Mr. Hartman leans, like everyone in The Third Man, his hand lifting the slightly blurry receiver up and out of the frame. We are so close we can see the intricacies of his suit. It’s a three-piece number with a tuxedo-like flair to the jacket and three gold bars around the wrist which are reminiscent of a general’s stripes. His tie is a little loose, allowing it to swing back toward center while he leans off toward Holly, yet he lacks the swagger of an executive loosening his tie before a night on the town. His lips purse gently in the middle of the word “telephone.”
The phone is for Holly, of course. On the other side of the line is Baron Kurtz, “a friend of Harry Lime’s” who proposes a meeting at the neighboring Mozart Café in moments. Kurtz’s call seems innocent enough, trying to take care of a friend of a friend stranded in a strange land, though how he’s tracked down Holly remains a mystery unsolved. As far as we know, Major Calloway (who Holly will again call Callahan any second now) booked this hotel room as a favor for the boisterous American who took a swing at him. Indeed, there was no reservation made, as Sgt. Paine explains to Mr. Hartman that “Major Calloway said this gentleman’s going to have a room for the night. He’ll be off tomorrow.” Perhaps this is just a matter of willfully suspending one’s disbelief. Certainly Holly’s upcoming encounter with Kurtz will further the plot and was eventually necessary in its development. But considering the shady Kurtz we will come to know, it is at least suspicious that he should be able to find Holly so quickly upon his arrival. Did someone follow Holly to the hotel to keep tabs on him? While both men were present at Harry’s funeral service, Kurtz waited until now to make contact. And Kurtz just happens to be in the neighborhood, ready to meet right next door to the hotel in moments. Whoever Kurtz has informing him, what is certain is that something untoward is going on.
This encounter can be read differently, not as an example of the duplicitous involvement of Baron Kurtz, but instead as a portrayal of the nature of postwar Vienna. Our portrait of Vienna already has a smack of corruption to it. Even from the introductory voice over, Carol Reed tells us: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamor and easy charm—I really got to know it in the classic period of the Black Market.” And as we progress through the film we will dive deeper into the seedy side of Vienna, as Holly investigates his friend, who Maj. Calloway calls “the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city.” But for now, it may aid us to focus on what commodity it is that is actually up for trade in the Vienna Black Market. Kurtz is an Austrian, living in the Russian zone, working at night in the international zone, and coming here to meet Holly outside of his hotel.
The speed with which all of this information travels and is exchanged, and the noir nature of The Third Man leads us to the conclusion that the commodity being traded is not a thing at all, but is instead information. This city, which is arguably five separate cities with five separate governing powers, has the linkages of telephone cables running through them and the real goods are those things that travel across the wires. As Karl Marx would put it:
“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange—of the means of communication and transport—the annihilation of space by time—becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” (La Grundrisse, Penguin Books, 1939, pg. 524)
Though Marx was writing before the telephone, he did experience the world-shattering development of the telegraph, and from that observation drew his words which would come to be prophetic, “the annihilation of space by time.” In Baron Kurtz’s deft side-stepping of borders, literal spatial barriers, he is taking these words as a credo and using the means of communication to transform a distance, say five miles, into a fraction of a second. Indeed, only ninety seconds after Holly steps through the door to the hotel, the phone rings. It may be hard to imagine all of this being remarkable, considering that we live in a world where the means of communication have become so sophisticated that they have become a space of their own (you are reading this on a website right now!), but it seems no less impressive that a tail could run quickly to the nearest phone, tell Kurtz where Holly might be found, and then Kurtz could find the number for the hotel and be on the line in a minute and a half. All this evidences the importance and efficiency of information and secrets in this Black Market city. What is really on sale in Vienna is not “gasoline, tires or saccharine” but secrets.
*An unconnected side-note: “Hotel Sacher” is a real hotel in Vienna, really attached to the Café Mozart, and is famous as the home of the Sachertorte, a cake that looks delicious, but doesn’t make it into the film. One can only imagine how many sachertorten were consumed during shooting.
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.