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Still Dots #24

Second #1426, 23:46, Image © Studio Canal Another canted frame (which we’ll see plenty more of throughout The Third Man) as Holly Martins re-questions Harry’s former porter, who heard (but did not see) the car accident that allegedly killed Harry. As Jeremy mentioned, the circumstances surrounding Harry’s death are becoming increasingly suspicious, even while the […]

Second #1426, 23:46, Image © Studio Canal

Another canted frame (which we’ll see plenty more of throughout The Third Man) as Holly Martins re-questions Harry’s former porter, who heard (but did not see) the car accident that allegedly killed Harry. As Jeremy mentioned, the circumstances surrounding Harry’s death are becoming increasingly suspicious, even while the pieces are beginning to fall into place. Thanks to the porter’s candid, half-German/half-English testimony (which he significantly did not deliver at the inquest), Holly now knows that Baron Kurtz, the Romanian Popescu, Harry’s doctor (a man by the name of Winkel), and Harry’s own driver were all present at the event in question. Coincidence? Holly, doggedly investigating his friend’s death, suspects not.

Anna Schmidt is present in Harry’s apartment as well, ostensibly because she knows the porter and could gain access to Harry’s apartment. In actuality, Holly’s recruitment of Harry’s former paramour (she resignedly joins Holly’s investigation, seemingly skeptical that anything helpful will come of it) allows Anna to wander through Harry’s apartment, wistfully luxuriating in memories of their time together. She impulsively ignites Harry’s lighter, only to extinguish the flame immediately; she brushes her hair with Harry’s comb (on which she finds a few strands of his own hair); and she finds a photo of herself during happier times affixed to Harry’s bedroom mirror, only to toss the photograph back into Harry’s dresser and close the drawer (an attempt to preserve her memories for herself only, shielding them from the prying eyes of others?). Anton Karas’s zither swells mournfully on the soundtrack, suggesting the loneliness and heartache that Anna feels yet resolutely hides from those around her.

While today’s still provides a canted frame throughout Holly’s interrogation of the porter—foregrounding the two men against a slanted backdrop that appears literally askew, as if the world were tilting uneasily around them—our views of Anna as she reacquaints herself with Harry’s apartment are mostly straightforward, observational. We have a long shot of Anna entering Harry’s bedroom, panning slowly with her as she walks across it; a slightly high-angle medium long shot of Anna sitting at Harry’s mirror; and a few closer shots of her as she rediscovers Harry’s photo of her. The style of these compositions is “invisible,” emphasizing character and observation rather than the distortive effects of film form. These images of Anna are, in other words, pointedly different than the unsettling canted angles that convey Holly and the porter’s interaction.

The basics of screen directing (not to mention common sense) tell us that a canted angle provides a slight disorienting effect: the composition teems with visual tension as directionality contradicts itself, seemingly dismantling the cinematic space. In today’s still, the numerous diagonal lines of both the windowpanes and the blinds (and the fact that the two characters still seem to be standing upright in front of them) reflect the suspicious, possibly perfidious nature of the subject they’re discussing (Harry’s death). To be sure, the audience is more aware of composition during these moments than in the less-conspicuous shots of Anna lost in her memories, coming to terms with her own grief. Frequently throughout the movie, Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker offer stark diagonal lines (provided either by canted angles or by the labyrinthine streets of Vienna) in order to reflect the lingering unease and moral corruption in which this postwar world seems awash. It’s one of the predominant ways in which The Third Man evokes its place on the fringes of film noir, the shadowy, morally ambiguous genre that reached its peak in the late 1940s (The Third Man was released in the United States two weeks after one of the genre’s frenzied pinnacles, Gun Crazy). True, The Third Man is a lot of things—spy drama, existential thriller, dark comedy, murder mystery—but I can think of no movie that better illustrates writer Nicholas Christopher’s point about film noir in his book Somewhere in the Night: “It is as if [World War II], and the social eruptions in its aftermath, unleashed demons that had been bottled up in the national psyche.” Though he’s writing about the United States, his words could equally be applied to postwar Vienna, not to mention the individual psyches of characters like Holly Martins and Harry Lime.

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 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.