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Still Dots #58

Second #3534, 58:54, Image © Studio Canal This is a different Holly Martins than we’ve seen before: if our poor cowboy has been, as Jeremy said on Tuesday, “sitting squarely on the fence” regarding Harry Lime’s guilt, he’s now faced with incontrovertible evidence that proves his longtime friend’s barbaric crimes. (Lime’s barbarism, as we’ve mentioned, is […]

Second #3534, 58:54, Image © Studio Canal

This is a different Holly Martins than we’ve seen before: if our poor cowboy has been, as Jeremy said on Tuesday, “sitting squarely on the fence” regarding Harry Lime’s guilt, he’s now faced with incontrovertible evidence that proves his longtime friend’s barbaric crimes. (Lime’s barbarism, as we’ve mentioned, is a new-fangled sort: one that stems from the all-important accumulation of wealth in modern capitalism, rather than the more brutish power struggles that defined pre-industrial societies.) Holly clung to his boyish belief in Harry’s innocence and Calloway’s corruption for as long as possible, but now he’s been treated to the verifiable proof that he’s demanded for so long: a “magic-lantern show,” as Calloway calls it, comprised of slides illustrating Joseph Harbin (the hospital attendant who stole tubes of penicillin for Harry to sell, and who suspiciously vanished a week ago); Harry’s fingerprints lifted from penicillin vials; handwriting samples analyzed by experts; more fingerprints, more files, a parade of evidence that serves to upend all of Holly’s assumptions about friendship, law and order, criminality, honor, justice. This is all conveyed to us through a wordless montage accompanied by Anton Karas’ angst-ridden zither score, with each pluck of the strings seemingly denoting the obliteration of yet another of Holly’s ethical ideals. If we had any doubt about the efficacy of Calloway’s demonstration, it’s proven to us at the end of this montage, as Holly shrugs despondently to Calloway and asks, “How could he have done it?” The Holly we see in Still Dots 58, in other words, is a man who’s become convinced that his best and oldest friend is a monster.

Holly pores over evidence proving Harry Lime's guilt (Image © Studio Canal)

More evidence against Harry (Image © Studio Canal)

And still more evidence (Image © Studio Canal)

This visual evidence and how effective it is in persuading Holly give credence to the aphorism that “seeing is believing”: now able to trust his own eyes, Holly seems to bear retroactive witness to his friend’s crimes. It’s no coincidence that Calloway opens his demonstration with a “magic lantern show”: both cinema and various modes of crime investigation arose out of an era of positivism in the late 19th century, as technological and scientific innovations proliferated and the belief that it is exclusively our sensory experiences that supply us with knowledge predominated. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was initiated by an Argentinian police chief in 1892—three years before the Lumière brothers gave their first public film demonstration in Paris. The method of cataloguing individuals by fingerprint was itself based on Alphonse Bertillon’s 1879 investigative system of photographing people and developing concomitant physical descriptions, developed a year after Eadweard Muybridge successfully photographed a series of stills delineating the movement of a horse—a proto-cinematic experiment that sought to scientifically settle a popular debate at the time (whether or not a horse’s four feet all leave the ground while it’s trotting). Seeing was believing, then, both in art and science: crime investigation began relying upon visual evidence at the same time that the movies gave ghostly life to real-world movement. Decades before The Third Man, the linkages between cinematic recording and crime investigation gave thrilling urgency to Fritz Lang’s “urban thrillers” (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922; Spies, 1928; M, 1931; and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1932), as Tom Gunning writes. Particularly through the easily-perturbed character of Inspector Lohmann (who debuted in M and returned to match wits with Dr. Mabuse in Testament), Lang was able to parallel the investigation of crime with the primacy of the (often distorted) cinematic image, gleaning proof by visually perusing the scene.

But can the cinematic image, despite its apparent resemblance to what we see in reality, ever be trusted? It’s a happy coincidence that a map of Vienna figures prominently in the background of Still Dots 58: while maps offer trustworthy visual reproductions of the actual world around us (an abstraction of scientific data, in a way), movies offer imitative shadows of whatever is in front of the lens, distorting reality by their very nature, creating “maps” where the cartographer is allowed (even expected) to ignore the boundaries, embellish the topography, shuffle the dots and lines to make a duplication somehow more vivid than the original. The nature of the cinematic image turns the world onscreen into a paradox: it’s always honest and always lying. Holly chooses to trust what he sees, the photographs and films and data that Calloway finally shows him, and it’s the faith that he puts in his own vision that convinces him to accept Harry Lime’s guilt. But maybe he shouldn’t have believed his eyes; maybe a recorded image is a document not so much of what actually happened, but of something more cryptic and elusive, as Jean Epstein writes in his 1921 article “The Senses I”:

The senses, of course, present us only with symbols of reality: uniform, proportionate, elective metaphors. And symbols not of matter, which therefore does not exist, but of energy; that is, of something which in itself seems not to be, except in its effects as they affect us. We say “red,” “soprano,” “sweet,” “cypress,” when there are only velocities, movements, vibrations. But we also say “nothing” when the tuning fork, diaphragm, and reagent all record evidence of existence…

To see is to idealize, abstract and extract, read and select, transform. On the screen we are seeing what the cinema has already seen once: a double transformation, or rather raised to the power of two, since it is multiplied in this way. A choice within a choice, reflection of a reflection. Beauty is polarized here like light, a second generation beauty, the daughter—though prematurely delivered and slightly monstrous—of a mother whom we loved with our naked eyes.

In other words, as Harry Lime himself—Orson Welles—would flamboyantly suggest in 1973’s F for Fake, the film image is something different, more phantasmic, than what we first assume it to be, and the act of filmmaking is essentially a magic trick. Had Holly pondered this possibility before Calloway’s lecture, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so quick to trust his eyes and cast bitter judgment on his longtime friend. In contrast to the positivism out of which film and visual forms of criminal investigation arose, Epstein would claim that all Holly has seen is “symbols of energy,” reflections of reflections of incidents he has not himself witnessed.

Orson Welles' greatest magic trick: "F for Fake" (Image © Criterion Collection)

So Holly has finally given in to reason, accepting the evidence offered to him as proof of Harry Lime’s villainy. This turnaround has me wondering about Anna Schmidt, a character we haven’t seen in a while, whose emotional frankness and outward resilience stand in marked contrast to the film’s other characters. She remains loyal to Harry to the very end, which makes me wonder: how would she respond to the wealth of evidence that Calloway has on hand? Has he already shown it all to her? Has she decided to trust her emotions, her ardent memories of her former lover, more than the visual data that Calloway and Holly find irrefutable? Maybe she trusts her own images of Harry, her own flickering memories, more than this external evidence; maybe she finds them more faithful duplications precisely because they were envisioned by an aching heart rather than a machine.

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.

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