On Tuesday, Jeremy dissected The Third Man‘s “wrong geometries,” a skewed visual perspective instigated by some unknown, massive anomaly haunting the streets of Vienna; today, courtesy of a slightly canted angle, we have another distorted perspective that suffuses Anna Schmidt’s apartment with uncanny tension. While the unseen phantom haunting Still Dots #61 was more amorphous, we know exactly who is causing the tension in today’s still: Harry Lime. Holly and Anna have both seen evidence of Harry’s guilt (courtesy of Major Calloway) and now face off with each other, batting moral uncertainties back and forth, divided by an ethical chasm that has them in disagreement over who Harry Lime actually was. The deep focus and distanced shot scale of today’s still places us in Holly’s shoes: he returns Anna’s stare, still in a drunken haze, bemoaning Harry’s corruptibility while Anna professes he’s still the same complex, dynamic, self-made man they always knew him as. How could he steal penicillin from dying men, women, and children and sell it on the black market? Their debate has a strong bearing on The Third Man‘s morally complex underpinnings, so it’s worth recounting their dialogue in this scene:
Anna: He’s better dead. I knew he was mixed up, but…not like that.
Holly: I knew him for twenty years. At least I thought I knew him. Suppose he was laughing at fools like us all the time?
Anna: He liked to laugh…
Holly: Seventy pounds a tube! He wanted me to write for his “great medical charity.”
Anna: I’ll put these flowers in the water.
Holly: Perhaps I could have raised the price to eighty pounds for him.
Anna: Oh, please! For Heaven’s sake, stop making him in your image. Harry was real. He wasn’t just your friend and my lover. He was Harry.
Holly: Well, don’t preach wisdom to me. You talk about him as if he had occasional bad manners… I am leaving Vienna. I don’t care whether Harry was murdered by Kurtz or Popescu or the Third Man. Whoever killed him, there was some sort of justice. Maybe I would have killed him myself.
Anna: A person doesn’t change because you find out more.
In addition to proving how great a screenwriter Graham Greene really was, this sequence gets to the heart of one of the major ambiguities that lies within The Third Man: the feasibility of moral judgments when applied to a real world dominated by war, violence, and money. If there is a “massive, invisible body” disfiguring the visual reality of Vienna, maybe it’s this gap between philosophical precepts about morality and the difficulty in applying them to real people’s behavior. A self-professed hack writer, Holly’s Western paperbacks operate by a black-and-white code of heroes and villains. But he’s never been a soldier in war, and one would imagine that his cowboy loners simply wage their own individual wars of solitude and frontier absolutism. If any of his heroes participated in the Mexican-American War (which Ulysses S. Grant called “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”) or massacred Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek in 1864, how would Holly respond to their cruelty? With the same ironclad, merciless notions of right and wrong that he applies to Harry, one would assume, and yet Harry too is a man surviving in the aftermath of a global war. How and why would he operate according to preconceived codes of morality when it has become obvious that the world at large has no interest in following such a code?
Holly feels the need to apply ethical interpretations to Harry’s behavior, treating his crimes as though they were merely pieces of evidence compiled in a laboratory, divorced from human action (which, for him, given the presentation Calloway offered earlier that afternoon, they are); Anna, however—whose calling as an actress requires her to occupy the turbulent minds and souls of the strangers she portrays—believes that her history with Harry gives her a greater sense of his nature, his goodness, than the admittedly distressing information Calloway has supplied. It’s tempting, then, to suggest that Holly is thinking too much with his head and Anna too much with her heart—he bitterly chastises his former friend without a consideration for the actual, dynamic life that Harry led; and Anna seems to dismiss the very real and lethal consequences of Harry’s crimes, preferring instead to embrace her lovelorn memory of him—but maybe Holly responds to Harry’s guilt so caustically precisely because he feels that his friend, with whom he was once so intimate and open, betrayed the memory of their friendship. Even Holly, then, responds to Harry’s crimes with emotional vitriol, though he tries to disguise his soul-sickened pain with sarcastic, world-weary moralism. Like numerous protagonists in Ingmar Bergman movies, the bourgeois family in Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden), or the passionate rivals Karl Jung and Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, a veneer of cold, logical rationality is ultimately revealed as a cover-up for submerged emotional longings and bitter disappointments.
Similarly, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, a 1987 novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, suggests that it is the heart, not the head, that sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom (if we are in fact separate from it at all). In the words of a French soldier who bears witness to seemingly limitless horrors during the Napoleonic Army’s Russian siege, it may be the heart and the fervent emotions that bleed from it which influence human behavior and guide us to behave like semi-ethical creatures:
Watching my comrades die was not the worst thing about that war, it was watching them live. I had heard stories about the human body and the human mind, the conditions it can adapt to, the ways it chooses to survive. I had heard tales of people who were burnt in the sun and grew another skin, thick and black like the top of overcooked porridge. Others who learned not to sleep so that they wouldn’t be eaten by wild animals. The body clings to life at any cost. It even eats itself. When there’s no food it turns cannibal and devours its fat, then its muscle then its bones. I’ve seen soldiers, mad with hunger and cold, chop off their own arms and cook them. How long could you go on chopping? Both arms. Both legs. Ears. Slices from the trunk. You could chop yourself down to the very end and leave the heart to beat in its ransacked place.
No. Take the heart first. Then you don’t feel the cold so much. The pain so much. With the heart gone, there’s no reason to stay your hand. Your eyes can look on death and not tremble. It’s the heart that betrays us, makes us weep, makes us bury our friends when we should be marching ahead. It’s the heart that sickens us at night and makes us hate who we are. It’s the heart that sings old songs and brings memories of warm days and makes us waver at another mile, another smouldering village.
To survive the zero winter and that war we made a pyre of our hearts and put them aside for ever. There’s no pawnshop for the heart. You can’t take it in and leave it awhile in a clean cloth and redeem it in better times…
If you felt for every man you murdered, every life you broke in two, every slow and painful harvest you destroyed, every child whose future you stole, madness would throw her noose around your neck and lead you into the dark woods where rivers are polluted and the birds are silent.
When I say I lived with heartless men, I use the word correctly.
Whether or not Holly’s claim that his friend’s murder constituted “some kind of justice” emanates from a coldly rational philosophy or from his bruised and battered heart, it seems clear that Holly cannot (or will not) weigh his own compassion for Harry against the lethal crimes he obviously committed. Henri, the poor French soldier from The Passion, also suggests that war eviscerates and subverts conventional notions of morality: “Nowadays people talk about the things [Napoleon] did as though they made sense… Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye.” Yet words that do not hold water in reality; war is senseless, not something that abides by traditional philosophies. But if World War II itself inspired a spreading cancer of amorality, this is a possibility that Holly is unable to consider. Anna, on the other hand, unable to ignore the throbbing sadness of her heart, has only her vivid memories of a life with Harry to keep her company.
As a final illustration of the intersection of war, morality, and philosophy, perhaps we can take a look at a scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), a foreboding pseudo-apocalyptic treatise on the onset of World War III. Though The Third Man and The Sacrifice could hardly be more different, both movies are (partially) about the patterns of destruction instigated by war and the inefficacy of moral philosophies to do anything about such barbarism. Maybe Holly Martins, mired in his existential crises and continually engaged in an attempt to alleviate those doubts via hard-and-fast moralistic concepts, will decades later become The Sacrifice‘s Alexander (the journalist/actor/philosopher seen in the clip below)—which may be the most unsettling hypothesis we’ve posed so far in Still Dots.
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.