List Grid

Blogs Crosscuts

Still Dots #56

Second #3410, 56:50, Image © Studio Canal “The eyes are the window to the soul,” says the old English proverb; or, as the American sculptor Hiram Powers elaborated much later, “The animals look for man’s intentions right into his eyes. Even a rat, when you hunt him and bring him to bay, looks you in the […]

Second #3410, 56:50, Image © Studio Canal

“The eyes are the window to the soul,” says the old English proverb; or, as the American sculptor Hiram Powers elaborated much later, “The animals look for man’s intentions right into his eyes. Even a rat, when you hunt him and bring him to bay, looks you in the eye.” Given The Third Man‘s predilection for animal symbolism, this hypothetical encounter between Holly Martins’ soul and an animal’s piercing gaze has some significance: if Baron Kurtz’s weaselly dog, Harry Lime’s cat, or the random cockatoo that Holly somehow enraged were to look into his eyes right now, what would they see? Put simply, a soul festering with uncertainty, a self-made wall of armor crumbling down. So far in The Third Man, Holly has assumed that he knows all of the roles these characters play: he’s the renegade cowboy protecting his dead friend’s honor, Harry is the misunderstood rogue whose murder has remained unexplored, Anna is the damsel in distress in need of protecting, and Calloway is the heartless, bureaucratic policeman only concerned with brushing this case under the rug. The fact that all of Holly’s assumptions are wrong is starting to become clear to him; it may not be too hyperbolic to claim that all of Holly’s attitudes towards morality, justice, right and wrong, are brutally upended in this very scene.

Major Calloway is revealing Harry’s true racket to Holly at the same time it’s revealed to us: as in most detective stories (if we can get away with calling The Third Man that), we’re aligned with Holly’s perspective throughout most of the movie, so even if we’ve suspected there’s some legitimacy to Harry’s persecution, we’ve been unsure until now. Then the bomb drops: Harry’s racket was penicillin. He developed a scheme whereby his gang of racketeers would steal penicillin from military hospitals, dilute it with water to make it go further, then sell it back to afflicted patients. Holly holds onto his allegiance to Harry (and his animosity towards Calloway) for as long as he can: “Are you too busy chasing a few tubes of penicillin to investigate a murder?” Calloway’s reply could unsettle the ironclad resolve of even the most stoic listener:

Calloway: These were murders. Men with gangrened legs. Women in childbirth. And there were children, too. They used some of this diluted penicillin against meningitis. The lucky children died. The unlucky ones went off their heads, you can see them now in the mental ward. That was the racket Harry Lime organized.

It’s the mention of children in mental wards that causes the devastated, despondent look on Holly’s face in today’s still; his naive loyalty to Harry has him feebly telling Calloway that he’s offered no proof of Harry’s heinous crimes, but that’s exactly what Calloway will provide in next week’s Still Dots posts.

To look into Holly’s eyes in the still above is to witness a man sliding into a nebulous moral abyss. He still thinks of murder as the plot contrivances in his Western paperbacks: a man shot, stabbed, beaten by another, with a clear victim and perpetrator, a mystery to be solved. He’s not used to institutionalized, large-scale murder: not only a moneymaking scheme to turn a medical necessity into a capitalist commodity, but also, of course, World War II itself, murder at its most pervasive.

On Tuesday, Jeremy delineated the connection between capitalism and religion: briefly, that the tenets of the Protestant Ethic coincide with the capitalist ethos, which allows the accumulation of wealth to become a religion in itself. “Man is dominated…by acquisition as the ultimate purpose in life,” argued Max Weber. Yet there is, perhaps, an equally strong connection between capitalism and war, especially considering the periods of industrial boom that coincide with capitalist economies during wartime (munitions manufacturers and defense contractors make for lucrative national businesses, after all). In the case of World War II, that wartime and postwar prosperity extended to America while much of continental Europe and Japan were leveled—an essential step in allowing the United States to become modernity’s foremost global economic power. Though World War II is often seen as a “just war” (i.e., there were moral and ethical reasons for the US to intervene), it was also an economic one, inevitably if not intentionally.

"Rosie the Riveter" helped recruit more than 2 million women into the American workforce from 1942 to 1945, helping to create an internationally dominant postwar American economy.

