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Still Dots #84

A harsh truth is dawning upon Anna: suspicious as to why Major Calloway would suddenly bend the rules to help her out, and subsequently by her discovery that Holly is covertly seeing her off from a train station cafe, she quickly puts two and two together and discerns the questionable trade that has been orchestrated […]

Second #5146, 85:46, Image © Studio Canal

A harsh truth is dawning upon Anna: suspicious as to why Major Calloway would suddenly bend the rules to help her out, and subsequently by her discovery that Holly is covertly seeing her off from a train station cafe, she quickly puts two and two together and discerns the questionable trade that has been orchestrated in order to capture Harry Lime. As we’ve mentioned before, Holly has offered Harry’s arrest in exchange for Anna’s safety. More than anything else, perhaps, it is Holly’s look of sheepish self-loathing that betrays his collusion to Anna: he can barely look her in the eye as he ashamedly drawls, “Well, they…they asked me to help take him. And I’m helping.” (To which Anna can only respond, after a melancholy pause, “Poor Harry.”) To see Holly’s expression at this moment is to witness a man drowning in shame, made sharply aware that his arrangement has estranged him from the woman he loves (and for whom he made this sacrifice).

Holly shamefully admits his and Calloway’s plan to Anna. Image © Studio Canal.

Of course Holly’s decision can be morally defended — he is, after all, aiding in the capture of a nefarious racketeer and murderer — yet this fact points out just how fallible humanity’s moral precepts are. The infeasibility of all-encompassing ethical codes (especially in the modern age) is something we’ve written about numerous times, and it might be labeled as one of The Third Man‘s most prominent themes. Anna seems to realize, whether consciously or not, that human relationships are not that black-and-white, and that blindly adhering to a strict moral code may forsake other, equally important values and beliefs. The rift between Anna and Holly is made clear after Anna bemoans Harry’s plight following Holly’s confession. A despondent Holly responds, “‘Poor Harry’ wouldn’t lift a finger to help you.” Anna seems aware of this and pointedly turns the conversation back to Holly: “Oh, you’ve got your precious honesty and don’t want anything else.” This, only moments after Anna mistakenly called Holly “Harry” (for the third time in the film), revealing at least some kind of fondness for him (certainly more of a sisterly intimacy than a romantic one). Neither character’s moral outlook can be summed up in a word, of course, but on a hypothetical moral spectrum that places “love” on one side and “justice” on the other, it’s clear which side both Anna and Holly would belong on.

In philosophical terms, Anna would be deemed a “moral anti-realist,” Holly a “moral realist.” The latter subset draws upon the work of early-20th-century British philosopher G.E. Moore, who endorsed a theory called “ethical non-naturalism”: essentially, moral values (those things which demonstrate human goodness and a just conscience) are indefinable yet also innately understood by human beings. (Moore also developed a theory of “organic unity” which stressed that moral situations are complex conjunctions of numerous parts, and that numerous ethical decisions must be made in conjunction with each other, rather than in self-contained isolation from each other, in order to adequately respond to those knotty situations — a description which certainly seems to apply to Holly’s current dilemma.) Anna, on the other hand, would seem to be a “moral anti-realist” of the emotivist variety, in that she professes moral statements that derive from emotional states of mind rather than objective moral facts. Indeed, her form of thinking branches out from a kind of logical positivism that was popularized by the so-called Vienna Circle, a group of Viennese philosophers in the early 20th century who held that ethical concepts could not be empirically verified, and therefore had to be developed more from emotional justifications than judgmental or scientific ones. (As the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote in his 1751 book An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: “The approbation or blame which then ensues [from moral statements], cannot be the work of the judgement, but of the heart; and is not a speculative proposition or affirmation, but an active feeling or sentiment.”) To Anna, morality comes from the heart; to Holly, it seems, morality comes from an objective set of verifiable ethical codes. To complete our triangle of (a)morality, Harry Lime would subscribe to an entirely different branch of moral anti-realism, that of “error theory”: the belief that there are no moral features in this world, nothing is right or wrong, and that humans unavoidably lapse into error when thinking in moral terms. It all brings to mind Monty Python’s absurd game of philosophical football, but this messy network of disparate ethical philosophies also points to The Third Man‘s intimate concern with the tenuous nature of right-and-wrong moral codes, an uncertainty exacerbated by the recent memory of World War II (not to mention the ubiquitous visual evidence of its rampant destruction).

Philosophical terminology aside, we seem to be at a turning point in The Third Man: in this expertly-paced narrative, we’re currently nestled in an intermediate valley in story intensity, right before the plot reascends towards its climax. The emotional stakes have been conveyed (for the most part), the wheels have been set in motion: the question now becomes, What happens once Holly’s and Calloway’s plan starts playing itself out? What will be the narrative and emotional fallout? The stark patterns formed by the windowpanes behind Anna and Holly in this shot seem like the ultimate symbol for their increasing distance from each other, like the bars of a jail cell hovering behind them rather than separating them. In this way, the alienation and confusion engendered by morality and human relationships in the modern world receive their manifestation in the fracturing of onscreen architectural space, similar to the bold separation of sets in Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. Like Monica Vitti’s Vittoria in L’eclisse (1962), Anna’s foregrounding against the intrusive shapes and geometries formed by her material world reaffirm the extent to which she’ll never truly be able to relate to it.

A grid of shapes separates Vittoria from the material world that surrounds (and alienates) her in “L’eclisse” (1962). Image © Criterion Collection.

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.