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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 […]
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.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
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 […]
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 culpability—the fact that Holly won’t visually observe his own participation in his friend’s damnation—may 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.
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 most—Calloway, 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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
Two weekends ago, the Walker Cinema was host to a marathon screening of Mark Cousins’ expansive 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Adapted from Cousins’ own 2004 tome of the same name, The Story of Film seeks to do no less than offer “a refresher course in movie language,” spanning more than 120 […]
Two weekends ago, the Walker Cinema was host to a marathon screening of Mark Cousins’ expansive 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Adapted from Cousins’ own 2004 tome of the same name, The Story of Film seeks to do no less than offer “a refresher course in movie language,” spanning more than 120 years of cinema from six continents (and throwing in more than a thousand film clips to boot). An erudite critic from Northern Ireland (and, it becomes apparent immediately in The Story of Film, an impassioned cinephile), Cousins embarked upon this cinematic odyssey to shed light upon the undervalued corners of the cinematic globe, hoping to detail the entire evolution of an (albeit young) art form and the wonderland of visions it has offered us. But with a project as dense and all-encompassing as this one, there are bound to be a few leftover questions — which is exactly why Cousins offered to respond to queries posed by the Walker’s audience following our quintet of screenings two weeks ago. Cousins’ responses can be found below. Meanwhile, The Story of Film: An Odyssey will continue to screen for free in the Walker’s Lecture Room until December 30, with each successive installment screening for one week during gallery hours.
Dear Walker movie goers,
Thanks so much for going to see The Story of Film: An Odyssey. I was delighted that the Walker showed it. Thanks, too, to those of you who sent questions. My answers are below.
1. Although you try to be as all-encompassing as possible, do you think there are still drawbacks in forming a canon that must necessarily exclude and delimit? At the same time, what do you think is the value in creating canons—what kind of experience or knowledge do you want audiences to come away from The Story of Film with?
When I was a boy I read a music magazine called NME. One Christmas it polled its writers and critics, asking them which is, in their opinion, the best song ever released. “Walk on By “sung by Dionne Warwick came out top. As soon as possible, I went out and bought it (this was in the late 1970s). I tell you this story to show one way in which I think lists, and the canon, work. They force into public life, by deploying superlatives of whatever, work that perhaps is undervalued.
If our general sense of film history was broadly correct, if it only needed tweaking, then I would not be in the canon-making business. But our general sense of the past of cinema has SO many holes in it (a hole the size of the continent of Africa, of the achievements of women directors, etc.), that it needs radical re-organisation. It needs dynamiting. Lists and canons are good at that. The fear of excluding and delimiting sometimes prevents people from saying anything big. That fear often leads to a literature of footnoting or a cluttering of discourse. I passionately believe that we still have to establish (especially for young people and new movie lovers) a main melody, to use a phrase from China. Once it is established, then we can argue against it, write our own harmonies, etc. The Story of Film is an attempt at a new main melody. I know that sounds cocky or egotistical. But someone had to shake up the lazy (and I’d say racist) perceptions.
2. I was surprised there was no mention of the brilliant auteur Jim Jarmusch and his cinema – was there a reason for this?
Yes, space! In China, people rightly point out that I have not included (probably my favourite Chinese filmmaker) Fei Mu. In Finland people notice that their greatest director is not in there. In terms of American cinema there’s no Capra, Sturges, Anthony Mann, [Maya] Deren, etc. The list is long indeed. I love [Jim Jarmusch's] films (and the fact that he is the cinematic equivalent of Frank O’Hara’s poetry). But I had such limited space (we had to cut out four hours to get it down to 15 1/2 hours). Sorry about JJ. And Rohmer, and Lina Wertmüller and so many more. Not one person in the Western world has asked me why some of the great African directors that I have not included are not in there! Thanks for your question. You are quite right.
3. Were you aware of your own personal enthusiasm for genres or directors during the process of filmmaking? And do you think, for a project like this, subjective editorial decisions are beneficial or detrimental?
The story of film is, I think, objective at the structural level and subjective at the individual level. What I mean by this is that most conventional film history isn’t even interested in whether there is an Ethiopian cinema, or Chinese silent cinema, or Iranian cinema of the 60s. I think I wasn’t blind (or blinkered) to that kind of thing.
But if you move from the overview, the global view, to details, then I completely agree that my personal enthusiasms shine through. So, for example, once you decide that gender and sexuality is a theme in new Australian cinema (which I’d find it hard to disprove) then you can argue with me whether I was right to include, say, Jane Campion and Baz Luhrmann. I certainly think that they are both innovators (An Angel at my Table and Romeo + Juliet) but I totally accept that there are other filmmakers or directors that might have been included instead or as well. Thanks for your question.
4. Did you see the discovery of the color film from 1902? Did you have any discoveries like this while shooting The Story of Film? Or something that you felt like you were uncovering for the first time?
Yes, I saw that – those sunflowers and parrots! I got lots of media calls after those discoveries, most of which were asking about technology. But when I saw those flickering colour images I felt that I wasn’t learning something new about technology, I was seeing again the early thrill of movies discovering the joys of seeing (scopophilia). Those early inventors were sort of into money but far, far more, they were fueled by curiosity, discovery, and a sense of technology sailing close to the contours of human experience. The vitality that Van Gogh felt painting sunflowers is comparable to the excitement that those pioneers felt by filming sunflowers. Some people doubt this and think I am being too idealistic, but if you have ever been to Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey you’ll have seen his care, wonder, and the numinous feeling there.
5. There is a lack of avant-garde cinema in The Story of Film, as most of the material covered concerns narrative filmmaking. Was this exclusion intentional, and if so what was your reasoning?
Yes, I do not deal enough with avant-garde cinema. There’s Matthew Barney, Entr’acte, Cocteau, Douglas Gordon, Farough Farokzhad, Calvalcanti, Eisenstein, ’20s Japanese avant-garde, Kenneth Anger, L’Age d’Or, Walter Ruttmman, Bruce Conner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Souleymane Cisse’s Yeelen, etc., but there should be more. I don’t think TSOF focuses on narrative. In fact I’ve got Bill Forsyth saying that narrative in some way kills cinema, and I make the same point in regard to the movies of Ozu, Rossellini and Bresson. So my focus isn’t narrative but, yes, there should be more experimental cinema.
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 […]
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).
