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Still Dots #86

After Tuesday’s metacinematic interlude, vivified by the intricate connection between cinema and railroads, we’re back to the story proper: Anna has sharply lambasted Holly for agreeing to cooperate with the police and turn in Harry Lime, tearing her passport (which Holly helped procure) in half and tossing his overcoat brusquely on the floor of the […]

Second #5270, 87:50, Image © Studio Canal

After Tuesday’s metacinematic interlude, vivified by the intricate connection between cinema and railroads, we’re back to the story proper: Anna has sharply lambasted Holly for agreeing to cooperate with the police and turn in Harry Lime, tearing her passport (which Holly helped procure) in half and tossing his overcoat brusquely on the floor of the train station. A dissolve segues from the image of Holly’s tossed-aside coat to Holly himself rushing up the stairs of the military police headquarters: his mind has been changed by Anna’s merciless (yet justified) iciness, and he races to find Major Calloway before it’s too late. The dissolve between the two scenes serves not only a temporal bridge (indicating, through the dissipation of visual space, that some time has passed) but also a thematic one, pointing out that Holly’s change of heart is directly the result of Anna’s animosity. As the image of the overcoat and of Holly rushing up the stairs momentarily fuse with one another, we have a visual melding of cause and effect, via a technique that only the cinema can accomplish.

Calloway assumes that Holly is rushing in to get Harry’s apprehension over with, so both he and Sergeant Payne are surprised when Holly blurts out, “I want to get a plane out of here tonight!” Momentarily dumbstruck, Calloway quickly surmises what’s going on: “So, she talked you out of it.” Holly offers Calloway and Payne Anna’s ripped-up passport as evidence of her indignation, to which Calloway offers a reply both appreciative and condescending: “A girl with spirit…”

“She’s right,” Holly grumbles. “It is none of my business.” His excuse for agreeing with Anna is flimsy but understandable; even if he knows that Harry is arrested or even killed by Calloway, he will be able to assure himself that he himself didn’t “tie the rope,” as he put it so vividly earlier in the film. He will not have been present for Harry’s apprehension, and that evasion of moral culpabilitythe fact that Holly won’t visually observe his own participation in his friend’s damnationmay allow him to convince himself that the whole thing couldn’t have ended any other way, that Harry’s capture was inevitable. Indeed, Calloway points this out to Holly in this scene: “It won’t make any difference in the long run. I’ll get him.” This is fine with Holly, as long as he’s not the tool to set the wheels in motion. A moment later, Holly, Calloway, and Payne depart to find a flight back to the States for Holly; the entire scene is over in 41 seconds, but in those 984 frames of film, Holly makes a moral decision that sums up the life of honor and loyalty he wants to lead, yet one that will also presumably haunt him for the rest of his life.

Holly’s dutiful allegiance to his old friend, even while he’s aware that justice requires Harry’s capture, offers a striking comparison (or, perhaps more accurately, contrast) to the cowboy heroes in Holly’s paperback westerns. Would the Lone Rider of Santa Fe or the Oklahoma Kid play a role in the arrest or murder of a villainous former friend? Would he himself pull the trigger? Or would he evade the situation in a manner similar to Holly, freeing himself of moral guilt by refusing to play any role whatsoever? In the ethically black-and-white world of the classical western genre (as opposed to revisionist westerns like The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven), it’s hard to imagine the cowboy hero ducking out of the situation like Holly does (or, at least, wants to). Then again, one of The Third Man‘s themes is Holly’s gradual realization that the moral code by which his fictional characters abide has no place in the “real world.”

A pertinent point of comparison here might be Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, the director’s second feature (and, according to many critics, his first great film). As it was made early in his career (in 1962), Ride the High Country definitely leans more to the classical end of the western spectrum (as opposed to the revisionist end, which Peckinpah would soon become known for embracing). The story concerns two old friends, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who are hired to transport a stockpile of gold from the Sierra Nevada to the town of Hornitos, California. What Judd doesn’t know is that Westrum is planning to steal the gold with his young accomplice, even if it means he has to kill his longtime friend in the process. When Judd discovers this plot, he furiously challenges Westrum to a draw; in other words, faced with a similar situation as Holly (the discovery that his best friend is a criminal who may pose a danger to him), Judd chooses not to evade the moral implications of killing his old friend, but instead leaps to this decision immediately. (In that movie, Judd even has less moral imperative to kill Westrum than Holly has to kill Harry.) Westrum, in the case of Peckinpah’s film, refuses to participate in the proposed draw and even seems to go along obediently with Judd’s plan to escort him back to the nearest prison (that is, until Westrum escapes with an outlaw’s horse). Thus, we have a revisionist trope in an otherwise classical film, as the ostensible hero (Steve Judd) embraces his murderous proclivities, and the supposed villain (Gil Westrum) cannot bring himself to kill or even injure his old friend. In any case, the ending of Ride the High Country provides a bittersweet embrace of stoic masculinity and honor among men (in the fashion of many classical western films): another group of villains enters the picture in the climax, and Gil and Steve band together to eradicate the greater threat. As one of them dies from a gunshot wound, his friend offers an epiphanous promise that he will honor the dying man’s memory, carrying out justice as he would have wanted. While Ride the High Country closes with a classical narrative scene that restores moral order between two temporary antagonists, The Third Man doesn’t provide such easy moral solutions, as their will be no poignant rapprochements between Harry and Holly. Steve Judd exists in a genre-driven world where black-and-white moral decisions are possible, even embraced; but this is a world in which Holly Martins does not live, and in which morality offers a nagging, perpetual ambiguity, rather than a reliable code by which to live one’s life.

Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in “Ride the High Country” (1962)—friends driven apart by betrayal, and back together by their innate moral goodness. Image © MGM & Warner Home Video.

Holly wants nothing more than to hightail it back to the States, ridding himself of a moral obligation to act upon his friend’s villainy. As we’ll soon see, though, things don’t quite go according to plan, thanks to Calloway’s brilliant last-ditch effort to enlist Holly’s cooperation (which we’ll witness next week). For now, on a brief narrative fulcrum that sets the last act of the film in motion, we find Holly trying to define who he is, what he’s capable of, how he wants to define himself. Though Calloway has been increasingly sympathetic towards Holly throughout the second half of the movie, Holly must also be aware that Calloway is judging him, appraising his character, relying upon the assumption that Holly is, deep down, an innately moral human being who will act on impulses of justice, decency, honor, etc. Who is the harshest judge of Holly Martins, the one whose reprobation or approval matters mostCalloway, Anna, or Holly himself? We shouldn’t forget, also, that Holly is Catholic, that his friendship with Harry developed in a Catholic boarding school, and that Holly used faith in God (or lack thereof) as an accusation against Harry during their discussion on the Riesenrad. True, Holly may follow Catholicism more in spirit than in practice, but it seems divine judgment still holds a great deal of significance for him. In other words, perhaps more than Calloway’s, Anna’s, or his own judgment of himself, Holly is grappling with a moral dilemma with which most of humanity is seemingly forced to contend: the possibility that his decisions will ultimately be questioned by divine judgment.

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.