This man is Sergeant Paine, a character whose name belies his demeanor: Paine is actually a good-hearted fellow, and seemingly the only fan that Holly Martins, self-professed writer of “cheap novelettes” like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at XX Ranch (“eh…Raaaaunch,” Holly corrects himself), has in Vienna. Up to this point, we’ve seen only ominously brief shots of Paine as he suspiciously observes Holly interacting with Major Calloway: Paine is present but silent at Harry Lime’s funeral, and suspiciously tails Holly and Calloway as they drive back to town. We cannot be blamed at this point in The Third Man, then, if we assume that Paine is out to get poor dimestore scribbler Holly Martins.
Actually, the scene from which the above still is taken gives us some reason to be alarmed. Visually, it’s stuffed with a plethora of stark diagonal lines (the shots themselves aren’t exactly canted angles, but the sloping contours of streets and railings behind the characters give us the impression that they are), subtly instilling a sense of unease in the audience; meanwhile, a number of askance glances are cast between Holly and Calloway, suggesting that a dust-up will take place at any moment. Holly is now well beyond tipsy, having been liquored up by Calloway before being informed that his dearly-departed friend, Harry Lime, was in fact one of postwar Vienna’s most heartless racketeers. Holly and Calloway’s interaction comes to a boiling point as Holly professes that he’s never liked policemen; it is at this point that Reed and editor Oswald Hafenrichter cut to this amusing medium shot of Paine looking up from his reading material (alas, it’s simply a Viennese newspaper, not another hackneyed paperback western).
Those arched eyebrows say it all: Paine is bemused by Holly’s drunken outrage, and perhaps also by his American boorishness. Meanwhile, Paine seems to have been costumed to convey an air of British decorum, what with his military-issue gloves, duster, and cocked-just-so beret. (Is it strange that his appearance here reminds me of Roger Livesey’s character in another masterful, though entirely different, movie about British-American postwar relations—Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death [Stairway to Heaven], made three years before The Third Man?) Once again, the matter of semi-contentious British-American relations after the war (and their clever dispersement throughout The Third Man), which has been raised in several Still Dots posts, makes itself visually apparent.
The man who plays Sergeant Paine in The Third Man would himself go on to incarnate one of the most iconic representations of British authority in mainstream movies: Bernard Lee (who had also played a detective in Reed’s The Fallen Idol the year before The Third Man) would appear as M, James Bond’s superior, in all of the Bond movies from Dr. No (1962) to Moonraker (1979). Granted, M and Sergeant Paine could not be more different: while Lee has little do as M besides bark exasperated orders to cavalier Agent 007, he provides wonderful comic relief as Paine in The Third Man (a movie which, despite its general air of encroaching doom and postwar nihilism, already contains its fair share of comedy).
There is something remarkably pleasing about the gridlike arrangement of the windowpanes behind Sergeant Paine in today’s still: especially in contrast to the bold, messy diagonal lines that have predominated the preceding shots, this composition, in which Paine’s face tilts itself upward and to his left in a direction paralleling the windows behind him, seems to placate the audience in the midst of Holly’s irascibility. (Or maybe I just feel soothed because I’m disproportionately enamored with Lee’s facial expression.) In any case, I find a good deal of balance and symmetry in today’s shot, not only in its smooth trisecting of depth into foreground (Paine), middle-ground (the windows), and background (the Jeep), but also because of the two vases—one white, one black—that flank him on either side. I could look at this image for hours and still find myself smilingly, inexplicably tickled by it.
And what about that Jeep—Paine’s Jeep—visible through the windows behind him? It seems insignificant, but then again, why would Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker take care to frame it so prominently through the windows? We may already link Paine’s character to that Jeep since, the first time we see him (in the previous scene, at Harry’s funeral), he’s surveilling the crowd from the driver’s seat. (He’s doing the same exact thing in this still: carrying out covert surveillance, with his trusty vehicle close by.) That Jeep, then, may bestow some authority on Paine’s character, but what kind of authority is it? Let’s flash back to The Third Man‘s very first scene, in which Carol Reed’s own voiceover narration comments wryly upon the four international forces (British, French, American, and Russian) fumblingly attempting to maintain order in Vienna, despite the fact that none of them can speak German. In an earlier post, Jeremy commented on the appearance of a Jeep being driven by an American soldier in this initial scene:
This image is absurdly funny for several reasons: firstly, as Jeremy wrote, the driver’s “face presents him as a specter…barely present within his own body”—we can only conclude that this G.I. is currently existing on an entirely different plane of existence; secondly, each of the four officers are looking in different directions, thus reiterating the fact that the four international powers occupying Vienna aren’t even close to being on the same wavelength (one imagines that nary a word has been spoken between them throughout the entire ride). If the officers in this shot have any kind of authority, it’s only of the most disorganized, ineffectual (though perhaps well-intentioned) sort. That Jeep careens throughout Vienna, transporting a quartet of strangers who oversee a volatile city in rubble despite the fact that they can’t interact with each other or with Vienna’s citizens. Maybe, then, that Jeep is an oxymoronic symbol, denoting authority that has no valence whatsoever in this world—in which case Paine’s Jeep is an apt reflection for his own personality, benign and well-intentioned but perpetually out-of-place. The Third Man is arguably about this very inability to mend the irreparable harm done to humanity during the World Wars, about the general and terrifying sensation that global war catalyzed a downward spiral towards oblivion that spread to contaminate individuals as well as nations’ armies; it is to the movie’s credit, of course, that it conveys this disturbing theme not through bleak despair, but through razor-sharp wit and hard-edged compassion.
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.