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.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
Anna Schmidt finally has some good fortune coming her way, for what might be the first time in months (or years?): her passport issues have finally been resolved with the Russian authorities, as she’s kindly escorted by Sergeant Paine onto a train presumably bound for her native Czechoslovakia. But at what price comes her freedom? […]
Anna Schmidt finally has some good fortune coming her way, for what might be the first time in months (or years?): her passport issues have finally been resolved with the Russian authorities, as she’s kindly escorted by Sergeant Paine onto a train presumably bound for her native Czechoslovakia. But at what price comes her freedom? For now, Anna assumes that Major Calloway has struck a deal with his Russian counterparts, though she’s flummoxed as to why he would suddenly take her side; Paine offers the unconvincing explanation that the Major has a soft spot for Anna, a claim belied by Calloway’s brusque treatment of her throughout the film. What the audience has just discovered (not to mention what Anna will soon learn, and what Jeremy recounted on Tuesday) is that Holly Martins has proposed a disturbing trade: Anna’s safety for Harry Lime’s apprehension, facilitated by Holly’s betrayal of his longtime friend.
Our last still conveyed Holly as a man whose “newly-learned realism has erased the romantic glimmer from his eyes”; by agreeing to rat on Harry in return for Anna’s freedom, Holly has basically ensured that “however things go, he cannot find a happy ending.” Actually, as we’ve discussed before, in Graham Greene’s original treatment Holly does find a happy ending: the novella that Greene prepared as a template for the script he would subsequently write ends with Major Calloway observing Holly and Anna from afar. “I watched him striding off on his overgrown legs after the girl,” concludes Greene’s novella. “He caught her up and they walked side by side. I don’t think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm — which is how a story usually begins. He was a very bad shot and a very bad judge of character, but he had a way with Westerns (a trick of tension) and with girls (I wouldn’t know what).”
Those who have already seen The Third Man, though, know that this is not how the film concludes: director Carol Reed and producer David O. Selznick won out in their preference for a bleak ending that would retain the film’s moral ambiguity and solemn worldview. With the melancholy final moments of the film now permanently imprinted in my memory, I can’t even imagine how the film would be changed if it ended with Greene’s intended note of uplift. Indeed, it almost seems like Holly’s moral transformation requires an unhappy ending: if his character arc essentially shifts from idealism to a dead-eyed cynicism assailed by the cruelties of the world, he must ultimately sacrifice his own happiness to arrive at such a desolate conclusion. It would be easy enough for Holly to hightail it out of Vienna, a city that has offered him nothing but doubt, loneliness, hopelessness, and angst; instead, he does everything he can for the woman he loves, although he may already be quite aware that Anna will never forgive him for his betrayal of Harry.
Betrayal is, of course, a predominant theme throughout much Western literature, but surprisingly there’s little consensus as to what the term actually means, psychologically and philosophically. The accepted psychological definition terms betrayal as a breach of social contract, though this terminology has been criticized for failing to incorporate the actual motivations, conditions, and effects of betrayal. Interestingly, artificial-intelligence researcher Selmer Bringsjord programmed the concept of betrayal into the core of a storytelling program tellingly named BRUTUS; in that case, betrayal was defined in the language of computer programming as “knowingly thwarting another out of something that ought to occur,” though this assumes that the betrayed necessarily has a right to that which they’re deprived of through betrayal. In The Third Man, Harry hardly seems entitled to the freedom and monetary wealth that his life of corruption, greed, and alienation have so far enabled for him; does this mean that Holly in fact doesn’t betray Harry, since Harry’s freedom and well-being is something that “ought not occur” in the first place? The question may be unanswerable, especially to Holly, who no doubt will feel the guilt from this quasi-ethical decision throughout the rest of his life.
There are, of course, numerous examples of betrayal in the arts, but the most pertinent (and, perhaps, totemic) example might be Richard Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the last in Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are actually numerous treacheries and betrayals that catalyze the opera’s plot, but the most nefarious character is unquestionably Hagen, the chief minister to the Lord of the Gibichungs, who sets in motion a plot to poison Siegfried and force him to betray his beloved, Brünnhilde. Hagen’s underlying scheme is to steal the all-powerful Ring of the Nibelungens that belongs to Siegfried; he does so by spearing Siegfried in the back (after a spurned Brünnhilde informs him that Siegfried is vulnerable there) and ultimately killing the king (and his half-brother) Gunther when he objects to Hagen’s duplicitous plan. Aside from being Hitler’s favorite opera, the inspiration for the title to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1888 book Götzen-Dämmerung (loosely translated: Twilight of the Idols/False Gods), and the etymology of the English usage of the term as a catastrophic endpoint, the Götterdämmerung presents betrayal of one man by another as a soul-shattering injustice that sets in motion an apocalyptic cycle of retribution and self-destruction. (Hence the burning of Valhalla at the climax of the opera: even the gods are consumed by flames.) Especially interesting are Hagen’s self-justifying words after he slays Siegfried: “Perjury avenges itself!,” referring to Siegfried’s supposed disloyalty to Brünnhilde (though that was itself a result of Hagen’s evil plot) and Hagen’s belief that Siegfried’s own betrayals sentenced him to a just execution. Obviously, then, Hagen’s words can only be seen as disingenuous, but would Holly claim the same of his “betrayal” of Harry: that “perjury avenges itself,” that Harry’s ultimate capture (or even his demise) are simply penance for his crimes against humanity? Either way, though The Third Man ends somewhat quietly and sadly, it still seems appropriate to apply the term götterdämmerung to it: a disastrous conclusion of events, an inevitable misery that Holly may have wittingly already set in motion.
To return to the world of The Third Man: as a somber Holly observes Anna boarding the train from a distance, aware that his presence there would clue her in to the covert deal he’s made with Calloway, the setting of the scene in a Viennese train station subsumed by steam and the lonely roar of trains chugging to life lends the moment tremendous drama and sadness. If we mentally rewind to the beginning of the film, we may recall that, after the sardonic opening voiceover provided by Carol Reed himself, the first scene of the story proper also takes place in a train station as Holly first arrives in the city. Compare Holly’s carefree exuberance in that scene with the bitterness that now pervades his every gesture; Holly has undergone a bleak epiphany, as he bears witness to the disheartening ways in which the world actually operates.
Trains and train stations have a long and intimate relationship with cinema: in fact, if we think about one of the Lumière Brothers’ first films, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) – the film that, according to oft-repeated (and perhaps exaggerated) accounts, sent audience members scrambling under their seats in a panic – we may realize that compositional depth in cinema was practically inaugurated by the movement of a train from the background to the foreground. In the early twentieth century, the moving vistas provided by train windows were seen as analogous to new forms of cinematic vision: both provided “screens,” or barriers between one world and the next, that allowed immobile spectators to observe life passing before their eyes.
