Second #4650, 77:30, Image © Studio Canal
Although Harry Lime has, as Jeremy pointed out on Tuesday, already made several fleeting appearances in The Third Man, today’s still is the first time we see him as a flesh-and-blood human being, awkwardly posed mid-sentence, interacting with Holly Martins in a more-than-spectral manner for the first time. Of course, this is also the first scene in which we hear Orson Welles’ mellifluous speaking voice: the actor may not have had “a face for radio,” but he certainly had a voice for it.
As the two former friends properly reunite for the first time, the Prater amusement park seems abandoned: not a soul can be seen as Harry boldly strides up to Holly, outstretching his arm for a handshake and bellowing an overly enthusiastic, “Hello old man!” Holly’s refusal to hold out his hand in return must surely clue Harry in to his friend’s perturbed state of mind. It is also at this point that a throng of Viennese people start coming out of the woodwork, as it were, bustling past Harry and Holly and boarding the carousel behind them. The sudden appearance of everyday civilians (including a mother and her bundled-up children) in this otherwise ghostly amusement park—in other words, of some semblance of normalcy—is unexpected, even surreal; the movie’s sudden leap from eerie desolation to bustling activity reverses Harry Lime’s own “transformation” from idolized, dead-and-buried old pal to revived, reviled criminal racketeer (from life to death and back again). The absence of any human figures in the frame while Holly waits anxiously for Harry is also simply Directing 101: create tension by removing all relatable characters from the frame (with only dilapidated theme-park rides and structures in the background), then throw in a bustle of activity when the scene’s Mystery Guest finally arrives. Decades later, Paul Thomas Anderson used a similar technique for Barry and Lena’s euphoric Hawaiian reunion in Punch-Drunk Love—though in that case, the sudden leap from emptiness to overactivity of course serves a completely different purpose.
In any case, the sudden arrival of bystanders within earshot forces Harry and Holly to duck into one of the Ferris Wheel’s cars, just as the apparently dormant ride lurches back to life. This transition results in one of The Third Man‘s most abstract, geometric intercuts: Robert Krasker’s camera views the Ferris Wheel from below in a maze-like composition of stark diagonals and rigid squares-within-squares.
If The Third Man repeatedly disorients the viewer by turning Vienna’s urban topography into a distorted amalgam of lines and shapes, this shot does the same with the Ferris Wheel, turning a site of leisure and innocence into something unsettling and unfamiliar. We could even call the shot symbolic: if Holly and Harry are both “trapped” in a postwar world of outmoded moralism and barbaric avarice, that inescapability is reinforced by this shot, which creates a vortex from which neither character can seemingly break free. The fact that this amusement-park ride is no longer a sign of carefree innocence is even recognized by Harry, who tells Holly that “kids used to ride this thing a lot in the old days, but they haven’t the money now, poor devils.”
This happens as Harry gives a generous tip to an obviously grateful ride attendant, a seemingly throwaway gesture which begs a number of questions. If Harry deprives Vienna of its penicillin in an abhorrent ploy for money, does he think he’s “giving back to the community” by recognizing its poverty and empathizing with its lower classes? Was he really under the impression that he was hurting nobody with his black-market scam? Or did he think that the resultant deaths and mental breakdowns caused by his racket were simply part of the process, unfortunate casualties of a capitalistic system that prioritizes self-preservation and economic gain above all else? Some of these questions may be partly answered by the ensuing dialogue scenes (which we’ll tackle next week—including one that gives our Still Dots series its name), but it’s impossible to ignore the hypocrisy suggested by Harry’s gesture: he’s kind to individuals with whom he’s in close contact but indifferent to humanity as a whole, which again may simply be a symptom of living in a world that’s taken global war to be the natural way of functioning.
Still Dots 76 comes in the midst of a heated exchange about none other than Anna Schmidt: after Harry complains about his infernal indigestion (a malady which brings to mind Popescu’s assertion that drinking alcohol “makes [him] acid”—maybe it’s guilt or some kind of decay of the soul causing their heartburn), Holly notifies him that “his girl” has been handed over to the Russians for her passport inconsistencies. Maybe Holly is testing Harry, seeing if this news causes any remorse or sadness in his seemingly emotionless friend. If this is the case, Harry fails the test: “What can I do, old man?!,” he says smarmily. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” We’ve heard tales of Harry’s charm before, which is in full effect in this scene; but maybe we’ve been holding out hope that he’s misunderstood or at least cognizant of his own villainy, that he’s somehow affected by the crimes he’s committed. What’s striking in this scene is how self-obsessed and callous Harry is even as he lays on the charm: one wonders if he’s undergone a bleak transformation since he and Holly were such good friends.
Indeed, whatever friendship they used to have seems to be quickly crumbling away, not only because of Holly’s revulsion towards Harry’s crimes but because Harry is obviously suspicious of Holly’s iron-clad sense of justice and morality. Holly is understandably outraged at Harry’s indifference towards Anna; he thinks Harry should give himself up or at least call upon one of his contacts in the military police. Harry responds incredulously: “What, do you expect me to give myself up? ‘It’s a far, far better thing that I do…’? The old limelight, the fall of the curtain? Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes, the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.” (It’s at this point that his indigestion acts up again.) There’s a lot going on in this exchange, obviously: in addition to Harry’s punning reference to his own last name and his A Tale of Two Cities reference, he’s practically summing up many of the themes that Jeremy and I have hypothesized since the start of Still Dots. Central here is the idea that heroism and right-and-wrong morality don’t exist anymore in the modern world, that they’re outdated myths from old Westerns and folktales from pre-industrial societies. (The most film noir element in The Third Man, aside from its shadowy lighting, might be this thematic interest in the blurring of black-and-white notions of good and evil.) Maybe Harry is simply trying to rationalize his own behavior, but he might be right that the sacrificial heroism of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is impossible today; indeed, it’s perversely antithetical to the whole system of industrial capitalism. In Dickens’ book, the entrenchment of this all-powerful economic system hadn’t yet taken place, but the tyrants whom the French Revolution was meant to overthrow may have been its forebears. As the Marquis St. Evrémonde says in A Tale of Two Cities, “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery…will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof…shuts out the sky.” Perhaps it is this deference of fear and slavery, made even more powerful given the meteoric rise of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century, that is motivating Harry Lime, causing him to protect himself monetarily at all costs. We’ll discover next week just how fully this inhumane mindset has infested Mr. Lime.
Obviously this is a thematically and visually dense 62 seconds; indeed, this whole scene will provide plenty of meat to pick apart in the near future. It may or may not provide the key to decoding Harry Lime’s ambiguous behavior; at the very least, it strongly conveys his paradoxical charming-yet-unsettling demeanor. In any case, The Third Man‘s deft blending of emotional resonance, thematic complexity, visual innovation, and big-budget entertainment brings to mind another classic about the damning repercussions of greed and alienation: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John Huston and based on B. Traven’s 1927 novel. One of the first Hollywood films to be filmed almost entirely on location (in Mexico), which already raises comparison to The Third Man‘s location shooting in Vienna, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre also made the point that a false and manmade cycle of greed and self-preservation sets a disastrous precedent for violent inhumanity. As the doomed Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) ponders in the clip below, money may in fact be the root of all evil, the very idea of which torments human individuals in modern capitalism; or, on the other hand, money can destroy or rescue individuals, depending on their inherent goodness, their own self-forged ethical code. If the latter interpretation is true, then something must have been severely unbalanced in the charismatic, larger-than-life Harry Lime, even from the start.
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.