Second #2666, 44:26, Image © Studio Canal
Adrift amongst melancholy memories, Anna sits fiddling with one of her bedknobs (which Jeremy surmised might contain hidden secrets) until Holly Martins interrupts her reverie. Holly seems to have a chipper air about him, perhaps because the porter had promised to divulge more secrets regarding Harry Lime’s death later that evening—a promise that’s nullified with the offscreen murder of the porter by one of Popescu’s associates. At first, Anna too seems jovial, even playing along with Holly when he offers to fumble through some of the German dialogue that Anna must rehearse for her next play. This leads to the following exchange:
Holly: Is it a comedy or a tragedy?
Anna: Comedy. I don’t play tragedy.
Holly: [reading the script] Well, um…’Frau Hausmann…’
Anna: No, no. It’s no good.
Holly: Bad day…?
Anna: It’s always bad about this time. He used to look in around 6. I’ve been frightened, I’ve been alone, without friends and money…but I’ve never known anything like this.
The “he” in this case is, of course, Harry Lime, whose purported criminality is constantly at odds with Anna’s sentimental, rose-colored memories of him. It’s too soon to conjecture about the motivations underlying Harry’s behavior (since we still don’t know the full extent of it), but the reason Harry is such an entrancing and mystifying character without even having encountered him is because of this irreconcilability between his tenderness towards Anna and his alleged inhumanity towards many others. Was Harry a good or a bad man? This question—perhaps unanswerable in the context of any individual—is becoming trickier for Holly to ask himself the more he discovers, and it certainly won’t become any easier to answer.
Desperate for a distraction from her loneliness, Anna pleads with Holly to share something (anything) about his former friendship with Harry. As he does so, we get a sense of both Holly and Harry as headstrong young men who hold the illusion that the world is within their grasp: they drink, cavort, womanize, amuse themselves with carefree abandon. As a boy, Holly tells Anna, Harry was both mischievous and clever: he knew how to raise one’s temperature to get out of a school exam, how to play cards, how to avoid punishment (and perhaps, later, arrest). Anna relates this resourcefulness to the harsh truths of postwar Vienna, as she mentions that Harry was able to doctor Anna’s passport and papers at a time when the Russian sector was repatriating Viennese residents who had fled Czechoslovakia (as Anna had done).
The image of Harry Lime as a charming troublemaker who used theatricality and brazenness to overcome a harsh life is uncannily (and, one presumes, intentionally) reflective of Orson Welles himself. Despite his family’s relative wealth (Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin to a concert pianist and an inventor who had found success with a popular bicycle lamp), Welles’ youth was turbulent: after his father succumbed to alcoholism, Welles’ parents separated in 1919 (when he was four years old). His mother supported herself and Orson by providing musical accompaniment to lectures at the Chicago Art Institute (Orson’s older brother Dickie had already been institutionalized for learning difficulties). Orson’s mother, Beatrice, died of jaundice in 1924, when he was only nine years old; about a year later, he and one of the daughters in the foster family that had taken him in ran away from home, and they soon took to singing and dancing on the streets of Milwaukee for money. Orson’s father died a few years later, when he was 15. Most accounts seem to trace the burgeoning of Welles’ artistic career to a stunt he pulled while touring Europe in the early 1930s: Welles reportedly strode into Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1931, proclaiming himself a Broadway star and attracting the attention of the theatre’s manager, Hilton Edwards, who was wowed by the young man’s boldness.
