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Still Dots #99

After a long subterranean sewer chase , and many escape attempts by Harry, foiled by the team of nameless police officers who haunt every exit and underground nook and cranny, Harry’s fingers are finally tasting the cool, clean air of freedom. In the tunnels below, Sergeant Paine lies dead or dying, fatally shot by Harry’s […]

Second #6066, 101:06, Image © Studio Canal

After a long subterranean sewer chase , and many escape attempts by Harry, foiled by the team of nameless police officers who haunt every exit and underground nook and cranny, Harry’s fingers are finally tasting the cool, clean air of freedom. In the tunnels below, Sergeant Paine lies dead or dying, fatally shot by Harry’s gun. Harry too has been shot, by major Calloway whose bullet comes almost reflexively as a response to Harry’s own. Down below, Calloway cradles Paine’s limpening form, loosening his military cravat and generally making his passing more comfortable, while Harry drags his weakened body up a spiral staircase to freedom. Meanwhile, behind him, Holly loosens Paine’s grip on his revolver and takes it, heading out on his own. Holly is unnoticed by Major Calloway, whose attention is focused closely on his dying friend. Matt wrote last week about how “intimate male-male relationships have had a central place in action movies and, especially, films noir,” and the doting intimacy that Calloway shows, loosening the tie and unbuttoning the shirt of his dying partner, is indicative of the near-romantic nature of those relationships. Were it not for this emotional closeness, Calloway would certainly notice Holly as he snatches up Paine’s gun and goes to follow his own injured friend. But, due to the intimacy in both of these relationships, both dying men will have a loving (if cruelly so on Holly’s part) witness to their passing.

Our frame today, though, represents Harry’s last push toward life, toward freedom, and away from that self-destructive death drive that has cropped up so often recently. The upward push of these fingers on the grate will barely manage to wiggle the steel barrier until, seemingly exhausted from the effort and the life spilling out of his bullet wound, Harry collapses back into the underworld. This frame will be a close as he can come to freedom. Then, collapsed back onto the stairwell, gun in hand, Harry and Holly will have their last moment of intimacy–a silent stare through the Vienna tunnel. Their guns imply the truth that both seem to know: only one of them can walk out of this tunnel alive. Then, after a stunningly emotional series of wordless closeups accompanied by the off-screen voice of Major Calloway (now aware that Holly has gone and taken Paine’s gun) yelling after him “Martens! Martens! Don’t take any chances. If you see him, shoot,” Harry, with a pair of doe-ish eyes give a little–almost imperceptible–nod. The myriad implications in this gesture are beyond my grasp, but as far as our narrative is concerned, he seems to be both bowing to Holly’s righteousness and giving him permission to dole a final death-blow to the man he has been hunting since this film began. Thus ends the life of Harry Lime, with a bullet from Paine’s revolver, held by his oldest friend.

But what drives Holly to pull the trigger? Certainly there ware many factors to push down that hammer for him. Calloway’s yelling words, the recent fall of Paine, and the implied violence in their exchange pushes him in that direction, with the gun that dangles from Harry’s fingers suggesting that Harry will go down in a blaze of glory if Holly doesn’t put him out of his misery. But still, for such a moral creature as Holly Martens, it seems hard to justify this action due purely to the heat of the moment. Certainly the man is a romantic and apt to get caught up in the narratives he sees around him, but would Holly really murder if he could avoid it? Couldn’t he have just disarmed Harry, rushed him to a hospital, where he could be healed well enough to spend the rest of his years behind bars? Perhaps something in the gaze that the two men exchange, something in the little nod Harry gives him, tells Holly what he must do. Whatever the outcome, Holly has certainly changed. His action is so unimaginably out of character–truly a courageous, if cruel, act and far from the mincing ideals that he walked into our story with–that he must really have gone through a major transition to reach this point.

For Calloway, the willingness to use lethal force on Harry comes at a definitive moment: the shooting of Sergeant Paine. His shot fires off, an echo of Harry’s own, and perhaps for Holly, this is a breaking point as well. Holly might once again feel responsible for this death. Paine was, after all, only running out in the open, an easy target for Harry’s shot, because he was trying to protect Holly. His last words are selfless as he calls out, drawing attention to himself: “Mr. Martens, sir, get back! Get back! Keep back, sir! Hurry, come back, sir!” In these last few sentences, Paine manages to squeak out three sirs, even though he is dealing with the same reckless fool he has dealt with for the whole film. Paine dies, ever the gentleman, and for Holly’s sake.

