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Still Dots #48

Second #2914, 48:34, Image © Studio Canal A crowd has become a mob, and they have Holly Martins in their sights: Holly and Anna have arrived at Harry Lime’s former apartment, only to find that the porter (who has promised to divulge more information to Holly in secret) has been killed by one of Popescu’s associates. […]

Second #2914, 48:34, Image © Studio Canal

A crowd has become a mob, and they have Holly Martins in their sights: Holly and Anna have arrived at Harry Lime’s former apartment, only to find that the porter (who has promised to divulge more information to Holly in secret) has been killed by one of Popescu’s associates. A throng has congregated in front of the building, peering at the authorities who are wheeling out the unfortunate porter’s corpse. They give credence to the fact that human beings can’t help gawking at violence, a macabre bloodlust that takes on tragic undertones considering the global war that Vienna (not to mention much of Europe) had recently undergone.

In other words, it’s Freud’s death drive in action. His theory, first espoused in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), that human beings have an innate instinct towards self-destruction and a return to an inorganic state (an impulse usually sublimated by the libido) would seem to be corroborated by the succession of two world wars within decades of each other. We’ve discussed Freud on several occasions already; indeed, though The Third Man is hardly a psychoanalytic treatise, it’s hard not to conjure the specter of Freud in the context of the film. Vienna is, as Jeremy has previously pointed out, “the city of Freud” — both the analyst’s hometown and a seemingly phantasmic manifestation of the dream states with which Freud was fascinated. Furthermore, Freud’s later theories were heavily inflected by the Great War that raged in Europe from 1914 to 1918; indeed, it was his analysis of soldiers’ fixation on wartime traumas that partially led to the hypothesis of the death drive in the first place. The Third Man may be as infused with the haunting legacy of World War II as Freud’s death drive was with the first world war. Whether humanity’s latent desire for self-destruction is borne out of a natural capacity for aggression or (as Freud suggested) a desire to return to the inorganic state of the world before the dawn of man, it does seem manifested through the behavior of both Holly Martins (in his reckless, cowboy-styled machismo) and Harry Lime (who, we’ll find out later in the film, seems to hold a bleakly existential view of how human beings spend their short time on this earth, not to mention the relative insignificance of people’s lives in the whole cosmic spectrum).

If this capacity for destruction is what makes these Viennese bystanders gape at the porter’s lifeless body, it’s also what shortly causes them to turn against hapless Holly Martins, forming a mob that becomes rashly convinced that Holly is a murderer. Holly, an American outsider unable to comprehend the smatterings of German and Dutch being spoken around him, doesn’t initially grasp the seriousness of the situation: little Hans, whom we’ve met before, believes that the porter was murdered by Holly himself. As the toddler gleefully shouts “Mörder! Mörder!,” the crowd turns its accusatory stare collectively at Holly, in a series of striking, shadowy medium-close ups that imbue the “wrongfully accused” trope with great tension.

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

As Jeremy mentioned on Tuesday, this standby of suspense movies recalls similar sequences from M (1931) and The Wrong Man (1956). But the earliest composition I can think of that arranges (in fact, superimposes) a multitude of leering faces in a harrowing assault on the protagonist is from F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), a film about the social ostracization of a hotel doorman after he’s fired from his job (one of the few things that gives his life value). This bewildering Kammerspiel (or “chamber drama”), one of the finest examples of interwar Weimar cinema, employs dynamic mobile camerawork (and a near-absence of intertitles) to illustrate the knee-jerk persecution of an entire community towards a man simply for losing his job and suffering economic displacement. Whether it’s the Viennese community turning on an outsider in The Third Man or a German neighborhood ridiculing one of its own in The Last Laugh, these dynamic confluxes of peering faces visualize the concept of mob mentality.

"The Last Laugh" (1924) Image © Kino

Of course Holly Martins didn’t kill the porter, but in a way he’s indirectly responsible. As we’ve mentioned, Holly’s brash recklessness — or, if we’re being especially judgmental, his inability to consider that his own actions will have repercussions for others around him — led him to blurt out to Popescu that the porter had offered a contradictory testimony regarding Harry’s death. Thus the wheels of murder were set in motion. Does Holly feel any guilt regarding the lethal chain of events that he instigated? Is he even aware of his culpability? If so, the faces leering at him above may act as outward manifestations of Holly’s own guilt; if Holly could exist outside of his body, perhaps he would be glaring at himself as accusatorily as the Viennese folks above.

In any case, Holly and Anna find it wiser to escape their sensitive position than to stay and try to explain their way out of it; Still Dots 48 shows the two of them hightailing it through Vienna’s mazelike cobblestone streets, with a shrieking Hans in hot pursuit. The mob behind them calls out for an explanation, then follow after Holly and Anna in unison. After a brief but thrilling series of shots details this pursuit in a number of shadowy canted angles, Holly and Anna duck into a movie theater to avoid capture, à la Bonnie and Clyde in the 1967 film, or Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (1960). (This familiar concept probably isn’t meant to be self-reflexive, but film scenes set in movie theaters always seem to me to set up an intriguing disjunction between the supposed “reality” of the diegetic world versus the mise en abyme artifice of the movie-within-the-movie.) As Holly and Anna begin to recognize the mounting tension and danger of their predicament, it seems apt that they find escape in a movie theater — modern culture’s shorthand symbol for escapism.

Jean-Paul Belmondo finds solace in a movie theater in "Breathless" (Image © Rialto Pictures)

We’ll have plenty of opportunities in future Still Dots posts to discuss what Richard Misek calls The Third Man‘s “wrong geometries” (essentially, a complex use of line and shape in order to disorient and make abstract the city spaces of Vienna), but today’s still is a fine example of this concept. The narrow passageways and alleys of the city are made into threatening, looming figures via a surplus of diagonal lines; indeed, The Third Man may be one of cinema’s finest examples of diagonal lines connoting danger and unease, converging into a distant vanishing point far beyond the confines of the screen space. In an already-surreal scene (thanks to Hans’ morbid glee and the stonelike faces of many of the lookers-on), today’s still makes Anna and Holly’s plight seem even more nightmarish by trapping them in a narrow space that seems to shut itself off abruptly in the background. This corner of Vienna is somehow both claustrophobic and immense as it flanks Anna and Holly with seemingly endless stone facades. The strange foreboding of this space reminds me of the enormous/sinister public areas that Dario Argento used to especially unsettling effect in Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977).

"Deep Red (Profondo Rosso)" (Image © Reel Media International)

"Suspiria" (Image © Blue Underground)

As if the cavernous space of Vienna itself weren’t creepy enough, we of course have the ghostly silhouette of Hans on the right side of today’s frame as well. In this nocturnal city, it seems even children pose a perpetual, ominous threat, their shadows dancing over the cobblestone streets and disfigured buildings like phantoms unleashed, perhaps, by the violence of war. Given Hans’ morbid fascination with murder and conflict, maybe even this little boy has, tragically, become inured to a world that functions according to war and aggression. (The death drive is alive even in this little one.) This reminds me of yet another parallel in the film world: the red-cloaked “child” in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a movie as much about its own city (Venice, in that case) as The Third Man is about Vienna. The mysterious figure that reappears throughout Roeg’s film, skittering along the canals and alleyways of Venice as a disturbing reminder of the protagonists’ deceased daughter, is (like Hans) a combustible mixture of precociousness and death: the young and “innocent” providing still more danger in a corrupt and deranged world. (Warning: there are spoilers in the clip below!)

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.