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Still Dots #78

Second #4774, 79:34, Image © Studio Canal Holly’s look says it all: if he had any doubts before, he now doubtlessly considers his onetime best friend Harry Lime as not only a threat but a despicable human being, an amoral nihilist who has come to embrace the worst tenets of both capitalism and modern political warfare. […]

Second #4774, 79:34, Image © Studio Canal

Holly’s look says it all: if he had any doubts before, he now doubtlessly considers his onetime best friend Harry Lime as not only a threat but a despicable human being, an amoral nihilist who has come to embrace the worst tenets of both capitalism and modern political warfare. On Tuesday, Jeremy succinctly recapped Harry’s speech on the Riesenrad, a dialogue sequence rightfully regarded as one of The Third Man‘s most powerful moments. It’s hardly a coincidence that Harry’s speech also summarizes many of the movie’s most prominent (if implicit) themes, especially that a modern world that functions via war and the neverending accumulation of money can only inspire its global citizens to behave in similarly inhumane ways. Or, as Harry tells Holly: “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.”

Jeremy rightfully proposed that this essentially capitalist tenet has become Harry’s raison d’être, yet this is also the rationale that propels countries and normally peace-loving and decent people into war: the belief (fueled, especially during World War II, by rabid propaganda, often of the cinematic variety) that the enemy is comprised of non-human beings who need to be eradicated, if only for the self-preservation of one’s countryland. In other words, if war can be seen (cynically, yet logically) as an elaborate ploy for bolstering the power of capitalism, and if capitalism can be seen as an ongoing economic war between the powerful and the powerless, then Harry’s embrace of the one might go hand-in-hand with the other: he certainly embraces capitalism, so maybe he also envisions his racketeering as a one-man war against the world, or at least against caring about the world around him.

Harry concludes his spiel about simply following the precedent established by international governments with a political quip: “They have their Five Year Plans…and so have I!” His reference is to the centralized economic plans developed by the Soviet state as early as 1928; ultimately, there were 13 Five-Year Plans developed in the Soviet Union, the last of which was proposed in 1991 (and swiftly abandoned with the collapse of the Soviet Union that year). Numerous Communist countries throughout the world developed similar economic plans, among them China, Vietnam, Argentina, Cuba, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and several others. Nazi Germany even developed its own Four Year Plan in 1936 in order to prepare for imminent world war. Essentially, the Soviet Five-Year Plans were designed to advance the country’s industry and manufacturing capabilities in order to compete with other world powers; most of the plans drew on the Theory of Productive Forces, which suggested that before a state can achieve a truly socialist or Communist government, it must advance technologically and produce enough wealth in order to satisfy whole populations. Redistribution of wealth can only occur if there’s enough wealth to go around. What I find interesting about this theory is that is sounds a lot like capitalism, though in the Soviet case the infrastructures of manufacturing and production were of course orchestrated by government, rather than free-market, forces. In either case, equality among all classes cannot exist until those in power establish a system of unimpeded production and advancement. If the Theory of Productive Forces suggests a sort of capitalism-on-steroids ostensibly in the service of an eventually socialist economy, then maybe Harry Lime is skewing the tenets of capitalism to meet his own ends in a similar fashion: accumulating massive wealth for himself, without the ultimate aims of either free-market exchange or class equality. Harry Lime has fashioned his own one-man economy, perhaps seeing himself as a “country” in and of himself. In other words, Harry Lime is like a more unsettling version of Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup: a self-fashioned one-man country whose political aims are comprised only of satisfying his own whims and desires.

Holly may have pushed for this meeting with Harry partially in the hopes that his friend would try to explain himself, or at least show some glimmer of the presumably decent man that Holly once knew and loved. At some point during their topsy-turvy Ferris Wheel ride, however, Hollynaive though he ismust surely realize that Harry poses a mortal danger to him. Harry opens the door to their gondola precisely when he drawls, with his natural charisma, “There’s no proof against me…besides you.” The two have a tense staring contest until Holly defiantly takes a step towards the open doorway: “I should be pretty easy to get rid of,” he says tauntingly. Holly is testing Harry, of course, seeing if this racketeer is truly heartless enough to send his longtime friend plummeting to his deatheven if a definite answer comes at the price of his own demise. The moment is reminiscent of scenes from several Hitchcock films, most notably Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which Holly Martins himself—Joseph Cottenplays the “Merry Widow Murderer,” whose niece finds out that her beloved uncle is in fact a serial killer. The second half of the film features numerous scenes in which the niece (Teresa Wright), named Charlotte after her Uncle Charlie (Cotten), attempts to ascertain his guilt partially by placing herself in potentially lethal situations. In both Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man, we have a good-hearted moralist testing the murderous proclivities of the villain by exposing themselves to danger, though we’re far less certain of Harry’s desire to murder Holly than we are of Uncle Charlie’s outright villainy.

