Today’s still brings us to our halfway point, as hard as it is to believe. It seems that only days ago Matt and I were barely beginning this project, but now we’ve been at it for six months. While we’ve been gradually uncovering more and more of the secrets buried in this film’s graveyard, we have yet to uncover any of the truth about Harry Lime. As we move closer to those hard truths, today’s frame thrusts us into another world entirely: Literary fiction.
Let’s back up a bit first. From where we stood last week, this seems like a surreal transition. Holly was imprisoned in the back of a taxi speeding through the poverty-stricken back alleys of Vienna, and he was panicking like nobody’s business. As his cab careened dangerously close to dumpsters and alley walls and he rattled at the bars like Buster Keaton, Holly yelled out to the cabbie (who clearly speaks no English) “Have you got orders to kill me?” This may be one of those panicky moments when words spill out before their meaning can be fully pondered, but it seems to me that if the cabbie did have orders to kill Holly, a car accident might be one of the least practical ways to go about it. Not only would Holly’s death be uncertain, since many people have survived car crashes through the ages, but this would be assassin would be putting up his own life as forfeit, a supposition that only makes sense if we accept that the cabbie is indeed an un-feeling and repairable cyborg. And to make this thought even more ludicrous, there is no one watching out for Holly (he has no friends who would miss him) so it seems unlikely that they’d need to cover up his murder. So why would a careening taxi be preferable to a loaded gun?
Whatever the reason, though, Holly’s panic is so viscerally portrayed that as viewers we panic with him. The fast cutting from close-ups to extreme long shots disorients while the zither soundtrack has been replaced with one made entirely of tire squeaks, brake squeals and engine roars. By the time the cab pulls into a tight courtyard, and the brusque cabbie (courteously) opens the door for our hero, the sensation of panic that permeates Holly has been transferred easily via eyes and ears into our observing minds. When Holly ducks behind the car door, about to make a run for it, his post-verbal panic makes complete and total sense, but when the doors open his revelation makes even more sense. The breakneck speed of the cab was due, not to some intent to increase the “danger” of a murder, but because he was very late to a lecture he was scheduled to deliver.
This moment illustrates, as strikingly as any other part of this film, how fully we inhabit the mind of our focalization character. Like Holly, we have been told on several occasions that this literary event is coming, indeed it is this event itself that has allowed our penniless hero to stay in Vienna, since Crabbin (the central character in today’s frame) is fronting the bill at the Hotel Sacher in anticipation of this event. Not only have we (and Holly) known it was coming, but in our last interaction with Crabbin, which came “yesterday” in diegetic screen-time, he told Holly:
Crabbin: Hello—Mr. Martins, we tried to get you at your hotel. We have arranged that lecture for tomorrow.
Martins: What about?
Crabbin: On the modern novel—you remember what we arranged and we want you to talk on the Crisis of Faith.
So, not only should we (and Holly) have known it was coming, but we should have known it was tonight, and known to prepare a little speech about the crisis of faith. But we have been so fully encased in the mystery story that we have completely forgotten about this avenue. And, of course, so has Holly. With nothing prepared and recovering from having almost peed his pants with terror, our hero lumbers onto the stage and begins to deliver a speech, which of course goes too atrociously for our eyes. The camera cuts away to another storyline (one that I would imagine is a bit more interesting) immediately after Holly mutters his first husky “Well . . .”
We will leave the particulars of this speech itself for another post, but suffice it to say, Holly is not well suited for this duty. He is a writer of cowboy westerns, not an author of literature, and his lack of preparation and adrenaline-induced derangement only makes that dichotomy all the more clear. And who better to elicit this split than the now-canonized literary mind who wrote this screenplay, Graham Greene.
The Third Man is Holly’s story much more than it is Crabbins’, and though it was penned by Greene, it begs a question, which I’ll leave you with today: Is this a pulp genre film like the novels that Holly churns out or is it a literary masterpiece?
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.