Marshmallows. I see the marshmallows. They fling themselves above me, high flyin’. I watch them with a dulled absorption.
Patting. Something is patting my face. A gentle rain of gentle pats. On my nose, cheeks and mouth.
Then God speaks. God is the atmosphere in which marshmallows fling themselves toward the heavens. And God is the moral climate in which one’s face is patted. But God is also capable of infusing his world with voice.
God can say: “Butch, what in the hell are you doing?”
My father-who-art-on-the-couch, hallowed be thy Life-on-TV. He hath risen like Christ from the tomb; he is a lily sprouting like a mushroom from the humid cushions of the davenport. He has lifted himself from recumbency, as if someone had asked the famous reclining Buddha for a dance.
So I’m looking straight up out of my own sympathetic grave. My father is on his knees looking back over the edge of the chesterfield, as if over the edge of his own coffin. His arms rest on the edge, God brooding over his world, wondering, “Why did I make that?” I lie below him, on the floor, flat on my back, dozens of Kraft miniature marshmallows littered around my head like spent shrapnel.
“I’m not doin’ nothin’, Dad.”
“No, Son, that’s not nothin’. I can only wish you were doin’ nothin’. Nothin’ would be a big step up from this. Compared to this, nothin’ gets your name on a banner high up in the rafters of the high school gymnasium. So, no, it’s not nothin’. It’s the quality of the somethin’ that I’m wondering about.”
I scrunch my face searching for a way of expressing my sense of hopeless bewilderment.
“No, Son, let me tell you what you’re doin’. You’re throwing marshmallows up in the air and letting them land on your face. Can you give me the rhyme and reason for this?”
I can feel my eyebrows, nose, and mouth shudder and convulse. What have I meant?
God clucks his tongue. “You just don’t make sense.”
He continues. “Now let’s take a look at what your hands are doing.”
“Jesus Christ. As if you weren’t bad enough. What in the world are your sisters doing?”
My hands. Again. Doing things. Why were boys supposed to be responsible for what their little hands did? It wasn’t fair. I looked over at my right hand, fearing the worst. Marshmallows had, over a period of tremendous geological change, of the complete collapse of one climate empire after another, marshmallows had, I may now safely reveal, now that it is too late and no amount of filtering, recycling, and federal intervention will make the least difference, marshmallows had with the persistent force that is nature’s own, melted down between my fingers, dripped through like stalactites or mites, making thus a most guilty and sticky clotted cream.
“Not that hand. The other hand.”
Oh, that hand was an innocent hand! Let me look then for the true culprit, mister left hand, mister sneaky sinister. But I couldn’t find it.
“Where is it, Dad?”
“My other hand.”
“Where’s your other hand? You can’t find your own hand? Jesus! Send out a fucking search party! Call the FBI! He can’t find his own goddamn hand!”
He waited. I did nothing. Then with a mocking look of exasperation he held his own left hand out as if to show me how it was done. With his extended left hand he formed a pistol. With the pistol he touched his temple.
I turned my head to the left and was suddenly looking right down the barrel. I could see the whorling bore of the gun, so much like a fingerprint.
Using my sodden right hand, I gently and compassionately lowered my rigid left, just praying that it was no hair-trigger affair. A tragedy averted.
Then Dad turned and sat back down on the davenport. Over the edge I could just see his hand gesture as though he were trying to throw a curveball, which I took to mean I should come sit with him.
Now this may all seem like just another evening in your average, damaged middle-class household. Not so! Remember, my father had not spoken to me since I was an infant. This was like wanting to know who had killed your best friend and then being given the extraordinary opportunity to ask questions of the victim himself.
I got up from behind the couch, wiping my fingers on my blue jeans, and sat next to my father. I kept my hands on my lap where I could keep an eye on them. Before us, like a dumb show, were my sisters. Winny moved to-and-fro before the TV like a deranged shuttle. Janey stood to the right, her mouth open like an orator’s. A deep “Oh” emerged from her.
My father considered them. “Jesus Christ. As if you weren’t bad enough. What in the world are your sisters doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are they always like this?”
“What do you know?”
“I don’t know.”
