In 1939, 10 years before the release of The Third Man and six months before the beginning of the war that would shape its setting, papers were being signed that would change American cinema forever. Alfred Hitchcock was coming to Hollywood. At the time, his fame in England was frantic (newspapers were calling him “Alfred the Great”) and his international reputation was growing in leaps in bounds. A New York Times feature writer even went so far as to write: “Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock.” In 1939, a few years after his 1935 film, The 39 Steps Hitchcock developed a term that will come in useful for looking at today’s frame. In a lecture at Columbia University, Hitchcock explained: “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” While a silly name, this concept has been latched onto by filmmakers ever since, most notably bluckbuster wunderkind, George Lucas who claimed that he thought of R2D2 as the MacGuffin in the Star Wars narrative.
Today we are in for a close brush with The Third Man‘s own MacGuffin, and since this is a spy story, it takes the form of Anna’s forged papers. As she strides stolidly toward the camera, swinging her right arm into her coat, she is being detained by the Russian police. While this is certainly not an object without narrative importance for Anna, indeed it could mean her deportation or exclusion to the Russian zone of Vienna, but it’s unnecessary position at the center of all of our main characters lives is what makes it the story’s MacGuffin. The papers were forged by Popescu, an event arranged by Harry and for the benefit of Anna, out of love, and as Calloway and the Russians confiscated the papers, against Holly’s protestation, they got into the mix as well. Not only that, but now that they have been confiscated and Anna detained, putting her life in some jeopardy, these papers will serve as the story’s main conflict as Holly must choose who he wants to protect, his old friend Harry or his new love (and a damsel in distress) Anna. Meanwhile we know nothing of the papers themselves. We have neither seen them, nor heard them described, only the narratives that surround them.
Up until Still Dots #65 we could also have claimed that Harry Lime is MacGuffin himself, since his figure is one at the center of so much of this film, but his charming smirk takes away all doubt. Harry is a character, one portrayed so much larger than life that we must be careful not to call him a person, and though his figure serves an important narrative function, he worms his way much further into our hearts and minds than any briefcase, statuette or passport could. That charisma is Harry’s own kind of magic, evidenced today in the stern expression on Anna’s face. Anna, who out of her love for him still refuses to doubt his inherent goodness, even in the face of so much evidence, walks toward the police with an expressions that belies little and sends only the message, “I’m not saying a word.” Even after his supposed death, Anna won’t sell out Harry for his involvement in the papers that all parties involved know to be forgeries. So again, the papers find themselves at the center of the narrative, even this love story, one that Holly is eager to forget, between Anna and Harry.
But The Third Man presents no such image. Anna’s papers, for all their importance, are never shown and only discussed. They, like Orson Welles’ face, could be a simulacrum of their own, since they are certainly a copy with no original. But, for all we know, Anna’s papers could be blank, making them a double simulacrum, a fake copy of a fake passport. Even Anna’s name could be a fraud, tied to these falsified papers and her Viennese identity, but not to her heritage or birth name. These papers are the lie that holds this story together, and as the lie is being outed, the divergent plot lines are in danger of coming apart at the seams. So as Anna is taken into custody, not knowing that somewhere, Harry is still alive, and Holly goes looking for Harry, not knowing about Anna’s peril, our plot, powered by this (fake) object, is headed toward climax/disaster.
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.