One of The Third Man‘s most iconic images, Still Dots 98 petrifies Harry Lime on the brink of life and death: after killing Calloway’s partner-in-arms and loyal companion, Sergeant Paine, Harry is himself plugged by Calloway and scrambles up this iron walkway, only yards away from the chilly open air of Vienna and, perhaps, yet another narrow escape from certain death. (Harry’s affinity with felines emerges once again: maybe Mr. Lime really does have nine lives.) If, as Jeremy surmised on Tuesday, Harry Lime has been enacting his death drive and (unconsciously or not) gravitating irreversibly towards certain doom, he now realizes the calamity of his actions and clutches desperately at survival. As Don Draper and his associates realized on the pilot of Mad Men, the death drive only has valence as a subconscious mechanism; people don’t want to hear about (much less embrace) death, as it contradicts the very survival instincts of any biological entity (not to mention the supreme importance of happiness in advertising).
Harry’s amoral view of humanity as dispensable dots, whose potential to be stilled has no significance or bearing whatsoever, would seem to be contradicted by his current frantic fight for survival: if his nihilism is really as all-consuming as he pretends it to be, presumably he would have to accept that he is simply one of those dots whose death is unavoidable and meaningless. (As a tangential side note: today’s still also suggests the double-meaning of “Still Dots,” in that the composition of this image is strikingly beautiful, in its stark blacks and whites and graphic dynamism, even when wholly removed from its mobile context in the moving image. The “still dots” of grain we see in this frame—the light bubbling up from below, the sweaty, furrowed brow of Orson Welles’ face—remind us once again of the subtle significance of Roland Barthes’ “third meaning.”) Like the unnamed narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, who makes a show of nihilistically distancing himself from the rest of humanity yet ultimately craves its acceptance—“I wished with all my might to show that I could do without them; and yet I purposely clumped with my boots, coming down hard on the heels. But all in vain. They paid no attention.”—Harry seems to care little about life and death, yet claws at freedom when his mortality is most endangered. On the other hand, a fleeting gesture that Harry will soon make to Holly might prove how little he does, in fact, value his own survival; but we’ll save this consideration for next week.
If the upcoming denouement of The Third Man will emphasize the (non-)romantic relationship between Holly and Anna, the film’s climax focuses on not one but two male friendships: Calloway’s and Paine’s as well as Holly’s and Harry’s. As already mentioned, it is Harry’s shooting of Paine that compels Calloway to return fire; soon, the relationship between Holly and Harry (already frayed to its breaking point) will similarly resolve itself through violence and sacrifice. Intimate male-male relationships have had a central place in action movies and, especially, films noir from Wings (1927) to Out of the Past (1947) to Reservoir Dogs (1992; not to mention the most homoerotic action movie of all time, 300). Yet the male friendship that parallels Holly and Harry’s most tellingly is that between Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity (1944). Undeniably a more genuine relationship than that between Neff and the movie’s archetypal femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Neff and Keyes spend the entire film as either friendly competitors or inevitable nemeses. There is real affection and respect between them: in the world of insurance claims adjustments, they’re the ones shrewd enough to see through every loophole and oversight, whose ritualistic sharing of a cigar/cigarette is revealing for more than its phallic symbolism. The fact that Neff is ultimately the culprit whom Keyes has been pursuing for most of the film—and that Neff dictates his confession to Keyes with his dying breaths—results in a poignant final embrace, during which Neff half-sarcastically tells Keyes “I love you, too” while Keyes lights Neff’s cigarette for the last time. The friendship between Holly and Harry is never quite as predominantly (if symbolically) homoerotic, but there is still, of course, great intimacy between the two one-time best friends, an intimacy revolving around the simultaneous respect and rivalry each has for the other. Ultimately, of course, Holly morally condemns Harry, but perhaps, even as they battle and confront one another, the paradoxical kinship between them grows even stronger. The linkage between Double Indemnity‘s and The Third Man‘s male friendships will become even more prominent next week, as our climax draws to a close; in both films, it seems, and in true male-weepie fashion, the passionate bond between two men can only be subsumed by violence.
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.