A man leans or the camera leans, it’s hard to tell which, and a question is weighed. The porter’s ponderous expression is likely connected to his grasp of English, as he tries to put his story into words Holly can understand. But he has much more than that to ponder. At about this instant, the trembling zither soundtrack has dropped suddenly, leaving us in a Vienna we have not really interacted with so far. The real stillness of a shot not narrated by the jangling plucks of zither strings places us in a more documentary moment. Though we are definitely still looking at and listening to actors, they are made more real and actorly by their sudden a capella performance. And in this soli from the actors section, the porter lets the ball drop. “I was not the only one who did not give evidence,” he says. “Three men helped carry your friend to the statue.”
This is a revelation. Though up to this point things may have seemed suspicious, Holly has had little evidence to back his theories other than a certain smell of fishiness in the air. Were this an American cop drama rather than a more subtle noir, the porter would become one of the most important witnesses, the testimony that could make or break the case. He would be taken into protective custody or witness protection, or at least a detail would be dispatched to watch his house. But Holly has none of those resources at his disposal.
As viewers we know that this is an important fact as well, if only because of the film’s title. Up to this point, the title has been simple, enigmatic and elegant, but not meaningful. Though it has taken us 25 minutes of screen time to get here, we now know the real object of Holly’s meandering investigation.
*Hopefully the title of our project has achieved the same type of simple elegance, but when “Still Dots” becomes referential to our analysis, I hope its meaning-making reaches the retroactive heights that The Third Man has achieved.*
The porter’s description of the third man is surprisingly sparse. He did not look up so the porter could not see his face, and he describes him as “ordinary . . . He could have been just anybody.” How can such a central character be so softly sketched? His supreme ordinariness–the Porter cannot even mention the color of his coat or hat–seems to point to something suspicious. Was this a man or was it just a figure? A stand-in without identity? This painting by Rene Magritte is called Not To Be Reproduced and might very well be a portrait of our third man:
The painting has been reproduced in sculpture and in film, most notably in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but whatever the reproduction, what is striking and uncanny about this image is the nondescript visage of the figure.
Could the third man be so infinitely ordinary? So deliberately nondescript that he might be some mythic nobody; this phantom or doppelganger is drawing Holly’s investigation into even more and more dangerous territory. The danger in this figure is in his stark anonymity, since as an everyman he could be any man. Like many episodes of Scooby Doo, will Holly pull off the mask of anonymity to discover that this third man is no other than himself or Harry? This terrifying thought cannot help but flit through his mind as he is faced with his faceless target. As film scholar and theorist Jalal Toufic puts it;
“The fear of the encounter with the double is in large part the dread that others will not recognize the similarity, hence the fear of a sous-entendu metamorphosis: if the other is the mirror-image but others do not seem at all to recognize the startling exact likeness–in Dostoevsky’s The Double both the clerks in the office where Golyadkin works and Golyadkin’s servant Petrushka show no sign of astonishment or fright at the sight of Golyadkin and Golyadkin (who moreover have the same bald patch and are dressed the same way); one of the clerks at first speaks of family resemblance–I must have become different-looking and different. The dread of the encounter with the double is also the dread of the indefinite extension of responsibility, which is a facet of the unconscious: other people’s strange failure to notice the uncanny resemblance when my double and I are together is conjoined to their mistaking him for me when we are in different locations–I am responsible for what the other did” ((Vampires) An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, Station Hill, 1993, pg. 189).
In a film full of doubles and doubling, from Holly’s constant confusion of Callahan for Calloway, or Anna’s continued mix-up between Holly and Harry, Holly may have much to fear from the doppelgangers haunting him in the Vienna streets.
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.