To flash-forward to one of The Third Man‘s contemporaneous films, a train station provided a significant and melancholy setting to David Lean’s 1945 drama Brief Encounter. In that film, a suburban housewife (played by Celia Johnson) trapped in an affectionate but loveless marriage takes the train every week to the city to shop and visit the cinema; while waiting to board the train home one week, she meets an idealistic doctor (played by our own Major Calloway, Trevor Howard), also married with two children. They strike up a friendship that quickly (and against their will) transforms into love, yet when their initial attempt to spend an illicit afternoon together fails to transpire, they vow to part ways and never see each other again. But of course they do, in the milieu that originally thrust them together: the dining car of a train. They hope to reconnect, to be somehow thrown together, or at least have a proper farewell – but an acquaintance interrupts their tumultuous reunion, the doctor’s express train arrives, and the housewife (after contemplating throwing herself upon the tracks before an oncoming train) returns home to her family. Life for these two characters chugs along relentlessly, their paths interchanging briefly only to depart from the station again: quietly existential, Brief Encounter envisions life itself as a railway journey. Still Dots 82 similarly suggests that Holly’s time in Vienna, morally transformative and emotionally devastating though it is, is little more than a brief stopover: his train arrived, Anna’s will depart, their tracks will proceed in opposite directions. Yet for Holly, Anna, and Harry (not to mention for Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, or for Russell and Glen in Weekend , Andrew Haigh’s modern reincarnation of Brief Encounter) an entire figurative life plays out before the train leaves the station.
Holly and Harry have finally disembarked from the Ferris Wheel voyage that has revealed so many disconnections and fallouts between them: in the time it takes to revolve once on Vienna’s Riesenrad, Holly and Harry discover (if they weren’t already aware of it) that their once intimate friendship can no longer be rekindled. With seemingly […]
Holly and Harry have finally disembarked from the Ferris Wheel voyage that has revealed so many disconnections and fallouts between them: in the time it takes to revolve once on Vienna’s Riesenrad, Holly and Harry discover (if they weren’t already aware of it) that their once intimate friendship can no longer be rekindled. With seemingly effortless ingenuity (a trait common to much of The Third Man), the Ferris Wheel acts as both a logical narrative development (the two men absconding onto the amusement park ride in order to converse clandestinely, away from the public) and a potent visual symbol: Holly’s preconceptions about morality, politics, friendship, love, and so on have been upended, or loop-de-looped themselves, thanks to Harry’s shockingly candid nihilism.
In Still Dots 79, Jeremy swiftly laid out the amoral foundation of Harry Lime’s unabashedly anti-human worldview. Harry’s defense of his own actions (which may be little more than desperate self-justification of what basically amounts to rampant greed) seems indebted to Nietzsche’s “Noble Morality,” which (Jeremy wrote) “would stand in contrast to all world religions” and which points towards a recognition that our world is godless and favors merciless predators (or, to put it in modern terms, Bernie Madoff-esque capitalists). Harry’s/Nietzsche’s Noble Morality seems to offer humans the only true semblance of freedom available to us–behaving according to one’s own needs and desires, unfettered by notions of morality, nationality, religion, etc.–yet that freedom comes at the price of complete antipathy towards one’s fellow man. It’s hard to deny that something has triggered a complete breakdown in Harry’s sensitivity towards the rest of humanity, a callousness demonstrated not only by his pilfering of penicillin from those who desperately need it, yet also by his indifference towards the plight that Anna, his former lover, is currently undergoing. But perhaps, Jeremy surmised on Tuesday, all hope is not yet lost: it is at this point that Harry writes Anna’s name and a heart on the glass of the Ferris Wheel’s window, seemingly displaying “a more sensitive and emotional side of this charming badboy.” Here’s the still again, for reiteration:
I’m repeating all of this because this may be one of the few times that Jeremy and I have differing interpretations about the motivations of characters in The Third Man (a movie which, though it may seem straightforward and narratively explicit, contains its fair share of complexities and ambiguities). As much as I want to believe that there is some goodness left in Harry Lime, my interpretation is that he has long since given up hope that he will ever see Anna again; if he does still love her (or, an even more disturbing thought, if he ever did), that love now seems comprised more of pity than intimacy. It’s significant what Harry is saying while he’s actually inscribing Anna’s name onto the glass: “I believe in God and mercy and all of that, but…the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.” It is exactly at this moment that Harry raps his hand against the windowpane, drawing Holly’s attention to it. I believe that Anna is one of the “poor devils” Harry is alluding to, a condescending opinion of her that suggests an eagle looking down upon all of those still dots.
If there is a shred of goodness left in Harry, it’s in the fact that he is aware that Anna deserves an upstanding man who loves her in return, a role that he seems to think Holly can perform. After Holly spots Anna’s name on the window, Harry suggestively asks him, “What do you believe in?” The unspoken answer: decency, honor, loyalty, love…all the things Harry knows he himself is incapable of and that mean little to him. And a moment later, as they’re exiting the Riesenrad’s gondola, Harry says, “If you ever get Anna out of this mess, be kind to her. You’ll find she’s worth it.” Again, I think Harry has no intention of ever seeing Anna again and wants Holly to watch over her in his absence. He may have some fondness for her, then, but hardly love: there is no remorse in his apparent decision to cut off all ties with her. Harry’s ambivalent attitude towards Anna and his desire for Holly to watch over her reminds me of the tumultuous affair(s) between Catherine, Jules, and Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), one of the most heartbreaking films about the amorphous nature of love that I can think of (not to mention a movie whose devastating ending in some ways echoes The Third Man‘s unhappy conclusion).
But for now, love is the last thing on Harry’s mind: as he and Holly exit the Ferris Wheel, Harry – prattling on while Holly, visibly despondent, says nary a word – insultingly invites his old friend to participate in his racketeering scheme. “There’s nobody left in Vienna I can really trust, and we’ve always done everything together,” he says. Yet even Harry seems aware that Holly’s rigid ethical code would never allow for such criminality: barring Holly’s exit with an imposingly outstretched arm, Harry grumbles, “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see…not the police.”
At last we arrive at today’s still, which foregrounds Harry against a few advertisements that once again hint towards the spectral presence of capitalism, permeating Vienna like a ubiquitous fog. These ads seem to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the rubble-strewn, poverty-ridden cobblestone streets of the city: only a minority of Vienna’s population would have the economic luxury of indulging in the products these advertisements are pitching. In much the same way, Harry always stands outside of the economic state of the city he’s exploited; he has relied upon Vienna’s poverty to facilitate his black-market wheelings and dealings, but necessarily hovers over it, inextricably tied to the city’s postwar capitalism yet never a part of it. To return to Nietzsche’s parable of Noble Morality, Harry is the capitalist eagle preying upon the downtrodden sheep (Harry would call them the “suckers and mugs”); or, to further our love affair with Nietzsche, he’s an Übermensch who has arisen out of the nihilistic moral vacuum that resulted from the abandonment of religious values, a creator of new values in which no action can reasonably be defended or decried moralistically. Harry’s “new values” are obviously not of the humanistic or positive sort, which aligns with Nietzsche’s own declaration that the Übermensch was not even close to a democratic, idealistic, or humanitarian figure.
