Second #682, 11:22, Image © Studio Canal
Still reeling from the whiskey supplied by Major Calloway and the mean right jab supplied by Sergeant Paine, Holly is ushered to a military hotel in Vienna, at which he’s loaned enough “stage money” to last him the night (and advised not to spend it all at the hotel bar). Our poor writer of cheap novelettes assumes that he will have to leave Vienna before defending Harry Lime’s honor from charges of racketeering and murder: Calloway pointedly tells Holly that a seat is being saved for him on the next day’s flight back to the United States. Postwar Vienna is already overpopulated with overzealous lawmen and international MPs—the last thing the city needs is a vigilante emboldened by liquor, sticking up for his dead friend in a manner not unlike one of his paperbacks’ cowboy heroes (the “Lone Rider of Santa Fe” transplanted to Vienna, perhaps).
Drunk, injured, disillusioned, dejected, Holly assumes this will be his last night in Vienna, but he finds an unlikely opportunity to extend his visit in the form of Mr. Crabbin, a fastidious Brit who represents the “CRS of GHQ”—the “Cultural Reeducation Section.” Propaganda, in other words: revitalizing Vienna (and entertaining its temporary British residents) with artistic finery such as a reading of Hamlet or a performance by a troupe of “Hindu dancers.” (In the still above, Paine is helpfully reminding Crabbin of the “striptease” those dancers offered weeks ago.) Having been informed of Holly’s (nonexistent) literary esteem by Sergeant Paine, Crabbin invites Holly to stay at the hotel as long as he cares to so that he may give a lecture on the contemporary novel. The promise of indefinitely free room and board grants Holly the perfect opportunity to carry out his own righteous investigation of Harry Lime’s purported criminal activity.
An issue that we’ve already raised several times in Still Dots—the oft-contentious, absurdly disjointed relations between international cultures commingling (and only barely communicating) in postwar Vienna—is unavoidable in this scene, albeit conveyed in a more comedic light. Holly Martins is emphatically American, a self-styled cowboy who drinks heavily and throws punches with alarmingly little provocation. Maybe this is why, at the end of the previous scene (when Sergeant Paine escorts an obviously-drunk Holly from a Viennese tavern), the barman casts him a mocking smile and bids him a bemused “Auf Wiedersehen, Herr.” But The Third Man‘s sly parody of distinctly American cultural attitudes is nothing compared to the character of Mr. Crabbin, a crusty pedant who epitomizes punctilious British propriety. Crabbin is played by Wilfrid Hyde-White, who had a remarkably similar role in My Fair Lady (1964): that of Colonel Pickering, the haughty professor who wagers that his friend, Henry Higgins, will be unable to make a refined upper-class lady out of Cockney street vendor Eliza Doolittle. The prim-and-proper respectability of both Hyde-White as Pickering and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins is, of course, comically played off of the grating charms of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza.
But the clearest indication of the culture gap between Holly and Crabbin in The Third Man arrives when the two of them ascend the stairs to Holly’s room. Holly mentions that his plans to stay with Harry in Vienna were disrupted by the death of his longtime friend. “Goodness, that’s awkward,” Crabbin responds, in characteristically charming fashion. “That what you say to people after death?,” Holly responds incredulously. “‘Goodness, that’s awkward’?” Without putting too fine a point on a comedic motif that’s nicely understated in the movie, this repeated confrontation between distinct cultural mindsets (Crabbins’ drollness versus Holly’s man-of-action brashness) is something that will reappear often in The Third Man, and which had particular relevance to a worldwide (especially European) audience that had just experienced its second catastrophic global war in less than thirty years.
