List Grid

Blogs Crosscuts

Still Dots #77

A shadow passes over Harry’s handsome features, both literally and figuratively. The giant Ferris wheel, the Viener Riesenrad, is continuing its orbit and the gondola that he and Holly occupy is continuing its ascent above the no-longer-abandoned park, Vienna’s Prater. As the gondola falls into the shadow of one of the abstracted steel pylons that […]

Second #4712, 78:32, Image © Studio Canal

A shadow passes over Harry’s handsome features, both literally and figuratively. The giant Ferris wheel, the Viener Riesenrad, is continuing its orbit and the gondola that he and Holly occupy is continuing its ascent above the no-longer-abandoned park, Vienna’s Prater. As the gondola falls into the shadow of one of the abstracted steel pylons that Matt pulled from our last still, Harry’s forehead wrinkles in consternation and concern, his shoulders roll slowly and protectively forward, and his face dips into the beam’s convenient shadow. All the while, Harry performs his particular blend of unflappable charm and callous cruelty, muttering out a threat veiled in friendly affection. “Old man, you never should have gone to the police. You know, you ought to leave this thing alone.” The implication is clear to us, and to Holly. Although the words that Harry spins are not inherently menacing, and could be seen as protective even, they carry the same implied danger one would hear from a mobster saying “It would sure be a shame if anything happened to . . .” The threat is only amplified by their position, alone in a secluded place, with the potential for hurt only rising as their gondola does.

Harry deftly replies to Holly’s questions like an experienced politician, injecting charisma, humor and threat into phrases that are really little more than segways to another topic. To Holly’s, “Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Harry replies, “Do you know, I don’t ever feel comfortable on these sort of things . . .” and he opens the door to their little room to show a view of the park stretching out before them, 200 feet below. The implied threat in this act is blatant even before he then mutters, almost parenthetically, to Holly, “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there . . .” The sensation Holly feels on this viewing might only truly be summed up nine years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that as of 2012, tops the BFI’s Sight and Sound poll as the greatest film of all time:

It’s hard to tell what outrages Holly’s sense of moral propriety more, Harry’s alien disregard for the anonymous humans he is harming with his penicillin scheme or the hurtful way he has treated Anna, but either way, Holly’s American moralist feathers are ruffled, leading him to provoke Harry with questions about his “victims.” But clearly, as he has been this entire film, Holly is out of his league. Harry really is, as Major Calloway said long ago, “the worst racketeer that has ever made a dirty living in this city,” and he is willing to do much more than fake his own death in order to continue his campaign. Holly trusting and foolish lad that he is, could not have imagined that his life might be in danger from his old friend Harry, or else he would never have gotten onto this giant Ferris wheel with a known murderer, but now, with the maw of the world opening up before him, a heaping dose of reality is being served his way. No amount of romantic sleuthing can stop the forces that Harry represents, and as Holly looks down on his potentially imminent death, Harry’s callousness reaches new heights in the monologue he delivers.

Holly’s bird’s-eye-view of the ground below through the door of the gondola, a door that bears an impression of the push through it that his friend Harry is just cruel enough to deliver, Image © Studio Canal.

Due to Welles’ cinematic celebrity and cultural importance, a lot of claims have been made saying that he was involved in directing or writing the script for most of this film, and specifically for this scene, but from most accounts, these are merely baseless rumors. Welles may indeed have written one of the most memorable lines in this sequence, one Matt will grace us with the week after next, but it seems that the rest of the sequence is authentically penned by Graham Greene, and the monologue Harry delivers while our camera leans precariously through this doorway is one of the best:

Harry: Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped–would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? . . . Free of income tax, old man . . . free of income tax. It’s the only way to save money nowadays.

If it wasn’t apparent to you yet, this was indeed the inspiration for our project’s title–Still Dots, a take on those “dots [that had] stopped moving forever”– but this moment is important if only because of the brilliant piece of writing that dominates this calculated moment. Harry’s inhuman, cold, and monetary logic may be the tipping point at which we viewers must decide if we would rather be like the naive, romantic, but inherently good Holly or his reflection–the charming bad-boy who is, on the whole, only interested in himself.

Clearly the moral core of this film that has followed Holly for seventy-eight minutes wants us to side with his moralism, but the question is one that contemporary philosophers and economists struggle over constantly. With economists and policy-makers using a term called VSL or “Value of Statistical Life,” which literally does what Harry does in this speech, it figures what the potential value of each life is worth. In the opposite sense and for opposite purposes, these economists are doing what Harry Lime is: They are transcribing a human life into exchange value. This is not a bad number, either. It is used to determine anything from life insurance payouts for people killed on the job to health insurance benefits to potentially life-saving environmental legislation, where Harry is seeing this value as potential income for himself, but on an essential and non-practical level, both numbers are turning humans into exchange value.

And when Harry ends his speech with “It’s the only way to save money nowadays,” he may indeed be more right than he knows. As Karl Marx, one of the greatest economists and philosophers that ever lived, would explain it:

“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion to the devaluation of the world of men. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity — and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Estranged Labor, 1844).

This is exactly Harry Lime’s own understanding of the system he works in. The workers, the common folk he sees laid out before him like dots, have become the commodity. Unlike Marx, though, Harry is not a critic of that system, merely one who takes advantage of it. As he will soon tell Holly:

Harry: Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people, and the Proletariat . . . I talk about the suckers and the mugs . . . It’s the same thing.

That about sums up Harry’s moral system. He is the capitalist competitive spirit embodied, and seeing the flaws in this system, seeing the way the proletarian workers have been transformed into commodities, he can’t help but “calculate how many dots [he] could afford to spare.” Harry Lime is capitalism without a moral code, and like that system, he is overwhelmingly successful.

This scene, this line, and many more to come in the next few action-packed Still Dots posts have made their mark on cinematic history and are definitely touted as the most important parts of The Third Man. Roger Ebert said of Harry Lime: “As for Harry Lime: He allows Orson Welles to make the most famous entrance in the history of the movies, and one of the most famous speeches,” and this is that speech. Despite its undoubted appeal–it has certainly burrowed its way into my brain–there have been few homages or adaptations of this moment. The only one I’ve been able to find is this brilliant episode of Pinky and the Brain, which manages not only to capture the feel of the film and to make a terrific pun (The AnimaniacsDot as one of Harry’s “dots”), but it fairly sums up this scene and even visualizes the implied threat of falling from the Ferris wheel in it’s smart and snarky ending. After a post focused on the moral and economic implications of murder, think of this as a funny palate cleanser before you click off to some other section of the internet:

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.

No posts