The advertisements behind Harry in this shot also bring to mind a 1918 article written by the Surrealist Louis Aragon in Le Film, in which Aragon applauds the appearance of signs, posters, and other commercial inscriptions in contemporary films:
Before the appearance of the cinematograph hardly any artist dared use the false harmony of machines and the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, evocative lettering, really common objects, everything that celebrates life, not some artificial convention that excludes corned beef and tins of polish… Those letters advertising a make of soap are the equivalent of letters on an obelisk or the inscription in a book of spells: they describe the fate of an era.
In typical Surrealist fashion, Aragon found a transfixing, almost magical embodiment of the modern era in such pop-culture vulgarities; he and other Surrealists (such as Robert Desnos and Guillaume Apollinaire) thought that cinema was the most modern of art forms in its appeal to the lower classes and in its reliance on mechanistic technology, which was correlated with similarly mechanistic advances in transportation (streetcars, automobiles) and communication (telegraphs and telephones). If the posters and common items of films in the 1910s displayed an “obsessive beauty…that celebrates life” (to Aragon), then the posters we see in Still Dots 80 are like their evil twin: emblems not of capitalism’s newness and universality but of its inhumanity and violent class stratifications, mirrored by Harry Lime himself.
Maybe more importantly, it is also during this shot that Harry voices what must be The Third Man‘s most celebrated bit of dialogue (and one of the few passages that was definitively written by Orson Welles rather than Graham Greene): the cuckoo-clock speech. With overzealous good cheer, Harry provides these parting words before he leaves a dead-eyed Holly:
Don’t be so gloomy! After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said: in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly!
The published version of Greene’s screenplay includes a footnote that describes the origins of this speech: Reed simply realized they needed to interject another bit of dialogue to act as a bridge between Holly and Harry’s farewell and the subsequent scene. Welles came up with the lines himself, later claiming they came from “an old Hungarian play.” (Shades here of the “old Hungarian jokes” that Welles anecdotally relates in his 1973 film F for Fake.) In fact, the dialogue may have come from a lecture on art given in 1885 by the painter Whistler, which reads in part: “The Swiss in their mountains… What more worthy people!… Yet, the perverse and scornful [goddess of Art] will have none of it, and the sons of patriots are left with the clock that turns the mill, and the sudden cuckoo, with difficulty restrained in its box! For this was Tell a hero! For this did Gessler die!” (This is in reference to the brutal rule of Albrecht Gessler and the rebellion of William Tell, which resulted in the formation of the Swiss Confederacy. Connections and allusions abound…)
In spite of its historical inaccuracy (cuckoo clocks are actually native to Germany, and Switzerland had a feared military during the reign of the Borgias), this speech obviously reaffirms Harry Lime as a nihilist who is aware of his own amorality yet believes this is a natural (and perhaps even admirable) way for human beings to behave. If the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin believed that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion,” maybe Harry’s belief (shared axiomatically by many other people) that destructive or turbulent circumstances give rise to profound works of art is a way to find value in violence and inhumanity. At the root of Harry’s villainy is still a perfidious self-interest bestowed by capitalism, but Harry (undoubtedly intelligent, not to mention charismatic) tries to use historical allusion and philosophical double-speak to defend his actions (or at least prove they can’t be decried or defended).
Bakunin also claimed that true liberty is “the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority,” which brings us circuitously back to Nietzsche and his Übermensch: freedom only arises when man disregards all notions of religious, political, or social morality and creates his own ethical code. In other words, there are no innate, natural values by which humanity must abide. Nietzsche (like Harry) even alluded to the Borgias himself while explicating his theory of the Übermensch, claiming (in Ecce Homo) that this hypothetical liberator was closer to the despot Cesare Borgia than to the noble Percival, Knight of the Round Table. (Maybe Mr. Lime has read Thus Spoke Zarathustra? The connections are mind-boggling!) In any case, Harry’s parting words offer a succinct snapshot of the man himself: charming, magnetic, intelligent, clever, yet also terrifyingly cruel and inhumane. While he slithers away from Holly, sending him smirking glances from behind a carousel teeming with blissfully innocent children, a cycle of vengeance and destruction seems set in motion that will plunge the two men further into bitter antagonism. The carousel spins, the Riesenrad revolves: everything (at least to Holly) seems shockingly different, but maybe it’s just the same pattern all over again.
Second #4774, 79:34, Image © Studio Canal Holly’s look says it all: if he had any doubts before, he now doubtlessly considers his onetime best friend Harry Lime as not only a threat but a despicable human being, an amoral nihilist who has come to embrace the worst tenets of both capitalism and modern political warfare. […]
Second #4774, 79:34, Image © Studio Canal
Holly’s look says it all: if he had any doubts before, he now doubtlessly considers his onetime best friend Harry Lime as not only a threat but a despicable human being, an amoral nihilist who has come to embrace the worst tenets of both capitalism and modern political warfare. On Tuesday, Jeremy succinctly recapped Harry’s speech on the Riesenrad, a dialogue sequence rightfully regarded as one of The Third Man‘s most powerful moments. It’s hardly a coincidence that Harry’s speech also summarizes many of the movie’s most prominent (if implicit) themes, especially that a modern world that functions via war and the neverending accumulation of money can only inspire its global citizens to behave in similarly inhumane ways. Or, as Harry tells Holly: “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the Proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.”
Jeremy rightfully proposed that this essentially capitalist tenet has become Harry’s raison d’être, yet this is also the rationale that propels countries and normally peace-loving and decent people into war: the belief (fueled, especially during World War II, by rabid propaganda, often of the cinematic variety) that the enemy is comprised of non-human beings who need to be eradicated, if only for the self-preservation of one’s countryland. In other words, if war can be seen (cynically, yet logically) as an elaborate ploy for bolstering the power of capitalism, and if capitalism can be seen as an ongoing economic war between the powerful and the powerless, then Harry’s embrace of the one might go hand-in-hand with the other: he certainly embraces capitalism, so maybe he also envisions his racketeering as a one-man war against the world, or at least against caring about the world around him.
