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Still Dots #88

Holly and Major Calloway have just made a dreary stopover: the ghastly disgust that now oozes from Holly’s facial expression is the result of a visit to a hospital where meningitis-afflicted children, unable to benefit from the penicillin that Harry Lime has stolen and sold on the black market, lie dying from deformity and escalating […]

Second #5394, 89:54, Image © Studio Canal

Holly and Major Calloway have just made a dreary stopover: the ghastly disgust that now oozes from Holly’s facial expression is the result of a visit to a hospital where meningitis-afflicted children, unable to benefit from the penicillin that Harry Lime has stolen and sold on the black market, lie dying from deformity and escalating insanity. As Jeremy wrote on Tuesday, the scene in the hospital is made more horrific by our inability to see what is assaulting Holly’s eyes: “we know that what we see must indeed be truly vile, largely because we never see what it is.” Whether or not the offscreen sequestering of these shocking images is the result of censorship in mid-20th century cinema, its effect is sobering, haunting – as though the children’s wounds are so grotesque that they’ve instilled not only horror in Holly, but also a dumbstruck asemia in the camera itself, which draws the line at communicating images so unspeakably (unfilmably?) bleak. Orson Welles said of the earliest films that were recorded at concentration camps following the Allied victory that they bore witness to “the putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage”; ironically, Welles/Harry Lime himself is responsible for the too-horrible-to-see injuries that Holly witnesses here, a putrefaction of Harry Lime’s soul that is too ugly to be conveyed by mere light, chemicals, and celluloid.

Much of The Third Man‘s potency lies, of course, in its fusing of the crime-thriller drama with a more urgent commentary on recent real-life events, and Harry’s penicillin racket is no exception: this and other drugs really were hot commodities in Vienna’s underground trade after the war. The excerpt below from a BBC documentary on The Third Man contains an interview with an Austrian doctor who was active during the war (the sequence in question begins around the four-minute mark): as he says (while foregrounded against an army of discarded teddy bears – the memorabilia of the dead), “I had to get medicine from the Allies. But they refused, so I spoke to a Colonel in charge. I described exactly how patients die without medicine. I had no alternative but to steal the medicine. Three of us raided a medical store at night and took a crate… I had warned of my intentions, so the Colonel turned a blind eye to our break-in.” What the doctor doesn’t include in his account is why he was forced to steal medicine from the Allies, especially when over 646 billion units of penicillin were being produced per year by June 1945 (thanks largely to the efforts of the American War Production Board); the answer is men like Harry Lime, who are able to consider the children they’ve killed as little more than still dots, the price to pay for economic security.

We have yet another dissolve to segue from the hospital scene to the milieu we see in Still Dots #88: an image of the dying child’s metonymic teddy bear (laid upside-down by the nurse, perhaps suggesting that the child has already succumbed to the illness) bleeds slowly into a medium-long shot of Holly, Calloway, and Payne in an Army Jeep, driving through the nocturnal city. The linkage is (again) both temporal and causal: the dissolve shows us that some time has passed, yet also literally superimposes a symbol for the dead child over Holly’s newfound change of heart – he has decided to help Calloway catch Harry Lime, has agreed to be their “dumb decoy duck.” The lonely teddy bear is revealed (by the dissolve as well as by the narrative itself) to be the tipping point, the proof of Harry’s inhumanity in one potent symbol.

Dissolve between the dead child’s teddy bear and Holly, Calloway, and Payne, driving through a nighttime Vienna. Image © Studio Canal.

Calloway is so certain that his ploy to gain Holly’s cooperation has been successful that he’s almost cocky in drawing Holly’s assent out of him. Following their appalling visit to the hospital, Calloway decides to provide Holly with some overemphatic small talk:

CALLOWAY: Payne lent me one of your books. The Oklahoma Kid, I think it was. I read a bit of it, looked as if it was going to be pretty good. What made you take up this sort of thing? Been doing it for long?

HOLLY: Alright, Calloway, you win.

CALLOWAY: I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas!

HOLLY: I said you win.

CALLOWAY: Win what?

HOLLY: I’ll be your dumb decoy duck.

Aside from providing Holly with a possible title for his next paperback Western (I Never Knew There Were Snake Charmers in Texas) – assuming Holly will continue plying his literary trade once he returns to the States – Calloway has achieved the devious psychological trick of making Holly believe it was his decision to arrest Harry, not Calloway’s manipulation of Holly’s aspiration towards moral rightness. Indeed, maybe some moral decisions aren’t very ambiguous at all: who, faced with the image of a disfigured child on the brink of death whose teddy bear is brusquely discarded, would not be morally outraged? How could Holly now live with himself if he didn’t turn in his onetime best friend?

In any case, we’ve just begun to ascend the climactic peak that towers above The Third Man‘s story graph: all that’s left to do is catch the Third Man himself. Still Dots #89 will inaugurate a new scene, in which Holly sits conspicuously at a barren cafe, waiting for the arrival of his friend/enemy; for better or worse, decisions have been made, narrative wheels have been set in motion, and now only the events and repercussions themselves await us. Though Calloway and Holly’s conversation after their visit to the hospital takes up only 25 seconds of screen time, but it still makes a powerful impact – not only because Holly has now unwaveringly promised to capture Harry Lime, but also because of its visual melancholy. There’s something about dialogue scenes that take place at night in moving cars, with nocturnal cityscapes dancing through the windows in the background – especially if the urban background is rear-projected behind the actors, and the supposedly exterior-set scene is obviously shot in a studio (as this one is). Even though the illusion is not altogether convincing – or actually, precisely because of this reason – the dialogue and the actors’ performances (Calloway’s smug yet affable confidence, Holly’s absolutely deflated resignation) take on larger-than-life proportions, making such scenes epitomes of cinematic intensity and splendor. With the glittering lights dancing in the background and the actors’ faces flawlessly illuminated, this 25-second scene takes place in an abstract space that could only be achieved with a movie camera: an uncanny mixture of artifice and reality, interior and exterior, motion and stillness, light and darkness. There are countless examples of visceral encounters that take place in the back of a moving car at night: In a Lonely Place (1950), Psycho (1960), and Pulp Fiction (1994) are some prominent examples, but the masterpiece of this extremely esoteric sub-branch of filmmaking must be On the Waterfront (1954), in which Terry berates his brother Charlie for making him forsake a life of glory and greatness. On the Waterfront‘s vehicular confession is certainly more grandiose than The Third Man‘s, but both scenes appear to capture people at the brink of an epiphany or a life-altering decision, with each studio-arranged light slanting across their face seeming to expose yet another long-dormant facet of their inner being. Light as truth, in other words – a poignant metaphor that also helps to explain how The Third Man‘s chiaroscuro lighting helps evoke a world in which truths and lies never seem absolute, and good and evil is neither black nor white, but some hazy gradient between.

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.