The last time Holly was (indirectly) responsible for a death–that of Harry’s friendly porter–the intrigue became real for him. He realized that he wasn’t, as Calloway had intimated, some foolish scribbler looking for a story where there was none, and that there really was some nefarious plot going on beneath the surface. Paine’s death, however, seems to hit home with Holly in a new way. The nearly wordless Holly we will see after this death has a hard set jaw and a pessimistic, harsh view on the world. Holly has fully transformed himself from Romantic to Naturalistic and his dour, no-nonsense viewpoint matches that well. Perhaps it is his new-found lease on life that enables him to pull the trigger, one that like John Steinbeck or Jack London, sees the world as a cruel harsh place where only the toughest survive. And lest we forget, this Holly is very different from the pre-Vienna Holly–a ludicrous writer of popular fiction, with Sergeant Paine as his only fan. With Paine dies any connection this old Holly, the man Calloway once called “only a scribbler with too much to drink.” This new post-Paine Holly is harsh, serious, and deadly. It is hard to imagine that this changed man might never write another romantic western. And so, again we face the fact that Holly kills Harry.

We’ve brought this similarity up before, but a scene from John Steinbeck’s grade-school-English classic, Of Mice and Men, bears a striking resemblance to this killing, here represented onscreen by Gary Sinese (who directed and plays the gun-wielding George in this scene):

Like George, Holly kills his best friend, a man he has known since childhood and grown to feel safe with, but a man who he knows can be a menace to others. But while George’s slaying of Lennie is portrayed as a mercy–when compared to what would have happened if he had been found by the lynching party after him for murder–Holly’s shot comes for the sake of justice, not pity. So while Lennie’s death is coded as the tragic killing of a hapless innocent who knew not what he did, Harry’s death is coded as the satisfaction of a lifetime of crimes, even those too unthinkably vile to be portrayed on the screen. So while Holly is indeed forced to (like George) “kill his own dog,” he is not in the same scenario. Holly is not protecting Harry from some greater evil that could befall him, he is just exacting the strong sense of justice he feels. Another interesting moment in Steinbeck’s short novel comes after the shot is fired:

Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. “Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”

But Carlson was standing over George. “How’d you do it?” he asked.

“I just done it,” George said tiredly.

“Did he have my gun?”

“Yeah. He had your gun.”

“An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”

“Yeah. Tha’s how.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.

Slim twitched George’s elbow. “Come on, George. Me an’ you’ll go in an’ get a drink.”

George let himself be helped to his feet. “Yeah, a drink.”

Slim said, “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.” He led George into the entrance of the trail and up toward the highway.

Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys” (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, 1937)

While we never get this moment with Holly, we never see his reconciliation with himself as he comes to term with killing his best friend, we can draw from this moment some of what he may be going through in this instant of turmoil. Such a huge event cannot truly be overcome, and perhaps like George, Holly will lie to cover that unthinkable truth. Maybe Holly too, will let the story be told that he wrestled the gun from Harry’s hand and shot him with it, in self defense. But Holly, like George, must always live with the truth: that he shot a man in cold blood.

There is, of course, another option for our analysis. If we understand Harry’s death as a mercy killing of its own then Holly’s act takes on a slightly different timbre. To understand the act this way hinges on our understanding of today’s still, the fingers reaching through the grate, as the true end of Harry’s life. If Harry, collapsing back into the underworld before staring sullenly at Holly and offering him a slight nod, had already resigned himself to his death, then perhaps that nod really was a gesture of permission, and maybe it really was an act of mercy. Harry certainly would be miserable in a cell for the rest of his days, and maybe something in his subtle nod tells Holly–in a secret code developed through a shared boyhood–that it’s okay to send him on to the next world. If that is the case, then this act is more reminiscent of a different literary figure, one from the 2000’s, not the 1930’s. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows it becomes clear that a similar permission-based murder occurred. Here is the scene from the 2011 film adaptation:

If this were the case, then we would see Harry’s nod as the same merciful message as Dumbledore’s, “You must be the one to kill me, Severus. It is the only way.” Seen in this light, the weight of the killing must still hang heavy on Holly’s mind, but at least he might sleep easy knowing that it was not his choice, and that Harry’s significant surrender and subservient nod granted that same permission.

I realize now, nearly 2000 words into this post, that I have neglected to talk about today’s frame from any angle than that of the story. The only important thing I have to note, beyond the gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting of this dark Viennese street, is to look at the fingers themselves. Relatively innocuous, these fingers are long stately ones, cuticles clean and well tended, with no dirt under the nails. Hardly the fingers of Harry Lime, a man who has been scrabbling through the sewers in secret since his supposed death, nor of Orson Welles, who himself spent the weeks of shooting gallivanting around Europe. That is, of course, because they are not Harry’s or even Welles’ fingers, but instead the fingers of the film’s director, Carol Reed. As Matt pointed out a few weeks ago, Welles told the director “Carol, I can’t work in a sewer, I come from California.” And so, for this shot from the real Vienna sewers, Reed acted as Welles’ finger double. But there is a second level of elegance to these fingers’ placement in the film. It was, remember, Carol Reed’s voice that introduced our story, our setting, and our dastardly Harry Lime way back and the beginning of this tale. I find it a little poetic that it should be his hands, then, that offer us the last gesture of Harry’s life, since with his death, so dies the film. And, of course, so dies our project with it. Matt will post the final Still Dots #102 on November 30th. Thanks for reading.

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.