Holly, drunk, boisterous and alone, has reached a new low. Sitting, swilling whiskey while he is verbally accosted by Major Calloway, our idealistic, self-righteous and romantic hero decides that his only outlet is to grab Calloway (who he calls “Callahan”) by the collar and slug him a good one. Of course the tipsy “scribbler” is no match for an army major, and Calloway easily tosses Holly onto a bench. Deciding he hasn’t had enough, Holly stands up and grabs Calloway again by the collar and again takes a swing at him. This time our guardian angel of British decency, Sgt. Paine, socks Holly in the jaw sending him to the floor. Then, always a gentleman, Paine helps Holly up from the floor saying, “Please be careful sir. There. [lifting Holly] Up we come. Written anything lately?” Not only does he help up a man he’s just knocked down, showing Holly that it was not desire but duty that mandated the violent enforcing of the law, but he asks after Holly’s career and therein demonstrates the only legitimate interest in Holly’s writing we will see throughout the film.
Why does Holly try to punch Calloway twice? Clearly he would be outmatched and inexperienced even if he were sober, and any wiser man would realize that he had no chance, but our Holly stands up and gives it another go. Does he think he’ll give Calloway the punch he’s due? Perhaps, and maybe he’s drunk enough to overestimate his prowess, but another stark possibility presents itself. Maybe Holly is not so interested in Calloway, and is instead interested in the romantic act of punching for a friend’s honor. Living in the romantic world of novels, this is certainly a prevalent encounter, and Holly lives in the world of novels and romance. Holly is punching, not for Calloway’s sake, but for his own. It will, in Holly’s mind, set him free. Just like this moment, in the introduction to British cult favorite, The Prisoner (1967-68), viewable here. The eponymous Prisoner #6 punches at the underexposed frame screaming “I am not a number, I am a free man!” Holly punches at Calloway, not hoping to hit him, but hoping to swing and in so doing to be free.
Looking back at the frame itself, we will find it striking as ever. Again we are faced with a background of the empty Vienna streets, this time cross-sectioned by window frame. Our camera angle, if hyper-extended to its logical extreme, would have us leaning out through the prison bars of those french windows, trying to squeeze our head through to see if we can find anyone around. To Holly that door frame opens onto adventure, destiny, and justice, for somewhere in that dark and foreign city, Holly feels he can find the truth. The truth will set Holly free, and he hopes it will clear Harry’s name of the slanders that Calloway has laid on it. Yet between Holly and this glowing door to the future, stands Sergeant Paine.
Thirteen years after The Third Man, Orson Welles would direct a similar film, starring a similarly swarthy and lean star, Anthony Perkins. The Trial (1962), based on the book by Franz Kafka, was shot in Eastern Europe, mimicking Kafka’s own Prague, and features some strikingly similar settings and images, familiar to any fans of The Third Man. What is important about these similarities is not what Welles learned from Carol Reed, which he certainly did, but instead what both Welles and Reed learned from Kafka. To explain, we’ll turn back to lonely Holly Martins, watched over by dutiful, if kind, Sgt. Paine. Holly seeks justice, he seeks what is due, both to him and to the late Harry, and standing like a beacon of that future is a door. A door that stands just like the door in the introduction to Welles’ The Trial, an introduction whose text is lifted from Before the Law, a supremely concise Kafka short story:
Holly stands here before the law, and yet his friendly guardian, ready to dole out a punch, blocks his way. The unmistakable compositional unity and similar content–Holly will face frustratingly “kafkaesque” bureaucracy, makes him–if only for this twenty-fourth of a second–our Josef K.
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.