At this point, of course, anybody’s fatherly despair would be in order. But at just that moment I realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity stood before me. I was speaking with my father. We were having a chat. I could ask him a question if I dared. I could ask him, what happened? Who dunnit? Were there witnesses? Where might my mighty revenge focus its awful energy? Time became mythic.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Are you happy?”
“Am I happy?”
“Yes, I’m a very happy person.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m happy because I just am. I have your mother and I have you kids and we have Poochie and the house and nice things like the TV.”
“Dad, why do you watch TV every night?”
“I like the TV, Son. I enjoy it. It’s very entertaining.”
“You watch TV because it’s entertaining?”
“Dad, why don’t you talk to me or Winny or Janey?”
“I don’t have anything to say to you. It’s nothing personal. If I had something to say, I’d say it.”
“Well, why don’t you have something to say?”
“I guess so. Yeah. We’re talking now. Why can’t we always do this?”
“This is different because we’re not really talking, we’re talking about talking.”
“Dad, why do you drink?”
“You always drink that stuff that Mom calls booze. That Old Crow booze.”
“Well, again, it’s nothing mysterious. I just like to drink.”
“You like to drink?”
“Yes. It makes me feel good. I enjoy it. It’s part of what makes being an adult fun. When you grow up, you’ll like to drink too. Drinking is like a good friend.”
“So you see, Son, I’m happy because I have a nice TV to watch and drinks to drink. And that’s all there is to it.”
“Say, hey, listen, let’s cut all this jabber and watch a movie. What do you say? It’s Saturday night and there’s a movie on. One of my favorites.”
“What’s the name of it?”
“The Third Man.”
“What about Winny and Janey?”
“Leave them be. This movie’s for you and me. Except Winny keeps getting in the way.”
Dad gets up and moves Winny to one side. She continues to pace robot-like but out of our view.
“You make a better door than you do a window, Winny,” he says.
“Son, have I ever told you about my experiences in postwar Vienna, when I was with the Allied Army of Occupation?”
Not a damned word.
“I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm—Constantinople suited me better.”
“Well, I had many fine adventures and I’m gonna tell you every one of them. But when Carol Reed and Orson Welles made this movie in Vienna back in 1948, they put me in it!”
“You’re in this movie?”
“Bet your bottom dollar!”
“Who are you?”
“What makes you think I’m a who?”
“What else could you be?”
“Maybe I’m a building or a bridge.”
“You’re a bridge in this movie?”
“I’m kidding you, Son. Why don’t you just watch and tell me if you think someone or something is me.”
A black-and-white shadowy world begins to emerge. It is the world of my parents, the world before I was born.
A brisk cosmopolitan narrator speaks: “Vienna doesn’t look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit … Oh wait, I was going to tell you … about Holly Martins from America …”
“Dad, you were from America!”
“Well, is that you? Holly Martins?”
“Don’t talk. Watch the movie, Son.”
“He came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime.”
Opening Credits: A striated field, like a ruled pad of paper, made of the strings of a zither. Immediately the strings begin to vibrate, resonate with their great theme. Harry Lime. Harry Lime! Everything in this world evokes him while he remains persistently hidden. But this zither, our first “authenticity” in a movie that is often like a documentary of Cold War Vienna, has its own peculiarities. Are zithers truly a Germanic instrument? Is this sunny sound not more appropriate to the Mediterranean? The Greek kithara. Think of Vienna, whose grim streets are like claustrophobic canyons. Its severe facades always seem just a degree away from toppling. Why is this music here? It plays a tune that is lilting in pure, deranged contradiction to its context. It is the joie-devivre-unto-death. It is possessed, demoniacal, happy-go-lucky, a real self-motivator, fatal, unhinged, a good chap, funny, misplaced, grimy, suicidal, scandalous, merry, jocund, fleeting, ditty-like, of a certain airiness, depraved, condemned, merciless, unrepentant, and in general a scandal. When The Third Man played on TV, during my childhood, there was no escaping this zither which seemed to drench the house in human tears. It is the most perfect and perfectly inappropriate music in the history of soundtracks. This theme will plague us throughout the movie like a madness whose only virtue is persistence: it will not be forgotten. Da da da da da da … da da. This is a false gaiety. This is laughing when things ain’t funny.
