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Still Dots #80

Holly and Harry have finally disembarked from the Ferris Wheel voyage that has revealed so many disconnections and fallouts between them: in the time it takes to revolve once on Vienna’s Riesenrad, Holly and Harry discover (if they weren’t already aware of it) that their once intimate friendship can no longer be rekindled. With seemingly […]

Second #4898, 81:38, Image © Studio Canal

Holly and Harry have finally disembarked from the Ferris Wheel voyage that has revealed so many disconnections and fallouts between them: in the time it takes to revolve once on Vienna’s Riesenrad, Holly and Harry discover (if they weren’t already aware of it) that their once intimate friendship can no longer be rekindled. With seemingly effortless ingenuity (a trait common to much of The Third Man), the Ferris Wheel acts as both a logical narrative development (the two men absconding onto the amusement park ride in order to converse clandestinely, away from the public) and a potent visual symbol: Holly’s preconceptions about morality, politics, friendship, love, and so on have been upended, or loop-de-looped themselves, thanks to Harry’s shockingly candid nihilism.

In Still Dots 79, Jeremy swiftly laid out the amoral foundation of Harry Lime’s unabashedly anti-human worldview. Harry’s defense of his own actions (which may be little more than desperate self-justification of what basically amounts to rampant greed) seems indebted to Nietzsche’s “Noble Morality,” which (Jeremy wrote) “would stand in contrast to all world religions” and which points towards a recognition that our world is godless and favors merciless predators (or, to put it in modern terms, Bernie Madoff-esque capitalists). Harry’s/Nietzsche’s Noble Morality seems to offer humans the only true semblance of freedom available to us–behaving according to one’s own needs and desires, unfettered by notions of morality, nationality, religion, etc.–yet that freedom comes at the price of complete antipathy towards one’s fellow man. It’s hard to deny that something has triggered a complete breakdown in Harry’s sensitivity towards the rest of humanity, a callousness demonstrated not only by his pilfering of penicillin from those who desperately need it, yet also by his indifference towards the plight that Anna, his former lover, is currently undergoing. But perhaps, Jeremy surmised on Tuesday, all hope is not yet lost: it is at this point that Harry writes Anna’s name and a heart on the glass of the Ferris Wheel’s window, seemingly displaying “a more sensitive and emotional side of this charming badboy.” Here’s the still again, for reiteration:

Harry’s thoughts drift towards Anna Schmidt. Image © Studio Canal.

I’m repeating all of this because this may be one of the few times that Jeremy and I have differing interpretations about the motivations of characters in The Third Man (a movie which, though it may seem straightforward and narratively explicit, contains its fair share of complexities and ambiguities). As much as I want to believe that there is some goodness left in Harry Lime, my interpretation is that he has long since given up hope that he will ever see Anna again; if he does still love her (or, an even more disturbing thought, if he ever did), that love now seems comprised more of pity than intimacy. It’s significant what Harry is saying while he’s actually inscribing Anna’s name onto the glass: “I believe in God and mercy and all of that, but…the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.” It is exactly at this moment that Harry raps his hand against the windowpane, drawing Holly’s attention to it. I believe that Anna is one of the “poor devils” Harry is alluding to, a condescending opinion of her that suggests an eagle looking down upon all of those still dots.

If there is a shred of goodness left in Harry, it’s in the fact that he is aware that Anna deserves an upstanding man who loves her in return, a role that he seems to think Holly can perform. After Holly spots Anna’s name on the window, Harry suggestively asks him, “What do you believe in?” The unspoken answer: decency, honor, loyalty, love…all the things Harry knows he himself is incapable of and that mean little to him. And a moment later, as they’re exiting the Riesenrad’s gondola, Harry says, “If you ever get Anna out of this mess, be kind to her. You’ll find she’s worth it.” Again, I think Harry has no intention of ever seeing Anna again and wants Holly to watch over her in his absence. He may have some fondness for her, then, but hardly love: there is no remorse in his apparent decision to cut off all ties with her. Harry’s ambivalent attitude towards Anna and his desire for Holly to watch over her reminds me of the tumultuous affair(s) between Catherine, Jules, and Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), one of the most heartbreaking films about the amorphous nature of love that I can think of (not to mention a movie whose devastating ending in some ways echoes The Third Man‘s unhappy conclusion).

But for now, love is the last thing on Harry’s mind: as he and Holly exit the Ferris Wheel, Harry – prattling on while Holly, visibly despondent, says nary a word – insultingly invites his old friend to participate in his racketeering scheme. “There’s nobody left in Vienna I can really trust, and we’ve always done everything together,” he says. Yet even Harry seems aware that Holly’s rigid ethical code would never allow for such criminality: barring Holly’s exit with an imposingly outstretched arm, Harry grumbles, “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see…not the police.”

