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Still Dots #100

Harry Lime — the dead man who became undead, then alive again; the phantom who permeated the streets of Vienna; the name that crossed the lips of every main character in The Third Man; the unseen face (for the first hour, anyway) whose devious charisma haunted the mind and memory of his friends, lovers, and […]

Second #6128, 102:08, Image © Studio Canal

Harry Lime — the dead man who became undead, then alive again; the phantom who permeated the streets of Vienna; the name that crossed the lips of every main character in The Third Man; the unseen face (for the first hour, anyway) whose devious charisma haunted the mind and memory of his friends, lovers, and enemies — is dead. Dropped by a bullet fired by his onetime best friend, Holly Martens, Harry has become one of those still dots he so imperiously exploited, as though they were simply entries in a monetary ledger. For our centuplicate Still Dots post, it seems fitting that the occasion is marked by the death of the film’s most godlike character (revealed to be a mere mortal after all), not to mention the morose evolution of Holly Martens from an idealistic, romantic scribbler of dime novels to a hardened realist, whose morals have been both bolstered and embattled. Today’s haunting still regards from afar Holly Martens, murderer (albeit a killer with ample ethical justification): the tunnel through which he’s about to pass is, perhaps, the passageway from optimistic naivete to soul-shattering disillusion.

Why did Holly Martens kill Harry Lime? The question seems both easily answerable and impossibly tricky. True, Calloway advised Holly not to “take any chances” and to fire upon Harry on sight (a word of advice/warning that may have more to do with Calloway’s anguish at the death of his partner and friend, Sergeant Paine), but Holly and Harry have a long, emotionally fraught standoff during which both men are armed — in other words, Harry could easily kill his friend if he wanted to. If Harry had seemed to advance threateningly towards Holly, gun drawn, in the Cafe Marc Aurel, something has changed in the last eight minutes of screen time — namely, it seems, Harry’s realization that the end is near. No longer intending to murder Holly, Harry instead offers him a slight nod, and with it implicit permission to heed Calloway’s advice and pull the trigger. That nod is vitally important: without it, Holly had given no indication that he would raise his gun against his onetime best friend.

This overwhelming murder scene, at once viscerally direct and ambiguous, may gain some clarity if we refer to Graham Greene’s novella of The Third Man (which he had not intended to publish and which was intended as a blueprint for the screenplay he would subsequently write). The murder of Harry Lime is narrated by Holly as such in Greene’s book:

“For a moment I thought he was dead, but then he whimpered with pain. I said, ‘Harry,’ and he swivelled his eyes with a great effort to my face. He was trying to speak, and I bent down to listen. ‘Bloody fool,’ he said — that was all. I don’t know whether he meant that for himself — some sort of act of contrition, however inadequate (he was a Catholic) — or was it for me — with my thousand a year taxed and my imaginary cattle-rustlers who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean? Then he began to whimper again. I couldn’t bear any more and I put a bullet through him.” (117)

This account differs crucially from its cinematic counterpart — there are no words shared by the two men in the film, and Holly’s tone is a bit more unambiguously contemptuous in the book — but Harry’s murder in the film seems as well to be a sympathetic mercy killing, and the notion of foolish human endeavors ending in violence and misery is retained (albeit more on Harry’s part). Harry truly does seem like a caged rat as he claws at the sewer grate above him, and Holly’s solemn gaze conveys pity more than anything else. But if Holly pulls the trigger primarily to put Harry out of his misery, he also (unwittingly, to be sure) allows Harry to retain his Übermensch mystique by killing him before he’s apprehended by the police. Can we imagine Harry Lime — the cavalier villain whose irrepressible charm was inseparable from his haughty contempt for the rest of humanity — succumbing to a prison sentence? Of course not; the man is outside and above any conception of law and order.

If we flash back to the two men’s complex conversation on the Riesenrad, we may remember that Harry told Holly, “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we?” Clearly, Harry has the ubiquitous visual evidence of World War II (manifested in the rubble that litters Vienna’s streets) to corroborate his claim — even to national governments, people are no more than dots with the potential to be stilled, albeit for military rather than economic purposes. Given his contempt for penal and political systems, Harry must resist arrest at all costs — preferably while surviving, but through self-sacrifice if necessary. Ironically, then, precisely when Holly believes he is committing the only morally just action — executing Harry for his barbaric crimes against humanity while simultaneously honoring his onetime best friend’s desire for death — he is in fact committing the immoral action of allowing Harry to remain outside the system of “civilized” law and order.

Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) in Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (1937). Image © Rialto Pictures & Janus Films.

What happened to Harry and Holly to estrange them from each other? Was it simply Harry’s personal devolution, or were social and political forces the real mechanism that drove them apart? It’s impossible to know for sure, but if it was in fact the war that contributed to the corrosion of Harry’s morality, then The Third Man acts as a parallel to Jean Renoir’s classic 1937 antiwar film, Grand Illusion. The film that Ginette Vincendeau says should be revisited as Renoir’s true masterpiece (over La Règle du jeu), Grand Illusion is, like The Third Man, a story of brotherly love dissolving into animosity and murder, with world war as the backdrop. The setting here is the first world war: two aristocrats, the German Captain von Rauffenstein (played with unparalleled Teutonic bravado by Erich von Stroheim) and the French Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), realize they share similar histories and numerous friends, each respecting the other’s gentlemanly honor even while de Boeldieu is held as von Rauffenstein’s prisoner of war. (Their first interaction is held over an elegant lunch shortly after de Boeldieu is shot down and captured.) There is genuine respect and affection between them, but that doesn’t stop the forces of nationalism and war from driving them apart: de Boeldieu offers to provide a distraction during two of his compatriots’ escape attempt, a scheme that von Rauffenstein uncovers in media res. While de Boeldieu’s fellow Frenchmen escape the military prison and hightail it to Switzerland, von Rauffenstein pleads with de Boeldieu to give himself up, knowing full well that his actions must face with execution otherwise; de Boeldieu refuses, forcing von Rauffenstein to shoot his friend (and wartime enemy) in the stomach (though he had meant to shoot him in the legs). In his dying moments, de Boeldieu pities a remorseful von Rauffenstein, predicting that the war will obliterate their aristocratic order and strand the German officer in a refashioned society that operates through mechanistic war and capitalism rather than pre-industrial class systems. In other words, the Great War ushers in both de Boeldieu’s and von Rauffenstein’s loss of innocence, tragically revealed by the murder of one friend by another.

Is this not what happens in The Third Man, with World War II replacing the Great War? Whether or not the war was primarily responsible for transforming Harry Lime into the callous nihilist we see in the film, it’s clear that the violence enacted by Harry, Holly, Calloway et al. is merely a condensation of the multinational warfare whose effects are strewn throughout the city of Vienna. The friendship between Holly and Harry, like the friendship between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, is eviscerated by a modern world that knows only violence, war, and greed. Hence the compassion between all of these men, even after two of them are shot by their friends: they all seem to be aware that they’re simply enacting global forces that engulf them, cataclysmically.

Today’s composition — a small figure at the vanishing point in the middle of the frame — is striking enough to be redeployed in The Third Man‘s famous final image, which we’ll discuss next week (Still Dots’ last!), though in that case an entirely different relationship has been irreversibly destroyed. Less solemnly, this composition would find its echo in the famous gun-barrel logo used 13 years later to open the first official James Bond movie, Dr. No (and to inaugurate every James Bond film thereafter). Interpreting the tunnel we see in Still Dots 100 as a gun barrel lends it a morbid and unsettling tone, as though Holly is immediately taunted by the very architecture of these sewers immediately after he shoots his friend. The strong backlighting and ghostly fog also serve to subtly establish Holly Martens as a newly phantasmal presence, his psyche unsettled by the emotional trauma he’s recently undergone (in a sense he steps into Harry Lime’s spectral, morally ambiguous shoes). More simply (yet just as powerfully), the sheer amount of darkness in this still represents the bitter reality into which Holly has so cruelly been thrust. (Whether or not he’s passed through this darkness into the light of realization, or passed through the light of blissful ignorance into the darkness of repulsed cynicism, is another question entirely.) If we want to get truly meta-cinematic, we can also say that this tunnel represents the aperture of a lens on a film camera, in which case the opening at which Holly stands acts as the focal plane and our vantage point is somewhere within the mechanical gears inside of the camera. (Obviously this is not intentional, but the mind likes to wander…) One thing is sure: the tunnel before him represents a formidable journey, both that which he’s already taken and that through which he will be forced to persevere. Like the silhouette of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at the end of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Holly’s silhouette signifies both truth and unknowing — the angst of standing before a world that can never be completely comprehended.

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.