Porter: “Sorry for the gravediggers. Hard work in this frost.”
Vienna: “Bombed about a bit.” The Third Man is about the postwar four-power occupation of Vienna. Most of the film’s contemporary viewers considered it a fairly accurate portrayal of Vienna, both visually and emotionally. The film’s director, Carol Reed, used the piles of rubble, bombed-out houses, narrow streets and maze-like sewers. Inadvertently, he documented not only the place and time, but the metaphysical process by which the dislocations of World War II moved the West from the modern to the postmodern. It is visually and morally not unlike a much later and expressly postmodern movie, Blade Runner. Both are movies about a world of decay on top of which is the high-tech super-efficiency of the State. The police powers of occupied Vienna know with a cruel particularity what is the case personally and ideologically in every collapsed corner of the city. Information is for the first time depicted as more durable and more real than granite.
Martins: “I was going to stay with him but he died Thursday.”
Mr. Crabbit: “Goodness that’s awkward.”
The third man is our madness whispering to us, “Nothing is as it seems. Everything you think you know is false.”
The Third Man: This title. Why is it so unsettling? There is you and I. Me and Dad. There is the familiar comfort of the dual. Reality and TV. But this movie is telling me that there is a third character, beyond my control, beyond my perception, mocking me. The third man is the closeted man. The man of whom no one may speak. It is taboo. He is there and not there. Unspeakable. He laughs from darkened recesses like the Shadow. (Isn’t part of the perfection of Orson Welles as Harry Lime the resonance of Welles’s earlier radio career as the Shadow?) Welles’s figural entry in a darkened Viennese doorway trails ghosts in its wake.
The third man is our madness whispering to us, “Nothing is as it seems. Everything you think you know is false.” The simplicity of this revelation is appalling. There is you and your father and then there is a third man! The third man is your real father. You want him, you want him to come forward, and yet you fear that if he does you will learn things you do not wish to know.
The Plot: Holly Martins, a simple American writer of westerns, comes to Vienna at the request of his boyhood friend and idol, Harry Lime. He discovers that Lime is dead. We follow Holly Martins’s inept but dogged pursuit of the enigmatic “third man” who supposedly witnessed Lime’s death, but who, as it turns out, is actually Lime himself. Along the way, Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, is assaulted by ever-more shocking revelations—that Lime may have been murdered, that Lime is actually alive, that Lime is a racketeer whose watered-down penicillin has crippled innumerable children. As Martins’s investigation proceeds, he himself becomes increasingly at risk from Harry’s gangster friends and perhaps even the police. Ironically, Martins’s perseverance also does damage to innocent people around him: a porter, Sergeant Paine, and Harry himself are killed, all in the course of Martins’s efforts to know the “true story.” Worse yet, his investigation calls attention to Lime’s girlfriend, Anna, with whom Holly has fallen in love. Now, because of Holly’s inept presence, the Soviets are interested in her and her forged passport.
Colonel Calloway: “Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”
Mozart Café: Baron Kurtz, one of Harry’s friends who was at the scene of the “accident,” has arranged to speak with Holly. He is a decadent Viennese straight out of the paintings of Klimt. (Because of the persistently canted camera angles, the film has a generally Expressionist feel. This is a world off-kilter. It is a world of dawning nausea.) Kurtz has a repulsive little dog and a repulsive homosexual relationship with Dr. Winkel (“Veenkel!”). But Baron Kurtz is also a “third man” because he is also Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz. Is the conclusion one should draw from this that everybody is in hiding, even those in the open? Does everyone mask a “third” presence? Holly’s pathetic third presence: the idealistic American hero, the “lone rider of Santa Fe.” So this is a detective story about Holly who seeks the truth of the spritely dead by rummaging among the dried husks of the living. Is not the film’s thesis then: All those who are alive are really dead (in the sense that they obscure their real selves)? And all those who are apparently dead are alive? Bizarrely, Anna’s depressed comment, “I want to be dead too,” indicates that she alone among these many characters is truly alive. She admits her falsity and is thus most true. (Holly: “Anything really wrong, Anna, with your papers?” Anna: “They’re forged.”)
