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Still Dots #47

Second #2852, 47:32, Image © Studio Canal Holly (with Anna standing safely off-screen) has left Anna’s cozy apartment in order to go meet the porter at Harry’s old apartment, only to find a mob gathered outside of the building. Holly, a frequent visitor to this apartment struts into the crowd demanding (in English of course) […]

Second #2852, 47:32, Image © Studio Canal

Holly (with Anna standing safely off-screen) has left Anna’s cozy apartment in order to go meet the porter at Harry’s old apartment, only to find a mob gathered outside of the building. Holly, a frequent visitor to this apartment struts into the crowd demanding (in English of course) to know what has happened here. Two men, one speaking Dutch and one German, explain to Holly what we viewers already know, that the Porter is dead. Holly is surprisingly nonplussed at the news, shocked of course, but he is buried so deep in his hard-boiled persona that an expression barely crosses his face. Then, as this small man clutches his shoulder and runs his finger across his throat and whispers “kaput,” his son Hansel—the “precocious toddler” we last saw in Still Dots 26—starts crooning “Papa, papa.” In today’s still, a reverse shot to one revealing that ball-carrying toddler, the boy’s offscreen voice yells in delighted German: “Papa, der ist der mörder” (Papa, there is the murderer).

Little Hansel yells "Papa. Papa." Image © Studio Canal

The excited tenor in the boy’s voice as he begins to yell out “Mörder! Mörder!” makes the scene all the more surreal, and the man will soon turn to Holly and mention (in a German that Holly will again fail to understand) that he heard they were having an argument. While Holly’s continued American exceptionalism keeps him out of the loop as to what the crowd around him is saying, something in his expression shows that he can feel the tension building around him. Perhaps he should have figured it out, the German boy yelling the german word for murderer (Murder) over and over and pointing at him, but Holly won’t really know what is happening until Anna steps in, tells him what the crowd is screaming and pointing about, and pulls him away from them. Holly is made helpless and ineffectual by his American monolinguality, and Anna comes to the rescue again. We of course know that Holly is innocent, but for the bloodthirsty crowd he has all the trappings of a murderer.

Henry Fonda and Vera Miles in "The Wrong Man" (1956), image © Warner Bros.

Film noir cinema has a history of using this moment, perhaps most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). The film centers on the police confusing Henry Fonda’s character with a bank robber, though we the audience know his innocence the whole time. This “wrong man” moment is essentially the definition of suspense–since all of us hapless viewers gnash our teeth at the thought of our hero being wrongly accused–and maybe that’s why it has cropped up again and again through film history. The wrong man motif arrives as early as 1931 in a  famous scene from Fritz Lang’s M. Dusseldorf is plagued by a serial murderer who preys on little girls, and an innocent little man is accosted by an angry mob for literally giving the time of day to a small girl. That scene bears a remarkable resemblance to The Third Man‘s, but perhaps that is not surprising since the masterful cinematic expressionism in Lang’s early films have influenced nearly every part of this film.

Perhaps the most famous “wrong man” in contemporary cinema is Richard Kimble of the 1960’s TV series and 1993 film, The Fugitive. Kimble is, again, on the wrong side of the law, suspected of murdering his wife but, as usual, we know it wasn’t him. “It was the one-armed man!” yells Kimble again and again. Through the series and the film, he must continually dodge his police pursuers while he in turn pursues his wife’s killer. The figure of the one-armed man became so powerful it became a cinematic reference of its own in such varied locations as Charles Russell’s The Mask (1994) or David Lynch’s 1990’s TV Series, Twin Peaks.

Mike, a one-armed man, is arrested for the suspected murder of Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks" (1990-1), image © American Broadcasting Company.

But back to Holly, whose “one-armed man” remains a more ambiguous creation born out of the conspiracy between Kurtz, Popescu, Winkel, and some unnamed fourth man (who is also the third man); in the background of today’s still, one can see the faces of the crowd that surrounds Holly. Each hat-clad Viennese man has their face turned away from Holly, but in seconds those heads will all swing toward him and begin to hurl accusations. Whatever attitudinal difference that differentiates a crowd from a mob will flicker, and soon little Hansel will lead the men after Holly and Anna, yelling “Murder!” Their dark shadows will stalk Vienna’s stone walls. Unlike Richard Kimble, Holly’s first intent is not to find the real killer nor is it to prove his innocence. His first priority is escape, but what Holly escapes into may be even more life-threatening than the angry mob that currently surrounds him.

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.