Second #3658, 60:58, Image © Studio Canal
After drinking away his sorrows at a Vienna strip club and forsaking carnal pleasure for the company of Anna Schmidt, Holly shows up at her apartment distraught, lonely, and at least three sheets to the wind. As Holly arrives at her door, we see Anna in a gorgeous moonlit close-up (covered by a bedsheet embroidered with the initials “HL”), wide awake and troubled for the same exact reason as Holly: she’s also visited Calloway earlier that day and received the same disheartening information about her former lover’s criminal activities. (Her response to Harry Lime’s guilt is markedly different than Holly’s, but we can save a comparison of Anna and Holly’s ethical interpretations of Harry’s guilt for later posts, as this creates a rift between the two characters that may be irreconcilable.) Holly knocks on Anna’s door and, after she asks who’s there, he responds in a ghostly, desperate whisper, “Me…it’s me.” In today’s still, after he informs Anna that he’s returning to the States the next day, he tries to distract himself by playing with the asocial kitten who was only friendly towards Harry Lime. Immediately thereafter, the cat absconds through Anna’s window and down to the cobblestone street below, towards…something.
As we’ve mentioned before, The Third Man has a thing for animal symbolism. First, we had Baron Kurtz’s weaselly little dog, whose beady eyes and strained whimper seemed to correlate eerily well with Kurtz’s duplicitous character. Then we were introduced to this very kitten, which Jeremy surmised is a fully-formed character in itself that may know crucial information about Harry Lime (his actions, his personality, his behavior, maybe even his thought processes). Thirdly, there was the parrot that attacked Holly while he was escaping from Popescu’s goons, itself a parallel to the cockatoo in Citizen Kane that Orson Welles threw in to startle the audience into rapt attention. (Since we never see The Third Man‘s violent parrot again, it’s safe to assume that Carol Reed or Graham Greene included it for a similarly visceral reason.) If the feline character we see in today’s still may be a complex character keeping its own secrets, Holly is attracted to it for the opposite reason: for its moral simplicity, its inability to betray others or present a false appearance of itself. Forced to reassess his twenty-year friendship with Harry and struggling with his unrequited love for Anna (which he blatantly admits to her in this very scene), Holly seems to want a friendship with a creature that is exactly what it seems, unable to lie or mislead. Like the horses in White Mane (Albert Lamorisse, 1952) or The Horse (Charles Burnett, 1973), who appeal to their young, beleaguered protagonists precisely for their loyal, uncomplicated companionship, Harry’s cat will respond to Holly’s company without treachery or hidden motive—or at least Holly assumes. Yet it turns out Jeremy’s interpretation of this cat may have been correct: as the animal flees from Anna’s apartment and Holly’s playfulness, we get the sense that the cat is indeed an enigmatic character with its own unknowable desires and allegiances, not simply an unthinking “Other” that can help Holly alleviate his loneliness and angst.
We’ve already mentioned the graying of previously iron-clad moral codes in The Third Man, which begs the question: are animals ethical creatures? And if not, does that make them inferior or superior to us? Maybe humans’ desire to ascribe moral judgments to our behavior is, though ostensibly well-intentioned, a distorting prism, one that replaces common sense with a self-satisfied attempt to fathom the world. This is essentially what Friedrich Nietzsche meant in The Gay Science when he wrote, “I fear that the animals see man as a being like them who in a most dangerous manner has lost his animal common sense—as the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal.” If Kurtz’s dog, Harry’s cat, or that angry parrot do observe human behavior with a capacity to interpret it, maybe they respond with the bemused pity that Nietzsche suggests: a sense that humans have betrayed nature by imparting a self-made moral code onto it. In other words, maybe the kitten in today’s still loves only Harry because he—while seemingly morally reprehensible—actually acts in the most animal-like way of any character, unwilling or unable to apply moral presumptions to his own actions. As future monologues in The Third Mansuggest, Harry may indeed be aware of outraged ethical judgments of his behavior, yet he may find no value in them, or in any moral strictures that humanity has constructed in order to explain the world and their place in it. (Regarding Nietzsche and animals, let’s remember the event that supposedly instigated his mental breakdown: his desperate shielding of a horse from its owner’s whip in Turin in 1889, which in itself suggests his preference for the natural purity of animals over the existential delusions of humans. This respect for animals’ place in the natural world and humans’ corruption of that nature is hauntingly conveyed in the already-famous opening shot of Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse.)
It is, in part, the amorphous nature of human morality that torments Holly in this scene: he’s unable to reconcile his own intimate friendship with Harry Lime with his knowledge of Harry’s greed and inhumanity. (Anna’s response, meanwhile—while it seems reductive and condescending to call it “animal-like” or more natural—may be free of the distorting ethical precepts that Nietzsche bemoans. As Anna says to Holly after he says that Harry’s murder had a certain justice to it, “A person doesn’t change because you find out more.”)
We shouldn’t forget, also, that Holly is completely soused in this scene, as is his wont. As Holly himself says, “I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.” (After a pause, Holly further clarifies his meaning while peering at Anna: “You.”) But does his inebriation make it easier or harder to understand and interpret what Harry has done? Does the cloud of drunkenness distort Holly’s judgments, making him both more emotional and less forgiving regarding Harry’s crimes? Or have Holly’s numerous whiskeys lifted the veil of over-rationalization, allowing him to judge his longtime friend with greater directness and clarity? Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson, among many other writers, would support the latter conclusion, making the case that drunkenness paradoxically enables the drinker to comprehend the world with apposite volatility. And, perhaps, so would the poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose “Morning of Drunkenness” will close out this post with sympathy for Holly Martins’ current drunken plight:
O my good! O my beautiful! Atrocious fanfare where I won’t stumble! enchanted rack whereon I am stretched! Hurrah for the amazing work and the marvelous body, for the first time! It began amid the laughter of children, it will end with it. This poison will remain in all our veins even when, as the trumpets turn back, we’ll be restored to the old discord. O let us now, we who are so deserving of these torments! let us fervently gather up that superhuman promise made to our created body and soul: that promise, that madness! Elegance, knowledge, violence! They promised us to bury the tree of good and evil in the shade, to banish tyrannical honesties, so that we might bring forth our very pure love. It began with a certain disgust and ended—since we weren’t able to grasp this eternity all at once—in a panicked rout of perfumes.
Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, austerity of virgins, horror in the faces and objects of today, may you be consecrated by the memory of that wake. It began in all loutishness, now it’s ending among angels of flame and ice.
Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask with which you gratified us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.
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.