Harry concludes his spiel about simply following the precedent established by international governments with a political quip: “They have their Five Year Plans…and so have I!” His reference is to the centralized economic plans developed by the Soviet state as early as 1928; ultimately, there were 13 Five-Year Plans developed in the Soviet Union, the last of which was proposed in 1991 (and swiftly abandoned with the collapse of the Soviet Union that year). Numerous Communist countries throughout the world developed similar economic plans, among them China, Vietnam, Argentina, Cuba, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and several others. Nazi Germany even developed its own Four Year Plan in 1936 in order to prepare for imminent world war. Essentially, the Soviet Five-Year Plans were designed to advance the country’s industry and manufacturing capabilities in order to compete with other world powers; most of the plans drew on the Theory of Productive Forces, which suggested that before a state can achieve a truly socialist or Communist government, it must advance technologically and produce enough wealth in order to satisfy whole populations. Redistribution of wealth can only occur if there’s enough wealth to go around. What I find interesting about this theory is that is sounds a lot like capitalism, though in the Soviet case the infrastructures of manufacturing and production were of course orchestrated by government, rather than free-market, forces. In either case, equality among all classes cannot exist until those in power establish a system of unimpeded production and advancement. If the Theory of Productive Forces suggests a sort of capitalism-on-steroids ostensibly in the service of an eventually socialist economy, then maybe Harry Lime is skewing the tenets of capitalism to meet his own ends in a similar fashion: accumulating massive wealth for himself, without the ultimate aims of either free-market exchange or class equality. Harry Lime has fashioned his own one-man economy, perhaps seeing himself as a “country” in and of himself. In other words, Harry Lime is like a more unsettling version of Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup: a self-fashioned one-man country whose political aims are comprised only of satisfying his own whims and desires.
Holly may have pushed for this meeting with Harry partially in the hopes that his friend would try to explain himself, or at least show some glimmer of the presumably decent man that Holly once knew and loved. At some point during their topsy-turvy Ferris Wheel ride, however, Holly—naive though he is—must surely realize that Harry poses a mortal danger to him. Harry opens the door to their gondola precisely when he drawls, with his natural charisma, “There’s no proof against me…besides you.” The two have a tense staring contest until Holly defiantly takes a step towards the open doorway: “I should be pretty easy to get rid of,” he says tauntingly. Holly is testing Harry, of course, seeing if this racketeer is truly heartless enough to send his longtime friend plummeting to his death—even if a definite answer comes at the price of his own demise. The moment is reminiscent of scenes from several Hitchcock films, most notably Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which Holly Martins himself—Joseph Cotten—plays the “Merry Widow Murderer,” whose niece finds out that her beloved uncle is in fact a serial killer. The second half of the film features numerous scenes in which the niece (Teresa Wright), named Charlotte after her Uncle Charlie (Cotten), attempts to ascertain his guilt partially by placing herself in potentially lethal situations. In both Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man, we have a good-hearted moralist testing the murderous proclivities of the villain by exposing themselves to danger, though we’re far less certain of Harry’s desire to murder Holly than we are of Uncle Charlie’s outright villainy.
True, a moment later Harry steps away from the open door and bellows, “Holly! What fools we are talking to each other this way, as though I’d do anything to you, or you to me!” Of course, this is right after Holly tells him that they’ve dug up his coffin, revealing the corpse of Joseph Harbin—in other words, further proof that Harry Lime is alive, making Holly’s murder pointless. Does Harry abstain from murdering his friend because he has a shred of goodness left in him, or because he’s realized that it would serve no purpose whatsoever? The answer depends on whether you view Harry as a compromised human being or a soulless monster, and one of the complex pleasures of The Third Man is that there’s evidence to support either conclusion.
Last week, we mentioned that Harry quotes A Tale of Two Cities‘ celebrated closing passage (“It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…”) in order to claim that straightforward heroism is no longer possible in the modern world; ironically, the same quote is cited directly by Alfred in The Dark Knight Rises to claim that such heroism is still possible (and manifested by Batman, of course), but that such heroism might now require manipulation, dishonesty, vigilantism, and a sort of soul-shattering violence of its own. This citation is not the only thing that The Third Man and The Dark Knight Rises have in common: Harry Lime sees capitalism as war, just as Bane, Selina Kyle, and Talia al Ghul do in Nolan’s film (to varying degrees). If the French Revolution and its idealized radicalism simply replaced absolute monarchy with the still-stratified social hierarchy of modern capitalism, that Reign of Terror makes a horrific reappearance in The Dark Knight Rises, complete with the Scarecrow filling Robespierre’s role of bloodthirsty executioner. As this fascinating Film Quarterly article points out, the politics in Nolan’s film are muddled to say the least (the movie undeniably conveys the class warfare endemic to capitalism, yet also can’t see a radical reformation of economy and society as anything but cataclysmic), but what’s surprising in relation to The Third Man is how unprincipled Harry Lime seems by comparison. Loyalty and allegiance are central thematic motifs in The Dark Knight Rises—Talia al Ghul fights for her father’s legacy, Bane wages war out of love for Talia, Batman/Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon are devoted to a peculiarly deformed modern version of justice, and even Selina Kyle enacts a vengeful anger engendered by capitalism’s class hierarchies—yet Harry Lime has clearly eschewed moralism altogether, finding it an outdated myth in a modern world devoted to self-preservation. He’s aware of how inhumane capitalism is yet has no qualms about turning it into his own method of operating; he’s allowed the world’s injustices to creep into him and fester into a meaningless nihilism.
What’s more, Harry recognizes that he and Holly are diametric opposites (whereas another of the The Dark Knight Rises‘ themes is that Bruce Wayne realizes how similar he is to both Bane and Selina Kyle in significant ways): if Harry is an amoral nihilist, he recognizes in Holly a righteous, morally-upstanding romantic. Perhaps Holly has been able to preserve his code of ethics by creating cowboy heroes in his own paperback novels who operate by the same system of rigid good and evil (as Harry himself suggests). Meanwhile, we know practically nothing about what Harry did during the war, what harsh truths he may have been faced with (indeed, we don’t even know if he fought as a soldier). Harry’s recognition of his own opposition to Holly suggests that he already knows how combative their roles are: more than Holly, he may recognize that the two former friends have become nemeses. Maybe he even has a premonition of how their relationship will end, a sobering realization that the two of them will never truly connect again. Unable to believe in the same presumptions and philosophies as Holly, Harry has become disgusted with the world and acts accordingly. He’s trying to survive as doggedly as possible, of course, yet maybe he secretly longs for the same fate as the “poor devils” whom he deprived of penicillin, and whose lives on this earth he brought to a premature end.