An extensive biography is unfeasible here, of course, but there seem to be limitless anecdotes about Welles’ outsized personality, penchant for spinning opulent (often untruthful) tales, promotional braggadocio, and sly resourcefulness as a filmmaker throughout his later career. (A lot of this is swiftly recapped in the introduction to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Discovering Orson Welles.) Welles’ mercurial nature even affected the making of The Third Man, as he traveled Europe for weeks, evading the filmmakers while he was scheduled to be shooting on location in Vienna; when he finally did arrive, he refused to shoot in the city’s sewers, necessitating reshoots at studio-built sets back in England. In any case, there are undeniable parallels between the lives and personalities of Welles and Harry Lime: while Welles’ larger-than-life nature contributed to his bold artistic experimentation (“I’ve never been interested in success,” he was once tellingly quoted; “I’ve always been interested in experimentation”), Harry Lime’s savvy understanding of the ways of the world (not to mention his self-acknowledgement as a mere human speck amidst an apathetic cosmos) eventually lead him into the morally questionable territory that Holly Martins will soon uncover.
Anna Schmidt has told Holly that she only “plays” comedy, not tragedy; maybe the same is true for Harry. After all, according to Holly’s appraisal, Harry “just made everything seem like such…fun.” We’ll soon understand just how tragic and ruthless is the business that Harry Lime was mixed up in, but somehow (we’ll also soon realize) he has the perverse ability to make it seem insignificant, even playful. Maybe both Anna and Harry have encountered so much tragedy that they’ve become inured to it—they simply won’t accommodate it. This gets to one of the primary questions lying beneath The Third Man‘s surface: is the movie itself comedy or tragedy? Its author, Graham Greene, himself called it a “comic thriller,” an apparent paradox that’s actually conveyed from the very first scene (in which a droll voiceover, contributed by Carol Reed himself, regards the corruption and violence of postwar Vienna with bemused world-weariness). For a movie (partially) about the eradication of previous moral codes and the devastating precedent of slaughter instilled by World War II, The Third Man is also remarkably light-footed and entertaining.
But to ask whether the film, or Anna or Harry themselves, are “comedic” or “tragic” is to assume that these two forms are diametrical opposites, which may not in fact be the case. After all, if we return to origins, both comedy and tragedy derive from Dionysus, the twice-born son of Semele and Zeus. The tradition of tragedy grew out of dithyrambs, group lyric praises that were delivered to Dionysus; comedy, meanwhile, grew out of komos, which were bands of male revelers that would sing bawdy songs in honor of the two-faced god. (In psychological terms, this would be considered as the duality between the telic/serious and the paratelic/comedic modes.) But both functions served the same purpose—either sacred or profane social invocations created for Dionysus for the sake of rebirth, fertility, and the protection of youth—and were therefore flip sides of the same coin. In fact, the well-known masks of tragedy and comedy associated with ancient Greek drama (in particular, with Melpomene, the muse of tragedy; and Thalia, the muse of comedy) were commonly used in ceremonies honoring Dionysus. An origin story such as this suggests that both comedy and tragedy are merely dialectical ways of reacting to the same event or responding to the surrounding world, a Dionysian hybridity reflected (at least implicitly) by comedic works of art that attempt to deal with sadness, bleakness, violence, or other unpleasantries through dark, cathartic humor.
It’s an aphorism that most great comedians, and perhaps even many great comedies, contain an element of the tragic or disturbed within them, if only in the theoretical sense that comedy entails a breakdown of social mores and institutions and, in this sense, lays bare some kind of societal disrupt. (In fact, many of these cathartic or palliative functions of comedy are addressed by Rod Martin’s The Psychology of Humor.) But the comedy in The Third Man often takes on an explicitly bleak tone, presaging some of the later, politically-oriented, morbid humor practiced by Pietro Germi, Lindsay Anderson, and Dusan Makavejev, among others.
But in terms of tragedy and comedy commingling and intersecting (like successive pages in the same flipbook), the greatest cinematic example must almost certainly be Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), a caustic satire that was met with scathing reviews, bans, and riots upon its release. A film in which the elegant farcicality thinly veils rampant social corruption, petty squabbles, and tragic passions, Renoir’s masterpiece manages to wear both theatrical masks (tragic and comedic) at once. Indeed, one of the movie’s most famous quotes (uttered by Renoir himself, playing the character of Octave), both humorous and despairing, can be revealingly applied to Harry Lime and the injustices he commits: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
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.