Second #2294, 38:14, Image © Studio Canal
An image that will now be permanently (wondrously) imprinted on my memory, Still Dots #38 captures a particularly bizarre moment at the Casanova Club (or maybe it’s simply business as usual in this establishment). The Casanova Club offers a swanky refuge from the scarred postwar streets of Vienna, a sort of five-star oasis of stiff drinks and fine dining (they don’t even accept Holly’s army money!). The name is obviously meant to evoke Casanova’s romantic allure, but one wonders if it’s also supposed to resemble Casablanca (1942), one of the most famous American films made during World War II, in which Rick’s Café Américain serves a similar purpose: an upscale haven for a beleaguered city’s upper class as well as for international expatriates.
Holly and Anna, now reunited, have come to the Casanova Club to follow up on a lead: Anna has just been informed by Major Calloway that this haunt used to be (and apparently still is) frequented by Harry Lime’s shady cohorts. After stopping at the bar for a few whiskeys (which Anna likely needs after her run-in with the military police) and a trip down memory lane provoked by Anna’s snapshot of Harry, Holly looks over and spots the semi-absurd vision immortalized in today’s still. Likely intended to provide a moment of comic relief (especially after the bleak interaction we’ve just witnessed between Anna and Major Calloway), the shot pairs Baron Kurtz’s gargoyled visage with this somewhat embonpoint Viennese woman, well-attired and accoutered and single-mindedly enjoying the broth before her. (She seems to not even notice the musical accompaniment that Kurtz and his violin are providing.)
How has Kurtz wound up as a violinist-for-hire at the Casanova Club? Kurtz himself offers the simplest (and therefore least likely) answer, as he makes his way over to Anna and Holly and sheepishly says (while gesturing with the violin), “You found out my little secret. A man must live…” The irony here is that the manner in which Baron Kurtz actually makes a living is considerably more scandalous than his gig at the Casanova Club; when Anna and Holly really do find out Kurtz’s “little secret,” the depths to which he and his accomplices sink in order to make a comfortable living become disturbingly clear. (The irony is paralleled moments later, when Holly and Anna are introduced to Mr. Popescu, another of Harry’s former friends who allegedly helped carry his dying body to the Josefplatz statue. Popescu just happens to be idling at the Casanova Club as well this evening, and he confesses to Holly that he helped Harry forge Anna’s identification papers as a gesture of kindness. “Humanity is a duty,” Popescu says in self-exoneration—though we’ll eventually come to realize that a humane regard for one’s fellow man is less important for Popescu than monetary well-being.)
But there seem to be a few additional explanations for Kurtz’s gig as the Casanova Club’s resident violinist. For one, the position would allow Kurtz to spy covertly on Vienna’s elite upper class and on the wealthy globetrotters who make their way through this fine establishment. (This possibility is reified by Kurtz’s cryptic pluck of the violin’s strings, which acts as a secret message to Popescu that Holly Martins has entered the building.) Indeed, the unexpectedness of Kurtz’s side-job (it’s a surprise in itself that Kurtz even knows how to play the violin) brings to mind some of the ludicrous disguises that Inspector Clouseau dons in the Blake Edwards Pink Panther films.
And yet, maybe there’s an even simpler reason for Kurtz’s gig as a violinist. The surprisingly blissful expression on his face in today’s still—the closed eyes, the oblivious smile (which looks markedly different from what Jeremy called the “used-car-salesman smirk” typically painted on Kurtz’s face)—suggests that he truly is a music lover, a man who can disappear into the beautiful sounds he creates with the instrument crooked between his neck and shoulder. There’s a lot to suggest that Kurtz is a shady, disreputable fellow, but maybe he is simultaneously a lover of the arts (after all, he professes to be an avid reader of Holly Martins’ books as well—a claim which seems like a dubious attempt at ingratiation, but maybe Kurtz truly is a fan). Could Kurtz be more ambiguous, more paradoxical, than we initially assume him to be: a realist who exploits the sick and dying on the black market, yet who also finds refuge in the transcendental nature of art and creativity? Maybe Jeremy was right when he posited, months ago, that Kurtz is a kind man at heart, a softie underneath his cynical, duplicitous exterior. If this is the case, it makes Baron Kurtz surprisingly akin to the ambiguous character of Harry Lime: a villain, perhaps, but one who is still ultimately vulnerable and human, with a surprising capacity for compassion.
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.