Anna: “He said I laughed too much.”
Casanova Club: Shots of Kurtz playing overripe melodies on his violin to an obscenely fat and ugly woman eating soup. A violent cynicism: the romantic and the oleaginous. Popescu: “Everyone ought to go careful in Vienna.” Loud, lunatic, sobbing zither music.
The Reichsbrücke Bridge: Popescu arranges a meeting on this bridge to plot the murder of the porter. Looking hard, I catch my first sight of Lime—big, burly, great-coated, his back to the camera. My childhood self looks quickly to my father, “You?” “No, no, no. Pay attention.”
Holly and Anna looking at a photograph.
Anna, smiling: “Yes. He moved his head, but the rest is good isn’t it?”
Harry’s Street: The porter, who was about to spill Lime’s secret to Holly, has been murdered. Holly enters a snarling crowd to find out what happened. Little Hansl arouses the crowd with his shrieks of “Papa, Papa.” His childish words and gestures somehow imply that Martins is responsible. He is ominously round-faced like an avatar of Harry himself. He is a horrific dwarf, a goblin child, not quite human. If he is magically Lime’s imp, then through him Harry attempts to lay the blame for his own murder of the porter on his best friend, Holly. The metaphysics of betrayal.
Lime: “How many dots, old man, could you afford?”
Cultural Center: Holly is kidnapped by a taxi driver. Is it one of Lime’s thugs? “Are you going to kill me?” he shrieks. Comically, he is dumped out before the British Cultural Center where Mr. Crabbit has arranged for him to lecture on the “crisis of faith” in the modern novel. (Holly: “What’s that?”) Following his lecture, during which he is asked, “Where do you put Mr. James Joyce?”, Martins is pursued by true murderers. He flees up a spiraling staircase, then down crumbling flights of concrete stairs. Stairs are everywhere in The Third Man, as if to provide access from one logic or metaphysic to another. At one level, Harry is a dear friend, at another a brutal criminal, at another a possessed child intent upon your death.
Police Headquarters: Holly learns the truth about Lime’s penicillin racketeering.
Cabaret Bar: Martins drinks off his despair. Girls with pointy breasts dance before him. He doesn’t notice. He takes no interest in pointy breasts. He buys two huge bunches of chrysanthemums from an old woman. Where do these chrysanthemums grow in frosty Vienna? Are these Eliot’s flowers blossoming out of the dead land?
Martins: “Mind if I use that line in my next novel?”
Anna’s Room: The poignancy of the truth: Appropriate and available though Martins may be, Anna cannot love him. She prefers the memory of Harry to the reality of Holly. The full weight of Hollywood romantic conventions requires a coming-together of Anna and Holly. But Holly can never be anything more for her than Harry’s slightly effeminate shadow. She is all worthiness loving the face of the utterly unworthy.
Holly stands at Anna’s window hoping to see Lime. “He could be anybody.” Holly doesn’t see Harry, but he does see my father.
Certain though I am that it is he, I say nothing to my father. I do not insist on the obvious. I do not wish to hurt him with the obvious. I let the obvious pass. Let him claim what he likes. Let him tell me that he is the severe Colonel Calloway. Let him tell me that he is the glamorous Lime. I will nod and smile. I see all I need to see. I only wish that I could walk around that dark, dying Austrian corner with him, my arm around his shoulder. Just for the company.
Anna: “A person doesn’t change because we find out more.”
As always, Welles’s portrayal borders on the excessive, the hambone high school thespian.
Anna’s Street: Harry’s first appearance. Holly sees his shoes in a darkened doorway. He takes them for the shoes of a police “tail.” He shouts. A woman, awakened by the noise, turns on a second-story light. A slashing diagonal light illuminates Harry’s smirking face. Carol Reed catches the flavor of the actual. Streets at night. Lime’s shoes—hard, black, and shiny. The surprise for the viewer is as fully emotional as we must imagine it is for Holly. Lime, in his all-black garb, mocks the idea of villain hood. He is cherubic and baby-faced. Is it not little Hansl?