Second #4650, 77:30, Image © Studio Canal Although Harry Lime has, as Jeremy pointed out on Tuesday, already made several fleeting appearances in The Third Man, today’s still is the first time we see him as a flesh-and-blood human being, awkwardly posed mid-sentence, interacting with Holly Martins in a more-than-spectral manner for the first time. Of […]
Second #4650, 77:30, Image © Studio Canal
Although Harry Lime has, as Jeremy pointed out on Tuesday, already made several fleeting appearances in The Third Man, today’s still is the first time we see him as a flesh-and-blood human being, awkwardly posed mid-sentence, interacting with Holly Martins in a more-than-spectral manner for the first time. Of course, this is also the first scene in which we hear Orson Welles’ mellifluous speaking voice: the actor may not have had “a face for radio,” but he certainly had a voice for it.
As the two former friends properly reunite for the first time, the Prater amusement park seems abandoned: not a soul can be seen as Harry boldly strides up to Holly, outstretching his arm for a handshake and bellowing an overly enthusiastic, “Hello old man!” Holly’s refusal to hold out his hand in return must surely clue Harry in to his friend’s perturbed state of mind. It is also at this point that a throng of Viennese people start coming out of the woodwork, as it were, bustling past Harry and Holly and boarding the carousel behind them. The sudden appearance of everyday civilians (including a mother and her bundled-up children) in this otherwise ghostly amusement park—in other words, of some semblance of normalcy—is unexpected, even surreal; the movie’s sudden leap from eerie desolation to bustling activity reverses Harry Lime’s own “transformation” from idolized, dead-and-buried old pal to revived, reviled criminal racketeer (from life to death and back again). The absence of any human figures in the frame while Holly waits anxiously for Harry is also simply Directing 101: create tension by removing all relatable characters from the frame (with only dilapidated theme-park rides and structures in the background), then throw in a bustle of activity when the scene’s Mystery Guest finally arrives. Decades later, Paul Thomas Anderson used a similar technique for Barry and Lena’s euphoric Hawaiian reunion in Punch-Drunk Love—though in that case, the sudden leap from emptiness to overactivity of course serves a completely different purpose.
In any case, the sudden arrival of bystanders within earshot forces Harry and Holly to duck into one of the Ferris Wheel’s cars, just as the apparently dormant ride lurches back to life. This transition results in one of The Third Man‘s most abstract, geometric intercuts: Robert Krasker’s camera views the Ferris Wheel from below in a maze-like composition of stark diagonals and rigid squares-within-squares.
If The Third Man repeatedly disorients the viewer by turning Vienna’s urban topography into a distorted amalgam of lines and shapes, this shot does the same with the Ferris Wheel, turning a site of leisure and innocence into something unsettling and unfamiliar. We could even call the shot symbolic: if Holly and Harry are both “trapped” in a postwar world of outmoded moralism and barbaric avarice, that inescapability is reinforced by this shot, which creates a vortex from which neither character can seemingly break free. The fact that this amusement-park ride is no longer a sign of carefree innocence is even recognized by Harry, who tells Holly that “kids used to ride this thing a lot in the old days, but they haven’t the money now, poor devils.”
This happens as Harry gives a generous tip to an obviously grateful ride attendant, a seemingly throwaway gesture which begs a number of questions. If Harry deprives Vienna of its penicillin in an abhorrent ploy for money, does he think he’s “giving back to the community” by recognizing its poverty and empathizing with its lower classes? Was he really under the impression that he was hurting nobody with his black-market scam? Or did he think that the resultant deaths and mental breakdowns caused by his racket were simply part of the process, unfortunate casualties of a capitalistic system that prioritizes self-preservation and economic gain above all else? Some of these questions may be partly answered by the ensuing dialogue scenes (which we’ll tackle next week—including one that gives our Still Dots series its name), but it’s impossible to ignore the hypocrisy suggested by Harry’s gesture: he’s kind to individuals with whom he’s in close contact but indifferent to humanity as a whole, which again may simply be a symptom of living in a world that’s taken global war to be the natural way of functioning.
Still Dots 76 comes in the midst of a heated exchange about none other than Anna Schmidt: after Harry complains about his infernal indigestion (a malady which brings to mind Popescu’s assertion that drinking alcohol “makes [him] acid”—maybe it’s guilt or some kind of decay of the soul causing their heartburn), Holly notifies him that “his girl” has been handed over to the Russians for her passport inconsistencies. Maybe Holly is testing Harry, seeing if this news causes any remorse or sadness in his seemingly emotionless friend. If this is the case, Harry fails the test: “What can I do, old man?!,” he says smarmily. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” We’ve heard tales of Harry’s charm before, which is in full effect in this scene; but maybe we’ve been holding out hope that he’s misunderstood or at least cognizant of his own villainy, that he’s somehow affected by the crimes he’s committed. What’s striking in this scene is how self-obsessed and callous Harry is even as he lays on the charm: one wonders if he’s undergone a bleak transformation since he and Holly were such good friends.
Indeed, whatever friendship they used to have seems to be quickly crumbling away, not only because of Holly’s revulsion towards Harry’s crimes but because Harry is obviously suspicious of Holly’s iron-clad sense of justice and morality. Holly is understandably outraged at Harry’s indifference towards Anna; he thinks Harry should give himself up or at least call upon one of his contacts in the military police. Harry responds incredulously: “What, do you expect me to give myself up? ‘It’s a far, far better thing that I do…’? The old limelight, the fall of the curtain? Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes, the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.” (It’s at this point that his indigestion acts up again.) There’s a lot going on in this exchange, obviously: in addition to Harry’s punning reference to his own last name and his A Tale of Two Cities reference, he’s practically summing up many of the themes that Jeremy and I have hypothesized since the start of Still Dots. Central here is the idea that heroism and right-and-wrong morality don’t exist anymore in the modern world, that they’re outdated myths from old Westerns and folktales from pre-industrial societies. (The most film noir element in The Third Man, aside from its shadowy lighting, might be this thematic interest in the blurring of black-and-white notions of good and evil.) Maybe Harry is simply trying to rationalize his own behavior, but he might be right that the sacrificial heroism of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is impossible today; indeed, it’s perversely antithetical to the whole system of industrial capitalism. In Dickens’ book, the entrenchment of this all-powerful economic system hadn’t yet taken place, but the tyrants whom the French Revolution was meant to overthrow may have been its forebears. As the Marquis St. Evrémonde says in A Tale of Two Cities, “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery…will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof…shuts out the sky.” Perhaps it is this deference of fear and slavery, made even more powerful given the meteoric rise of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century, that is motivating Harry Lime, causing him to protect himself monetarily at all costs. We’ll discover next week just how fully this inhumane mindset has infested Mr. Lime.
