Second #186, 03:06, Image © Studio Canal
We’re now past the opening credits of The Third Man—which already have presaged a number of themes and ideas that permeate the film (not to mention foreshadowed some of the concepts that will arise from a structured analysis of its still images)—and are thrust headlong into its diegesis. The postwar Vienna in which the movie takes place is a capital of contradictions: elegant and seedy, fueled by crime but struggling to maintain a semblance of decorum (those literary meetings! those posh bistros!). The Third Man‘s Vienna is paved with cobblestone streets and dotted with age-old architecture that denote a rich history, but that history has been visibly “bombed about” during the war—a rupture in the fabric of the past, present, and future that can be seen all too easily in the rubble that blankets the city.
We’re welcomed somewhat warmly into this world by an opening voiceover narration uttered in droll British tones (and provided by director Carol Reed himself). This prologue prepares us for a lively depiction of a city awash in poverty, destruction, corruption, and uncertainty—a clash of styles (misery conveyed through blithe wit) that parallels Vienna itself, a sparkling cornerstone of European history recently assailed by wartime violence. Reed’s voiceover tells us of the influx of troops—French, American, British, and Russian especially—that populated Vienna’s streets, trying to police this volatile city despite the fact that “none of them could speak the same language.” “Good fellows on the whole, tried their best,” the narrator opines—asserting, it seems, a sort of droll British aplomb in the midst of this multicultural hodgepodge. (It’s telling that when The Third Man was first released in the United States in 1950, David O. Selznick replaced Reed’s voicework with a narration uttered by Joseph Cotten, in character as Holly Martins.)
While his voiceover describes the French, British, American, and Russian zones spread throughout the city (as well as the “International Zone” at its center), Reed offers us a quick visual succession of signs foregrounded against Viennese landmarks demarcating the boundaries of each zone. It is in this rapid montage (each shot lasts about half a second) that we see the still above, marking the limit of the French zone. Each sign, moreover, is bedecked with the flag of its country—a further visual manifestation of national identity within the sign itself.
Signs, then, play a significant literal and figurative role immediately in The Third Man. The issue of adjacent national zones coexisting in Vienna (either harmoniously or contentiously) will reappear often, especially in scenes regarding the (forged) identification papers of Anna Schmidt (Anita Valli). While those zones are differentiated by signposts like the one above, Austrian culture itself is denoted by Vienna’s landmarks and architecture—for example, the sign for the Westbahnhof is visible in the upper left portion of Still #4, complete with an entourage of elaborately-sculpted figures. Signs like these offer literal indications of cultural specificity.
But the image of the “Zone Française” marker above also leads us to consider signs as communicators of meaning, as abstract representations of broader objects or concepts. How does one convey an entire grouping of cultural ideas and characteristics in a single visual sign (or “signifier,” if we use semiologist Ferdinand de Saussure’s more precise terminology)?
Besides internationally-known cultural landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall), flags are perhaps the clearest and most succinct visual denotations of national specificity. They are themselves “still images” within the “cinematic narratives” that countries themselves formulate: the Stars & Stripes, the Hammer & Sickle, the Maple Leaf or the emblazoned red circle forming snapshots that encapsulate a boundless number of accompanying cultural traits and mindsets. The flag, then, is not only a still image, but a word, or at least equivalent to the denotational power of the word: the French flag on the Zone Française marker (upended though it is, not to mention decolorized for us in this image) serves the same function as “France,” the written word. The one is an arbitrary assemblage of lines, colors, shapes into a graphic arrangement; the other is an equally arbitrary compendium of lines forming letters forming words forming sounds. Both act as springboards into seemingly boundless and polysemous spheres of national identity.
In Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Peter Wollen claims that cinema (taken as a whole) is one of the few signification systems that contains all three “modes” of the sign—indexical, iconic, and symbolic—as they were first elucidated by Charles Sanders Peirce. Wollen finds the indexical in cinema especially in neorealist films (particularly those by Roberto Rossellini and championed by Andre Bazin), reflecting as they do tumultuous changes in postwar cities by observing their poverty-stricken inhabitants, their crumbling architecture, their fluctuating infrastructures. (The rubble we see in The Third Man acts as an indexical sign.) He sees the symbolic, too: a larger system of metaphors and representational codes that movies employ in order to be “readable” by lay audiences (a visual language system inaugurated in part by D.W. Griffith and analyzed by Christian Metz). And the iconic: cinematic images that are opposed to any kind of realism, like those wondrously fabricated by Josef von Sternberg, who (according to Wollen) “sought…to disown and destroy the existential bond between the natural world and the film image” (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, 136). Cinema typically operates by infusing and synthesizing all three of these “modes,” thus forming a series of signs that are “perfect” in the sense that they amalgamate these three modes as equally as possible (instead of prioritizing or eschewing at least one).
If cinematic signs are “perfect” in their synthesis of iconic, indexical, and symbolic signification, couldn’t flags act as similarly perfect signs? Iconic: a graphic display of lines, colors, shapes, existing solely on an aesthetic level. Symbolic: an arbitrary representation of national identity whose correlation to a specific country must be learned. Indexical: displaying certain beliefs or characteristics that are directly related to the country (like geographical borders or national coats of arms). Cinematic still images and flags both act as remarkably complex visual symbols that entail a range of signification levels.
Before I sign off, how giddy am I to find that Murray Pomerance has written about a related topic in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema. In an article entitled “Significant Cinema: The Scene of the Crime,” Pomerance has this to say about the appearance of actual signs in cinema (such as the one in today’s still):
The sign-object inside a film is a sign itself and also a sign of itself… The sign-object does tend to utilize a ‘language-like’ code, referring us back to our understanding of memes, words, contractions, metaphors, and ambiguities at the verbal—or, since we orate signs to ourselves silently, the acoustic—level. We know not simply by seeing but also by reading, but reading in the most literal and unmetaphorical way… [Sign-objects] openly denotate the fact that the filmmaker is signing, and so they say their verbal meaning but also the fact of verbal meaning itself.
A sign of a sign: do we see or do we read it? Or, perhaps more precisely, how do we read it? The code of that ”Zone Française” marker is both visual and “language-like,” entailing a reading process that, while “literal and unmetaphorical,” also embeds at least two layers of decipherment within its reading process (visual and “acoustic”). How pleasing that the still above has a web of shadows, cast from tree branches swaying in the breeze, splayed directly over the written letters that we’re supposed to be seeing/reading: our eyes rest on a single point in the frame and exercise at least two modes of reading at once.
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.