One must wonder, however, what Harry’s facial expressions mean. As always, Welles’s portrayal borders on the excessive, the hambone high school thespian. He looks surprised, quizzical, embarrassed, whimsical, pouty, sinister, menacing, and naughty in quick succession. Tiny, involuntary waves of emotion seem to ripple across his face.
As Martins approaches Harry, a truck comes between them, and when it has passed, Harry is gone. The echoing sound of Harry’s fleeing shoes knocking on the Austrian cobblestones is the very sound of lonely despair. He sprints around the same corner at which Holly had earlier seen my father. And vanishes.
The Great Ferris Wheel: Vienna may be wrecked, but the Great Wheel is still functioning. Holly and Harry meet at it. They rise in one of its roomy cars high over the Prater. It also rises over Europe at mid-century. We are given a hawk’s-eye view of the tragic scene.
The attractive and repulsive aspects of Harry’s character lock in fierce antagonism. He is at once extravagant and tawdry, lighthearted and lethal. He is, in short, an American. His almost plausible logic: “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
(It is amazing to think of a time when one could “look out” on a world that stretched forth as panorama and veritable landscape. I suppose if Holly and Harry had had a TV in their Ferris wheel car, they could have looked out over America at end-century as well. Lime’s depraved idea that people are just “dots” would then be nothing more than the bare fact of the matter. “Death? Don’t be melodramatic, Holly. I’m not hurting anyone. Pixelated things don’t feel pain. I’m just changing the channel, old man.”)
Anna’s Dresser Drawer: Lime is not the film’s only dehumanizing force. When Colonel Calloway confiscates Anna’s love letters from Harry, they are removed back to the station in one of Anna’s dresser drawers. (Did they forget to bring a box? a paper bag?) But a close-up of the drawer at the station reveals that there are more than letters here. There is an unfinished embroidery, some small intimate boxes, sachets, and silky kerchiefs. This was all to be taken “downstairs” and “photographed.” In the laboratory. Anna, too, is a “dot” for the police. There are no humans left in Vienna, only objects to be manipulated and calculated.
Sergeant Paine: “It’s all right, Miss, we’re like doctors.”
The Trap: The film nears its conclusion. Holly waits in a café for Lime. He is conscious bait. He is betraying Harry. An exotic, perverse balloon seller approaches Calloway and Paine where they wait in darkened ambush. “Bahloon, mein herr?” The film becomes surreal. Who would imagine selling balloons in the midnight dark of a menacing side street? He wears a stagy beard. Is it the cunning Welles/Lime in disguise? Or is this a goofy role Reed found to humiliate my soldierly father?
Suddenly the music thunders in full theme: Harry Lime makes his matchless entry, appearing in silhouette on top of the rubble that was a building, smoking a cigarette, coolly surveying the scene. He is king of the mountain. He is the last man standing. He is one ego aperch a ruined world. But it is the last moment of his grandeur. When he enters the café (gullibly, implausibly, fatally), there are instantaneous whistles and shouts. Dogs bark and sirens shrill. There is a sense of total mobilization. The entire police machinery of Vienna is unleashed on Harry. Ironically, the soldiers wear the helmets worn by the soldiers of the Third Reich. The scene has the appearance, so familiar from other movies of the period, of the SS in pursuit of a victim. Harry escapes, a frightened animal. Apparently, in this world, Nazis of one stripe pursue Nazis of another stripe. The trick is to persuade that there are differences between these “interests” or “zones.”
Paine: “Sounds anti-British, Sir.”
The Sewers: Suddenly we are tiny creatures, evil children, splashing in the bowels of this city. A great smell trickles here, cascades there. We are lost in a bewildering place: Harry Lime’s home. He has escaped to his refuge in the sewers of Vienna. This foulness runs straight to the Blue Danube.
The cinematic effect is thrilling, bewildering. We are lost in this smelly labyrinth. Life cannot possibly live here. The background zither music is silent. There is only the rush of the sewer water and the desperate, lonely echo of Lime’s running footsteps. I recognize it as the sound of the inside of my brain.
Lime comes to an open amphitheater, a central area where many smaller streams meet. He doesn’t know which way to run. Voices, each seeming to speak a different language, burst from each tunnel. The languages swirl about him like ghosts. He can’t run, but he runs.