Crabbins’ mention of propaganda has some bearing on The Third Man as well. While Crabbins is tasked with providing cultural amenities for a city and a populace besieged by war, European and American movie theaters in the latter half of the 1940s themselves offered propaganda to reassure the public and encourage postwar reconstruction. British propaganda films, for example, offered inspiriting economic and political instruction on how to rehabilitate a hobbled nation:
British theaters offered many such films in the late ’40s, which aspired to instill public enthusiasm and hope for revitalization. The Third Man, on the other hand, is obviously not a propaganda film; indeed, it could reasonably be labeled anti-propaganda, as it disseminates some incredibly bleak opinions regarding the state of the world, international relations, the morality of both governments and individuals, and the cycle of greed, isolationism, and violence arguably engendered by World War II. Although it does so in vibrant, entertaining, and often comedic fashion, The Third Man reflects an unsettling postwar nihilism suggesting (in part) that the patterns of behavior necessitated by the war would go on to infect and terrorize individuals for years afterward. This theme will become clearer as we progress through the movie; for now, suffice it to say that Holly’s preconceptions regarding honor, brotherly love, and forces of law and order will be irreversibly shattered by the end of The Third Man.
One final note about the handkerchief with which Holly gingerly massages his jaw: he looks like a man with a debilitating toothache as he morosely checks in to the hotel, shuns Crabbins’ attempt at conversation, and never moves that kerchief far from his face (it’s visually prominent in today’s still, and, in fact, throughout this entire scene). Of course, Holly is suffering from a punch to the jaw, but even Crabbins asks if he’s suffering a toothache and recommends a good dentist in Vienna. This toothache tangent recalls a passage from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book with which The Third Man surprisingly has a lot in common (to my eyes, at least). At one point in Notes from Underground, the antisocial, vicious, uncompromising narrator/antihero responds to his imagined interlocutors:
There is also pleasure in a toothache… I had a toothache for a whole month; I know there is. Here, of course, one does not remain silently angry, one moans; but these are not straightforward moans, they are crafty moans, and the craftiness is the whole point. These moans express the pleasure of one who is suffering; if they did not give him pleasure, he wouldn’t bother moaning… In these moans there is expressed, first, all the futility of our pain, so humiliating for our consciousness, and all the lawfulness of nature, on which, to be sure, you spit, but from which you suffer all the same, while it does not. There is expressed the consciousness that your enemy is nowhere to be found, and yet there is pain… I ask you, gentlemen: listen sometime to the moaning of an educated man of the nineteenth century who is suffering from a toothache… His moans somehow turn bad, nastily wicked, and continue for whole days and nights. Yet he himself knows that his moans will be of no use to him; he knows better than anyone that he is only straining and irritating himself and others in vain… Now, it is in all these consciousnesses and disgraces that the sensuality consists. ‘So I’m bothering you, straining your hearts, not letting anyone in the house sleep. Don’t sleep, then; you, too, should feel every moment that I have a toothache. For you I’m no longer a hero, as I once wished to appear, but simply a vile little fellow…
It may seem like a stretch to liken Holly Martins to Dostoevsky’s unnamed Narrator—especially since he doesn’t even have a toothache—but in this scene, isn’t Holly a self-styled loner, a stranger who repeatedly distances himself from everyone else around him, and makes an ostentatious show of his pain simply so that he makes others aware of it? Obviously that handkerchief that Holly keeps glued to his face can do nothing for his bruised jaw, which leads us to believe that he is trying to soothe not physical pain but an overwhelming doubt, an existential malaise, a withering of the soul. Could his best friend really be a racketeer and murderer? Will he be unable to defend the name of Harry Lime? Holly’s incessant self-caress and periodic wincing in this scene are crafty indeed: attempts to visually manifest (and thus prove to those around him) the inner tumult he’s undergoing. The futility of this doubt and pain he will soon come to know all too intimately, a humiliating recognition that he can do nothing to change the ways of the world, and that one’s “enemies” are usually indistinct, unidentifiable, everywhere and nowhere. If the villainy of enemies in The Third Man (and in Notes from Underground) becomes ambiguous, so too does the morality of heroes: Holly may not become “nasty,” “wicked,” or “vile,” but the end of the movie reminds us that our preconceptions regarding heroes and villains have no bearing in this world, that our sense of morality does not apply. Holly massages his jaw in a desperate attempt to mend his crushed ego and his crumbling sense of certainty. Maybe Crabbins is right about Holly’s “toothache”; it just happens to be a metaphorical one.
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.