Holly is at a Vienna bar, swigging whiskey and mumbling into his glass. His words are slurred as if they have been here for hours, when this choice phrase slips out of his mouth:
“I guess nobody knew Harry like he did—like I did. Best friend I ever had.”
Is this the drunken slip up of a lush or is it something more telling? Harry has secrets, that is itself no secret to Holly, and it will become more apparent as he begins to unravel them, but his accidental admission puts a finger on it. Harry, the real Harry, is not the one that Holly knows, and he will soon come to learn that. Perhaps this half-empty whiskey bottle, gleaming in the middle of the table and the middle of the frame is really a truth serum. Major Calloway seems cautious to drink it, maybe because he knows of its dangerous aspects, but he soon lets loose with something he’s been trying to contain himself:
“He [Harry] was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city.”
In Holly’s mind, this is the heart of the matter, finding whether Harry–the real Harry–is a best friend or Vienna’s worst racketeer. His jaw, set definitively on finding the truth, has changed its direction slightly. It now points directly toward defending his friend Harry. And so Holly’s crusade takes shape, spurred on by a slightly hostile mustachioed British Major. Like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe in the cheap novelettes that Holly writes, he is an American against the world.
This is, as I keep coming back to, a British film, and in his hostility, Holly begins the series of name mix-ups that will plague this film.
“Calloway, I’m English, not Irish.”
This begs what is arguably the most important question inherent to this film-frame itself. What kind of whiskey are they drinking? Certainly not Irish if Calloway has any say, but perhaps Scotch. Or could it be instead Holly’s choice, some bourbon or rye? If this film were made today, this product placement spot would certainly be purchased by one of the major labels, probably Johnny Walker, but in 1949’s film world it was possible to make a whiskey bottle be just that. The unclear heritage of this bottle shows where the power really lies between Holly and Calloway. Calloway is buying, of course, but Holly is really the one drinking, and whichever of them chose the bottle is the one really in command. In classic Noir fashion, we have a faceoff between the hero and the cops. Solving the mystery of this whiskey bottle we would solve the mystery of this frame’s moment.
Looking back at the frame itself, there are a few things we ought to notice. For one, the depth of field is immense. Our sharpest image is of Calloway and the bottle, but a huge empty space gapes behind Holly, fully void of human forms, yet we can see the menace of the Vienna streets poking through the open door, only slightly blurred. This open space, a light in the dark bar, begs us to imagine that something might come walking in or else Holly might go storming out. Of course neither happens, but the threat of the city of Vienna, the black market, and the secret life of Harry Lime lurks on either side of that doorway.
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.