Finally, Lime is shot during an exchange of fire with Calloway. He drags himself up one last flight of stairs, Martins just behind him, prepared to be Lime’s executioner. But Lime has not yet accepted his death. He pulls himself up the metal stairs to a grill on the other side of which is the world. His fingers thrust through the grill. Abruptly, Reed moves the perspective to the street. We are looking at Harry’s fingers emerging through the grill, cut off from the rest of his body. A dry wind rushes indifferently, as if these fingers really emerged from the floor of a desolate canyon. They wriggle hopelessly, pale worms. Grim cheese squeezed through a cloth. This is the truth, behind the world’s daylit reality; its “business” is this despair. These detached fingers endowed with an awful will.
“Those fingers are my fingers! Orson Welles filmed the scene in the sewer weeks before and had returned to Italy, where he was working on Othello. Mr. Reed needed fingers and I had some.
“Son, I played Harry Lime’s fingers in The Third Man. There’s something to tell your punk friends.”
Should I have been happy for my father’s brilliant past? Should I have applauded? Said, “Bravo, old man, kudos!”? Or should I have been appalled that these wormlike objects were his? I stared at him, his smiling, pleased face alternating in my immature mind with the image of his detached wriggling fingers.
One way or the other, that was that. We’d had our mythic evening. It was over with the startling and uncomfortable suddenness of emerging from the magic of a darkened theater into the afternoon sun or, worse yet, a suburban shopping mall. We’d shared. We’d talked. I’d discovered things about my father. But Anna’s words kept returning to me: “A person doesn’t change because you find out more.” Too bad.
Finally, it appeared that we were a happy family. What was there to dread in this world?
Unpredictably, my sisters had emerged from their emblematic poses and were now chattering on the couch with us. They didn’t like the movie. It was boring. Why did we always have to watch shows with guns in them? More amazing yet, the general whirl of words and feelings was directing us toward the car, the ’59 Dodge Sierra station wagon that sank into the street’s tar like a dinosaur into the La Brea. We were going to go “for a ride.” It was to be a “family outing.” Then you should have heard the din! Chaotic babble. Harry Lime had it good in those sewers. The tide of family feeling pushed us toward the street. When the car ignited, there was so much enthusiasm that we seemed to be boiling. We were going to blast off, all eight cylinders roaring. The instrument panel lights gave off a phosphorescent green glow in the darkness.
Then Janey said, “What about Mom?”
“Where has she been all these years?”
“She never does anything with us.”
“Let’s wait for her.”
“Hey, here she comes!”
Indeed it was Mom, hopping across the lawn, laughing, catching up. Finally, it appeared that we were a happy family. What was there to dread in this world? She got in the backseat with my sisters. I could hear them popping like popcorn. But there was also the curious scent that invariably indicated that a few kernels were scorching at the bottom of the pan. I looked back.
In the nervous dark of our family station wagon’s backseat I could see the telltale glow of my mother’s hair. It was on fire. She had it up in a sort of fetching beehive of embers. It was a torch. It was roaring. But no one seemed to notice but me. Little wisps of charred film floated in the air.
“Roll down your window a little, Butch, it’s getting hot in here.”
I did as I was told but then looked quickly back again. They were laughing and talking rapidly. They might have been college roommates. But already the torch of my mother’s hair had been passed. Janey’s brown hair flamed. Winny’s blonde hair smoldered. I turned forward.
“Dad … ”
“There’s something wrong.”
“Like what?” He accelerated. The bleary ooze of tire emerged from the smeary ooze of road. The speedometer struggled forward. We snapped outward. I was pushed back against the seat. We were blasting off for Mars. (Would Holly the Martian meet us there?) I turned again, hoping against hope that I’d been seeing things. I was greeted by three smiles and a solid hedge of flaming brow.
“What are you lookin’ at?” they cried together, socking each other in the arm at the hilarious coincidence.
I looked forward. The little toy homes flew by on each side, illuminated by their ridiculously frail porch lights. If someone somewhere, some superior force, were centrifuging our suburb, what liquid would trickle from us?
“Well?” my father asked. “What is it?”