At last we arrive at today’s still, which foregrounds Harry against a few advertisements that once again hint towards the spectral presence of capitalism, permeating Vienna like a ubiquitous fog. These ads seem to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the rubble-strewn, poverty-ridden cobblestone streets of the city: only a minority of Vienna’s population would have the economic luxury of indulging in the products these advertisements are pitching. In much the same way, Harry always stands outside of the economic state of the city he’s exploited; he has relied upon Vienna’s poverty to facilitate his black-market wheelings and dealings, but necessarily hovers over it, inextricably tied to the city’s postwar capitalism yet never a part of it. To return to Nietzsche’s parable of Noble Morality, Harry is the capitalist eagle preying upon the downtrodden sheep (Harry would call them the “suckers and mugs”); or, to further our love affair with Nietzsche, he’s an Übermensch who has arisen out of the nihilistic moral vacuum that resulted from the abandonment of religious values, a creator of new values in which no action can reasonably be defended or decried moralistically. Harry’s “new values” are obviously not of the humanistic or positive sort, which aligns with Nietzsche’s own declaration that the Übermensch was not even close to a democratic, idealistic, or humanitarian figure.

The advertisements behind Harry in this shot also bring to mind a 1918 article written by the Surrealist Louis Aragon in Le Film, in which Aragon applauds the appearance of signs, posters, and other commercial inscriptions in contemporary films:

Before the appearance of the cinematograph hardly any artist dared use the false harmony of machines and the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, evocative lettering, really common objects, everything that celebrates life, not some artificial convention that excludes corned beef and tins of polish… Those letters advertising a make of soap are the equivalent of letters on an obelisk or the inscription in a book of spells: they describe the fate of an era.

André Breton, Louis Aragon, René Hislum, and Paul Eluard (L to R) in 1918. Image © Segnalazioni Librarie.

In typical Surrealist fashion, Aragon found a transfixing, almost magical embodiment of the modern era in such pop-culture vulgarities; he and other Surrealists (such as Robert Desnos and Guillaume Apollinaire) thought that cinema was the most modern of art forms in its appeal to the lower classes and in its reliance on mechanistic technology, which was correlated with similarly mechanistic advances in transportation (streetcars, automobiles) and communication (telegraphs and telephones). If the posters and common items of films in the 1910s displayed an “obsessive beauty…that celebrates life” (to Aragon), then the posters we see in Still Dots 80 are like their evil twin: emblems not of capitalism’s newness and universality but of its inhumanity and violent class stratifications, mirrored by Harry Lime himself.

Maybe more importantly, it is also during this shot that Harry voices what must be The Third Man‘s most celebrated bit of dialogue (and one of the few passages that was definitively written by Orson Welles rather than Graham Greene): the cuckoo-clock speech. With overzealous good cheer, Harry provides these parting words before he leaves a dead-eyed Holly:

Don’t be so gloomy! After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said: in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly!

The published version of Greene’s screenplay includes a footnote that describes the origins of this speech: Reed simply realized they needed to interject another bit of dialogue to act as a bridge between Holly and Harry’s farewell and the subsequent scene. Welles came up with the lines himself, later claiming they came from “an old Hungarian play.” (Shades here of the “old Hungarian jokes” that Welles anecdotally relates in his 1973 film F for Fake.) In fact, the dialogue may have come from a lecture on art given in 1885 by the painter Whistler, which reads in part: “The Swiss in their mountains… What more worthy people!… Yet, the perverse and scornful [goddess of Art] will have none of it, and the sons of patriots are left with the clock that turns the mill, and the sudden cuckoo, with difficulty restrained in its box! For this was Tell a hero! For this did Gessler die!” (This is in reference to the brutal rule of Albrecht Gessler and the rebellion of William Tell, which resulted in the formation of the Swiss Confederacy. Connections and allusions abound…)

In spite of its historical inaccuracy (cuckoo clocks are actually native to Germany, and Switzerland had a feared military during the reign of the Borgias), this speech obviously reaffirms Harry Lime as a nihilist who is aware of his own amorality yet believes this is a natural (and perhaps even admirable) way for human beings to behave. If the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin believed that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion,” maybe Harry’s belief (shared axiomatically by many other people) that destructive or turbulent circumstances give rise to profound works of art is a way to find value in violence and inhumanity. At the root of Harry’s villainy is still a perfidious self-interest bestowed by capitalism, but Harry (undoubtedly intelligent, not to mention charismatic) tries to use historical allusion and philosophical double-speak to defend his actions (or at least prove they can’t be decried or defended).

Bakunin also claimed that true liberty is “the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority,” which brings us circuitously back to Nietzsche and his Übermensch: freedom only arises when man disregards all notions of religious, political, or social morality and creates his own ethical code. In other words, there are no innate, natural values by which humanity must abide. Nietzsche (like Harry) even alluded to the Borgias himself while explicating his theory of the Übermensch, claiming (in Ecce Homo) that this hypothetical liberator was closer to the despot Cesare Borgia than to the noble Percival, Knight of the Round Table. (Maybe Mr. Lime has read Thus Spoke Zarathustra? The connections are mind-boggling!) In any case, Harry’s parting words offer a succinct snapshot of the man himself: charming, magnetic, intelligent, clever, yet also terrifyingly cruel and inhumane. While he slithers away from Holly, sending him smirking glances from behind a carousel teeming with blissfully innocent children, a cycle of vengeance and destruction seems set in motion that will plunge the two men further into bitter antagonism. The carousel spins, the Riesenrad revolves: everything (at least to Holly) seems shockingly different, but maybe it’s just the same pattern all over again.

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.