The extreme view of capitalism-as-war (or vice versa) is that capitalism needs war to survive, and that the introduction of industrial capitalism to global politics instigated an ongoing cycle of international war as a means of attaining value and wealth. One interpretation of this is that global capitalism is itself a war of products, images, media, ideas, in which America can become a modern empire not (solely) through military might, but also by the international ubiquity of Microsoft, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hollywood movies, and so on—cultural invasion, in other words. Another, more literal interpretation is that the United States has repeatedly instigated violent conflicts in other nations throughout the 20th century—supporting guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi in Angola in the 1980s; installing the violent dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973; thwarting Iran’s constitutional movement and installing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah, beginning in 1953; supporting El Salvadorian death squads in the 1980s; and so on—in order to create pro-American capitalism systems that would benefit us economically.

The most recent (and, maybe, most damaging in a longterm sense) manifestations of this capitalism-as-war are the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, enterprises that serve to further strengthen the United States’ already-towering military-industrial complex. As Jonathan Nitzen and Shimshon Bichler write in “Capitalism and War,” capitalism needs war in order “to expand its geographical reach; it needs it to open up new markets; it needs it to access cheap raw materials; and it needs it to placate opposition at home and pacify rebellious populations abroad.” Nitzen and Bichler argue, furthermore, that the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the clearest indicators of the role that capitalism plays in war, and indeed have transformed war itself into a capitalistic enterprise that aims for inflation, relative prices, and redistribution (in/of oil, in this case). So if Holly Martins is suddenly devastated by his realization of the linkages between war and capitalism in today’s still, we should realize (with a great deal of concern) that that process has been rampaging unimpeded since World War II, so much so that the nature of war itself has transformed entirely.

Perhaps because the entertainment industry is at least tangentially related to the military-industrial complex, depictions of war as capitalistic enterprises are not common in American movies: the only semi-mainstream example I can think of is Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005), which casts Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov, an amoral arms dealer who exploits global unrest in order to become obscenely rich. (It’s an admirable attempt at sociopolitical commentary, though Cage playing a Russian is like Charlton Heston’s Mexican border cop in Touch of Evil.) A better illustration of the war-as-capitalism theme might be the Australian movie The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), directed by Yugoslavian expat Dusan Makavejev (W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie), in which a global marketer from the titular company carries out a semi-hostile takeover of a local soft-drink manufacturer in a remote Australian region. (No wonder the movie wasn’t made in the US.)

A still from "The Coca-Cola Kid" (1985) Image © Umbrella Entertainment

Or, outside of the realm of cinema, we can see this theme illustrated repeatedly by underground artists such as Banksy and Ron English:

Banksy graffiti art in Bristol

Ron English's "Cowgirl McDonald's," 2005 (Image © Ron English)

To return, circuitously, to The Third Man: Holly’s realization that murder and criminality can take on more widespread forms than the cops-and-robbers sort (especially when applied to the global politics of his, and our, home country) can be tied back to penicillin itself. The United States played an important role in initially mass-producing and distributing the drug: while there was only enough penicillin in June 1942 to treat ten patients, experimentation at a lab in Peoria, Illinois allowed the US to prepare 2.3 million doses in time for the invasion of Normandy in 1944. As a result of the war and the necessity of supplying the drug to Allied troops serving in Europe, over 646 billion units were being created per year as of 1945; an estimated 12-15% of soldiers’ lives were saved thanks to the availability of penicillin during amputations.

And yet, in the immediate years after World War II, the United States used penicillin for more sinister ends: from 1946 to 1948, US researchers in Guatemala had prostitutes infect prison inmates, insane asylum patients, and Guatemalan soldiers with syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases in order to test the efficacy of the drug. Approximately 1,300 people, including orphaned children, were infected as part of the study, and 83 of them ultimately died. If the economic, scientific, and military resources of the United States initially saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers, those same resources also endangered the lives of more than a thousand others in Guatemala only years later. While Holly Martins, in today’s still, undergoes shock and despondency after learning that his dear departed friend stole penicillin from terminally ill patients and sold it on the black market, he could just as easily be outraged by the ruthlessly capitalist behavior of his home country. We don’t know exactly how Holly Martins feels about the United States, although we know he at least embraces a form of American exceptionalism, blundering through Vienna with alarmingly little regard for the people who actually live and work there. I wonder if his patriotism, his loyalty towards his homeland rather than his best friend, would be similarly eviscerated if he knew what it was capable of for the sake of money.

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 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.