Obviously this is a thematically and visually dense 62 seconds; indeed, this whole scene will provide plenty of meat to pick apart in the near future. It may or may not provide the key to decoding Harry Lime’s ambiguous behavior; at the very least, it strongly conveys his paradoxical charming-yet-unsettling demeanor. In any case, The Third Man‘s deft blending of emotional resonance, thematic complexity, visual innovation, and big-budget entertainment brings to mind another classic about the damning repercussions of greed and alienation: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John Huston and based on B. Traven’s 1927 novel. One of the first Hollywood films to be filmed almost entirely on location (in Mexico), which already raises comparison to The Third Man‘s location shooting in Vienna, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre also made the point that a false and manmade cycle of greed and self-preservation sets a disastrous precedent for violent inhumanity. As the doomed Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) ponders in the clip below, money may in fact be the root of all evil, the very idea of which torments human individuals in modern capitalism; or, on the other hand, money can destroy or rescue individuals, depending on their inherent goodness, their own self-forged ethical code. If the latter interpretation is true, then something must have been severely unbalanced in the charismatic, larger-than-life Harry Lime, even from the start.
Second #4526, 75:26, Image © Studio Canal Holly has turned up at Baron Kurtz’s apartment, only to find that the shady Baron (slash-violinist at the Casanova Club) is joined by Dr. Winkel, the man whose name Holly could never pronounce. (After all, Holly’s only finally stopped calling Calloway “Callahan”; we shouldn’t expect him to start saying Vink-el any time […]
Second #4526, 75:26, Image © Studio Canal
Holly has turned up at Baron Kurtz’s apartment, only to find that the shady Baron (slash-violinist at the Casanova Club) is joined by Dr. Winkel, the man whose name Holly could never pronounce. (After all, Holly’s only finally stopped calling Calloway “Callahan”; we shouldn’t expect him to start saying Vink-el any time soon.) Actually, Holly’s not looking for Kurtz or Winkel: he’s calling out Harry Lime, the elusive Third Man, wisely opting to remain outside rather than accept Kurtz’s suspicious invitation upstairs. “Tell him I’ll wait by that big wheel there,” Holly says, full of petulant bluster, gesturing towards the immense Ferris Wheel behind him.
The “big wheel” behind Holly is actually the Wiener Riesenrad, a 212-foot tall Ferris Wheel at the entrance of the Prater amusement park in Leopoldstadt, a district of Vienna. The Riesenrad has become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, thanks partially to The Third Man itself. Originally built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I, the Riesenrad was scarred by the violence of World War II like much of Vienna around it: the ride was rebuilt after undergoing severe damage during the war, and its second incarnation had only half of the gondolas that the original creation did. After demarcating European exoticism in The Third Man as well as Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, made a year earlier in 1948, the Riesenrad would reappear as a signpost for Vienna in later films such as Scorpio (1973), Before Sunset (1995), and The Living Daylights (1987), one of two Bond movies featuring Timothy Dalton. Dalton and Maryam d’Abo’s scenes aboard the Riesenrad in that movie, though, are about as far as possible from the Welles-Cotten scenes aboard the Ferris Wheel in The Third Man, as we’ll see next week. A towering structure driven by an endless cycle of revolution and repetition, the Riesenrad as a machine offers a succinct visual symbol for The Third Man‘s themes of inverted moral codes and an ongoing cycle of violence and symptomatic apathy. It’s cliched to say that a movie or a character arc resembles a roller coaster, but the metaphor is apt for Holly, whose last several days in Vienna have surely turned his world upside-down.
It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that the view of Vienna offered to us in this scene is a bleak, desolate one. Of course there’s the background of Still Dots 74 itself, what with the skeletal, bare trees clawing their way towards the sky throughout the frame and the surreal absence of any kind of structure (residential or commercial) in the distance. Maybe more importantly, though, there’s also a preceding shot as Holly approaches Kurtz’s pockmarked apartment building in which a number of construction workers can be seen toiling away on a vast pile of rubble. An image that must have been depressingly familiar in postwar Vienna, this scene’s location shooting makes brilliant use of Vienna’s real-world traumas: the visible injuries undergone by the city act as outward manifestations of the psychological turmoil currently raging in both Harry Lime and Holly Martins.
We might say that Still Dots 74 exists on a fulcrum: we’re teetering on a turning point in The Third Man, a movie which might be bisected into “pre-Harry Lime” and “post-Harry Lime.” A less sophisticated modern movie might put its big twist at the end, drumming up anticipation by letting viewers guess what the climactic surprise might be, but that plot structure would allow no time for rumination about what it means that Harry Lime is still alive. The Third Man, however, resurrects Lime with a dense half hour left in the movie; rather than a mere marketable plot twist, this grand reveal also complicates and subverts the emotional connections and thematic concepts the movie has conveyed thus far. While Anna is discombobulated by the news that her lover is still alive – all other news (including the fact that Joseph Harbin’s corpse was in Harry’s coffin) dwarfs in comparison, meaning nothing to her – Holly has become outraged by his former friend’s subterfuge. After Holly tells Kurtz that he wants to speak with Harry, the Baron responds with faux incredulity: “Are you mad?” “Alright, I’m mad,” Holly responds. “I’ve seen a ghost. You tell Harry I want to see him!” Holly’s wording is more apt than he might realize: now able to play the spurned best friend betrayed by the man he thought he knew best, Holly’s solo investigation has taken on even greater emotional heft. As we’ll see over the next couple of weeks, Harry will drive an ideological as well as an emotional wedge into Holly’s preconceptions: if Martins’ moral code is still (temporarily) rigid despite the revelations he’s been faced with, that moral code will soon be endangered by Harry’s existentialism-infused explanations for his own behavior.
Ferris wheels, like any amusement park ride, are usually associated with leisure and youthful innocence, yet we can tell from today’s still that the Riesenrad serves a different purpose here. Just as the Ferris wheel in Still Dots 74 is foregrounded against a blanket of gray, depressingly vacant except for Holly and the frail trees that surround it, this tourist attraction will also become the site for tense, unsettling debates regarding morality, corruption, war, and human cruelty. Perhaps the cataclysmic fallout of World War II has been so pervasive that it even infects amusement parks and playgrounds – former sites of innocence and joy. But The Third Man is hardly the only movie to juxtapose the carefree allure of amusement park rides with a jarring depiction of violence and moral weakness. Two years later, for example, the Master of Suspense himself would utilize a breakneck carousel during the climax of Strangers on a Train (1951). Whether or not he was directly influenced by the towering Riesenrad in The Third Man, Hitchcock’s use of the carousel (itself echoed in the opening of John Woo’s Face/Off) similarly takes a symbol of youthful vitality and subverts it to demonstrate human corruptibility run amok. Even more disheartening: the cyclical nature of both carousels and Ferris wheels suggest that, even after the crimes of Harry Lime and Strangers on a Train‘s Bruno Anthony have been persecuted, the machine-like pattern of violence, greed, and corruption will repeat itself, albeit in updated forms. Marx’s dialectical materialism teaches us the same thing: despite the cause-and-effect patterns that humans may set in motion, history will repeat itself as general patterns of human behavior predominate. It’s history as a Ferris wheel, in other words, and as we’ll discover next week, from the vantage point of one of the Riesenrad’s gondolas, human behavior takes on a decidedly skewed and discomforting appearance.
