Second #3038, 50:38, Image © Studio Canal
We’re almost halfway through our year-long analysis of The Third Man, but things hardly seem any clearer: after having been chased through Vienna by a mob who has taken him for a murderer, Holly Martins admits to Anna he has no idea what his next step should be. (She astutely recommends informing Major Calloway.) Still no closer to uncovering the mystery of Harry Lime’s death (not to mention the mystery of the criminal activity Harry was involved with in the first place), Holly’s lone-man detective work has so far yielded scant returns: he’s still a stranger in a strange land, but he’s starting to realize his American exceptionalism is no defense against the secrets and treacheries of this city. If that all weren’t bad enough, Holly returns to the Hotel Sacher asking to telephone Major Calloway (though he predictably calls him “Callahan”), only to be whisked into a taxicab by a mysterious driver and a seemingly indifferent concierge. As they go careening through the shadowy streets of Vienna (narrowly missing impoverished people digging through the trash for uneaten leftovers), Holly assumes that the driver has been hired to kill him, or at least take him somewhere at the behest of Popescu and his murderous associates.
The meticulous pacing of The Third Man is hard to ignore here: the movie is about half over, but Holly has uncovered practically no evidence as to Harry’s whereabouts or criminal past. This seems to contradict the plot structure that, according to by-the-books screenwriting guides like Robert McKee’s Story, most classical Hollywood narratives are modeled after: about 15-20 minutes of exposition, then the clear arrival of a conflict, rising action mixed with clarifying exposition for about an hour, then an explosive climax and a denouement to placate the audience before sending them out of the theater. Usually, the narrative resolution of such classically-structured films is paralleled with the romantic union of the hero with his love interest (a union which, at least until the abolishment of the Production Code in the late 1950s, typically carried with it the promise of impending marriage). Meanwhile, halfway through The Third Man, the action is certainly rising but no more answers have been uncovered, the conflict has not become any clearer: as an investigative hero, Holly has revealed himself to be disastrously ineffective, though sympathetic.
This isn’t to say that the first half of The Third Man moves slowly (nothing in this film moves slowly). The dexterous feat required of screenwriter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed is to open with an hour of prolonged uncertainty and anxiety, withholding vital narrative information from the audience for as long as possible. If doubt regarding his longtime friend is now plaguing Holly Martins (while doubt regarding the peaceful interaction between countries and peoples is currently plaguing postwar audiences), the audience is forced to experience the same confusion, an overwhelming lack of knowledge about how this world and many of these characters function. In other words, The Third Man—though kinetically entertaining and catalyzed by magnetic star performances—is no classical Hollywood narrative. From its central mystery (what happened to Harry Lime?) to its romantic tension between Holly and Anna, The Third Man sets up the semblance of a traditional narrative progression only to prioritize themes of uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness, amorality, and desperation. Greene and Reed are gripping storytellers, but stories to them (here, as well as in other collaborations such as The Fallen Idol  and Our Man In Havana ) are typically more about the underlying ideas and character relationships than simply what happens.
But back to today’s still: if, as Jeremy deftly proposed on Tuesday, this taxi driver is a cybernetic figure of urban machinery, then what of the vehicle that houses them? To further the comparison, would the taxicab itself be considered an electronic message, transporting itself through the streets and grids that comprise the modern urban area like the bits of ones and zeroes that speed through computerized networks of cables, satellites, and microprocessors? In this estimation, it’s not only humans themselves who, overrun by the wave of digitization they’ve created, transform into hybrids of humanity and technology, half-androids “evolved” to coalesce into their computerized communities via 21st-century natural selection; it’s also the cities themselves that take on the attributes of a computerized mainframe, in which transportation, communication, and visual appearance all begin to resemble the inner workings of a CPU. Take, for example, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), about a futuristic, galactic urban dystopia ruled by a computerized “logic” at war with thinkers, lovers, and artists. (The opening sequence of Alphaville succinctly draws a visual equation between computers, urban landscapes, cars, human individuals, and digital communication.)
The taxi in which Holly sits is both mobile and confining: it veers wildly through the streets of Vienna, but the bars between Holly and his driver also point out its current function as a temporary prison. As the driver stares ominously forward (perhaps corroborating Jeremy’s hypothesis that he is an automaton), Holly bears helpless witness to his own treacherous predicament. Isn’t this also the function of film-watching: sitting, immobilized, while also being able to transcend space and time in the leap of a single cut, a mobility that surpasses what even cars and trains and airplanes supplied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? This correlation between film-watching and urban transportation (especially cars and trains) has been pronounced practically since the start of cinema, when early innovators such as D.W. Griffith and Dziga Vertov moored their cameras to all kinds of rapid transportation. With the advent of movies, spectators no longer had to stare out of car or train windows to experience this mobile vista; they could simply duck into a movie theater.
Today’s still, in addition to showcasing the low-key chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker’s cinematography, emphasizes the paradox of the moving-picture image: like the thousands of individual frames that make up its illusion of movement, “motion pictures” rely on both stasis and rapid succession. Holly Martins, meanwhile, is imprisoned in a moving cell, barred within a rectangular film frame at the same time that the world blurs by through the windows. Are images of automobiles in movies, then, examples of “the movement image,” as Gilles Deleuze would call them: action shots in which what we see the characters physically performing onscreen transforms the situation? Or are they more conceptual indications of how urban transportation (especially the car) has replaced an immediate relation with our physical world with a more deadened reliance on pre-arranged flows of traffic, giving credence to the Situationist theories of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle—for example, the theory that “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”? Are the car and the film image forces of liberation or confinement?
As Holly is driven to some mysterious location, a prisoner of this modern machine which epitomized American capitalism, maybe we can ponder some great cinematic antiheroes who have been defined by their cars. From the hitchhiking fatalist of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) to the existential wanderers of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) to the drive-first-ask-questions-later loners in Vanishing Point (1971) and Drive (2011), why do these men find it necessary to define themselves and their existence by the relentless push of the gas pedal? Are their lives catalyzed or destroyed by the boxes of metal and horsepower in which they find their purpose? On the surface their solitary quests seem existential and nihilistic: there’s no enlightenment to be found in modern society, so they simply drive, mechanically functioning until they reach their final destination. But maybe these men are actually unwitting victims of the modern industrial capitalism they pretend to live outside of. More than a hundred years ago, the onset of the Industrial Revolution instigated a world in which humanity, technology, transportation, communication, and the media formed an irreversible superstructure: speed, ideas, images, messages are now more potent possessions than raw materials, goods, products. This is the mindset such automotive loners seem to embrace: wield speed and transportation in order to forsake everything else, escape reality by transforming it into an artificial image that merely passes by the windows. Like Holly Martens and Harry Lime, these men are hapless victims in a world that has inalterably transformed; it simply speeds by in constant, treacherous, accelerated flux.
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.