of human-like canines, which have appeared in films (such as D.W. Griffith’s 1908 The Adventures of Dollie, or those surreal “Dogville” shorts that preceded many Hollywood movies in the late 1920s and early ’30s) and photographs practically since both art forms’ conceptions:
Making quasi-human characters out of dogs in cinema is nothing unique, then, but this beloved anthropomorphizing trope complicates The Third Man‘s already-complex view of humanity. Given the several distinct and symbolic appearances that animals make in the film, The Third Man may not be suggesting that dogs, cats, and/or cockatoos are really like humans; rather, the movie might be hinting that humans are indistinguishable from animals, no better or worse than them, driven like all of the animal kingdom merely to persevere and survive.
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.