Second #4402, 73:22, Image © Studio Canal At military headquarters, Anna is being ushered up a desolate staircase by a throng of officers as Holly spots her approaching. Anxiously, he tries to break through their protective entourage in order to divulge what she still does not know: Harry Lime is alive. “I’ve just seen a dead man […]
Second #4402, 73:22, Image © Studio Canal
At military headquarters, Anna is being ushered up a desolate staircase by a throng of officers as Holly spots her approaching. Anxiously, he tries to break through their protective entourage in order to divulge what she still does not know: Harry Lime is alive. “I’ve just seen a dead man walking!,” Holly says to her incredulously. “I saw him buried, and now I’ve seen him alive!” The uncanny thus raises its monstrous head again, though Holly is aware that there’s no black magic going on here: the corpse inside of Harry’s coffin is actually that of Joseph Harbin, the hospital employee who supplied Harry and his gang with their black-market penicillin. It is at this point that Major Calloway—a character positioned somewhere between grizzled empathy and callous bureaucracy, whom both Holly and the audience still can’t make up their minds about—emerges from his office. Disinterested in Anna’s forged passport, Calloway pulls Anna aside to grill her about Harry Lime’s whereabouts (a poignant interrogation we’ll save for next week).
As a character, Calloway seems at first glance like little more than a narrative cog in the machine: a foil to Holly’s lone investigator, a device to provide information and push the story along. As played by Trevor Howard, though, Calloway comes off as something a little more than this (especially later in the film). A British major stationed in Vienna in 1949, Calloway must certainly have seen action during the war; as such, his stony, world-weary demeanor may be a result of his presumably sobering military stint. For most of the first part of the film, Calloway is too busy deflecting Holly’s petulant criticisms to show much of a human side; but it may be the scene in which he proves Harry’s guilt to Holly (utilizing a wealth of filmstrips, photographs, fingerprints, handwriting samples, and so on) that we get a fleeting yet revealing glimpse of Calloway’s empathy. True, at first Calloway’s buddy-buddy friendliness seems like a ploy to get Holly on his side: he flatters Holly by mentioning his book The Lone Rider of Santa Fe immediately after revealing that Harry is actually a murderer. Yet after Calloway’s parade of evidence, before Holly returns to his hotel for what he presumes to be his last night in Vienna, Calloway offers a surprisingly heartfelt “I’m sorry, Martins.” It is also immediately after Holly’s departure that the Russian MP enters Calloway’s office regarding Anna’s forged passport; Calloway responds with a disheartened, “We’re not really going to pick her up for that, are we?” The Russian officer responds by saying, “What can we do? We have our instructions,” which is echoed by the British officer who tells Anna, right before she’s escorted to military HQ, “Sorry, miss, it’s orders. We can’t go against the protocol.” This “I was only following orders!” mea culpa offers an indirect connection to wartime atrocities, what with the common excuse that German soldiers were only obeying Hitler’s orders. War is thus seen as a bureaucratic system in itself, run not unlike a modern business in which the obedience of subservients is necessary for the enterprise to function.
We’ve briefly discussed the star personae and extracinematic public image of Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Alida Valli; it might be time we do so for Trevor Howard as well. One of the most well-known actors in British postwar film, Howard actually got his start on the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; he even turned down a contract offered by Paramount in 1935, choosing to work on the stage rather than in film (at least initially). After volunteering for (but being turned down by) both the Royal Air Force and the British Army after the start of the war, Howard was called up to the airborne division of the Royal Corps of Signals in 1940; he fought in the Allied invasion of Sicily and parachuted into Nazi-occupied Norway. Stories of Howard’s wartime courage were distributed widely in the press following the start of his film career, but many of these tales were revealed to be fabrications by publicists and studios. (In actuality, Howard was eventually discharged from the army for mental instability and a purportedly “psychopathic personality.”)
Howard began dabbling in film after the war, at which time a role in 1945’s The Way to the Stars led to his breakout performance in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (also 1945). The appeal of international travel nudged him away from theater towards film, and soon came his role as Major Calloway—thus establishing a hard-eged yet shrewd persona for which Howard would soon become semi-typecast. (In the “interesting trivia” category: while shooting The Third Man, Howard, still in his British MP costume, wandered the Russian sector of Vienna and was promptly arrested by Russian soldiers. He was returned to the film’s set as soon as his identity was ascertained.) Throughout his career, Howard worked often with David Lean and stood out in performances (on both stage and screen) ranging from Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew to Ingrid Bergman’s paramour Løvborg in Hedda Gabler to the head of the Kryptonian Council in Superman. From 1947 to 1952 Howard was deemed one of British cinema’s top ten box office draws, a fact which points towards The Third Man‘s big-budget, prestige production status (given Howard’s relatively small role in the film).
For some reason I want to imbue the character of Calloway with a great deal of poignancy and melancholy, perhaps because of Howard’s natural magnetism in the role. If Calloway did experience the traumas of war firsthand (as Howard himself did), how does he feel now, stuck in a postwar Vienna that is still occupied by foreign troops, in which soldiers continue to operate by “only following orders,” in which systematized violence (epitomized by Harry’s black-market criminality) continues after the war, transformed yet unabated? For Calloway, does it simply seem like the cycle of war and inhumanity is repeating itself? Like the soldier Henslowe in John Dos Passos’ novel Three Soldiers, does Calloway think that human existence is defined by “organizations growing and stifling individuals and individuals revolting hopelessly against them, and at last forming new societies to crush the old societies and becoming slaves again in their turn”? Admittedly, there’s little in Howard’s performance to suggest this bleak resignation; Calloway really does seem like a dutiful if world-weary soldier. But I also believe a great deal of sadness can be read in this character’s eyes. Maybe this is why, when he witnesses Holly Martins’ realization that his close friendship with Harry has become frayed by the latter’s inhumane actions, we see Calloway’s heavily-fortified personal armor weaken for the first time, revealing a begrudging empathy for Holly’s sudden reckoning with a cruel, war-ravaged world.