Second #930, 15:30, Image © Studio Canal
Once again, we are face to face with Baron Kurtz, one of Harry Lime’s shady former confidantes (“conspirator” might be a more appropriate word, though Holly doesn’t know this yet). In our last still, Jeremy detected a hint of compassion sneaking across Kurtz’s face—offering, perhaps, a snapshot of Kurtz’s true self, the kind-hearted yet beleaguered Austrian obscured by his perpetual Cheshire Cat-grin. Or maybe not: maybe Kurtz really is a slimy double-dealer by nature, who has found his true calling thanks to Vienna’s impoverished, survival-of-the-fittest postwar economy.
Whatever the case, Kurtz has reverted to his duplicitous self in this still. He and Holly have ventured to the streetside location of Harry Lime’s death, a tragedy that Kurtz recounts in a manner that seems a little too carefully rehearsed. According to the Baron, Harry had begun crossing the street to meet his Romanian friend, a certain “Popescu,” when he was hit by a speeding truck. The Baron and Popescu dragged Harry’s lifeless body to the side of the road, which is where Holly’s longtime friend supposedly died. Throughout this entire account, Kurtz gesticulates around him with the authoritarian precision of a military general (or a tyrannical film director)—his black dog clutched in his right hand, a copy of Holly’s Oklahoma Kid in the other.
There’s a great deal in this scene that suggests that the Baron’s retelling is not entirely trustworthy. Several cutaways to Harry’s former landlords, for example—an elderly man sweeping the sidewalk and his wife, washing a window nearby—show them suspiciously eavesdropping on the Baron’s story. (These charmingly disheveled Viennese folks couldn’t possibly be conspiring with Kurtz, could they?) Kurtz’s explanation becomes especially dubious when he claims that Harry spoke tenderly of Holly with his last dying words, asking that Kurtz and Popescu tend to Holly upon his arrival in Vienna. Holly is taken aback, noting that, according to Harry’s landlord (who is still sending Kurtz furtive glances over his broom from the nearby sidewalk), Harry died instantaneously, leaving him no time for any sentimental parting words. Unsurprisingly, the mystery surrounding Harry Lime’s death has become no clearer given Kurtz’s version of events. (Not that Holly really seems to mind the puzzling nature of his investigation: it gives him further excuse to portray a real-life cowboy, the flesh-and-blood version of the “Oklahoma Kid.”)
It is when Baron Kurtz forwardly addresses Holly by his first name—then humbly excuses himself for doing so, explaining that Harry always used Holly’s first name when discussing him amongst friends—that Kurtz’s little dog whimpers in response. A split-second, throwaway moment, it’s jarring nonetheless, especially since the two short yelps that the dog emits in this scene are the only noises it makes throughout the entire film. Coincidence? Could be, though in that case one wonders why the animal doesn’t whimper any other time it’s onscreen. It’s as though Kurtz and his dog are engaging in some cryptic conversation that Holly can’t understand, an interspecies series of signals consisting of the animal’s sniveling rejoinders to Kurtz’s elaborate charade. In any case, the suddenly blatant intrusion of the dog as a participatory character in this scene provides a weird effect—yet another layer of puzzling unknowability folded into the scene.
The presence and/or absence of crowds in this scene and the preceding one serve a subtle psychological purpose for the audience. In the previous scene, during which Holly and Kurtz meet at the bustling Cafe Mozart, diners and passersby can be seen constantly, either passing through the frame in the background or reflected on restaurant windows. The effect is to place Holly and Kurtz in a city that functions ordinarily even as it tries to rehabilitate itself from the ravages of war—an unspectacular city in which its inhabitants simply go about their daily business. Their first meeting, in other words, is not particularly threatening: shady though Kurtz is, everything seems civilized enough on the surface.
The scene from which today’s still is taken, though, is altogether more unsettling. Although crowds of pedestrians can initially be seen in the background while Holly and Kurtz gravitate around the site of Harry Lime’s death, those crowds quickly disappear; we’re in the middle of Vienna on a prominent city street, but not a single passerby intrudes upon Holly and Kurtz while they discuss Harry’s death. Only Harry’s two former landlords are in the proximity. There may be a simple, production-related explanation for their sudden isolation from humanity: perhaps the whole street was blocked off from the public during shooting. Even if that’s the case, though, something else happens. Especially in contrast to the previous scene, the sudden disappearance of any other human figure lays bare Holly and Kurtz’s behavior, even heightens it to archetypal levels, allowing both Kurtz’s treachery and Holly’s naivete to come to the fore. Here, on this street corner, they’re literally and figuratively cut off from humanity—in the midst of a populous city yet alienated from it as well, consistently striking a balance between how human beings are expected to behave (with honor, decency, a code of ethics, in order to maintain some kind of civic order) and how they would behave if they never had to consider anyone else (with self-preservation and domination their only motivators for behavior). This is a theme that will run throughout The Third Man—postwar alienation from the rest of humanity, not to mention how this leads to an abandonment of previously iron-clad moral codes—yet it’s rarely given as potent an illustration as in this scene, when four lone figures in Vienna, seemingly excluded from the rest of humanity, cagily discuss the death of Harry Lime.
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.