Joseph Cotten as the Merry Widow Murderer and Teresa Wright as his niece in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943). Image © Universal Studios.

True, a moment later Harry steps away from the open door and bellows, “Holly! What fools we are talking to each other this way, as though I’d do anything to you, or you to me!” Of course, this is right after Holly tells him that they’ve dug up his coffin, revealing the corpse of Joseph Harbin—in other words, further proof that Harry Lime is alive, making Holly’s murder pointless. Does Harry abstain from murdering his friend because he has a shred of goodness left in him, or because he’s realized that it would serve no purpose whatsoever? The answer depends on whether you view Harry as a compromised human being or a soulless monster, and one of the complex pleasures of The Third Man is that there’s evidence to support either conclusion.

Last week, we mentioned that Harry quotes A Tale of Two Cities‘ celebrated closing passage (“It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…”) in order to claim that straightforward heroism is no longer possible in the modern world; ironically, the same quote is cited directly by Alfred in The Dark Knight Rises to claim that such heroism is still possible (and manifested by Batman, of course), but that such heroism might now require manipulation, dishonesty, vigilantism, and a sort of soul-shattering violence of its own. This citation is not the only thing that The Third Man and The Dark Knight Rises have in common: Harry Lime sees capitalism as war, just as Bane, Selina Kyle, and Talia al Ghul do in Nolan’s film (to varying degrees). If the French Revolution and its idealized radicalism simply replaced absolute monarchy with the still-stratified social hierarchy of modern capitalism, that Reign of Terror makes a horrific reappearance in The Dark Knight Rises, complete with the Scarecrow filling Robespierre’s role of bloodthirsty executioner. As this fascinating Film Quarterly article points out, the politics in Nolan’s film are muddled to say the least (the movie undeniably conveys the class warfare endemic to capitalism, yet also can’t see a radical reformation of economy and society as anything but cataclysmic), but what’s surprising in relation to The Third Man is how unprincipled Harry Lime seems by comparison. Loyalty and allegiance are central thematic motifs in The Dark Knight Rises—Talia al Ghul fights for her father’s legacy, Bane wages war out of love for Talia, Batman/Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon are devoted to a peculiarly deformed modern version of justice, and even Selina Kyle enacts a vengeful anger engendered by capitalism’s class hierarchies—yet Harry Lime has clearly eschewed moralism altogether, finding it an outdated myth in a modern world devoted to self-preservation. He’s aware of how inhumane capitalism is yet has no qualms about turning it into his own method of operating; he’s allowed the world’s injustices to creep into him and fester into a meaningless nihilism.

Capitalism as war in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Image © Warner Bros.

What’s more, Harry recognizes that he and Holly are diametric opposites (whereas another of the The Dark Knight Rises‘ themes is that Bruce Wayne realizes how similar he is to both Bane and Selina Kyle in significant ways): if Harry is an amoral nihilist, he recognizes in Holly a righteous, morally-upstanding romantic. Perhaps Holly has been able to preserve his code of ethics by creating cowboy heroes in his own paperback novels who operate by the same system of rigid good and evil (as Harry himself suggests). Meanwhile, we know practically nothing about what Harry did during the war, what harsh truths he may have been faced with (indeed, we don’t even know if he fought as a soldier). Harry’s recognition of his own opposition to Holly suggests that he already knows how combative their roles are: more than Holly, he may recognize that the two former friends have become nemeses. Maybe he even has a premonition of how their relationship will end, a sobering realization that the two of them will never truly connect again. Unable to believe in the same presumptions and philosophies as Holly, Harry has become disgusted with the world and acts accordingly. He’s trying to survive as doggedly as possible, of course, yet maybe he secretly longs for the same fate as the “poor devils” whom he deprived of penicillin, and whose lives on this earth he brought to a premature end.

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.