List Grid

Blogs Crosscuts

Still Dots #64

Second #3906, 65:06, Image © Studio Canal Holly Martins has despondently exited the apartment of Anna Schmidt: he’s leaving the following day on a flight bound for the United States, resigned to the fact that the woman he now loves is smitten with the memory of his onetime friend and bona fide criminal mastermind, Harry Lime. […]

Second #3906, 65:06, Image © Studio Canal

Holly Martins has despondently exited the apartment of Anna Schmidt: he’s leaving the following day on a flight bound for the United States, resigned to the fact that the woman he now loves is smitten with the memory of his onetime friend and bona fide criminal mastermind, Harry Lime. There are two faltering relationships that anchor The Third Man emotionally: between Holly and Harry Lime, whose friendship we’ve only experienced through bitter, secondhand accounts; and between Holly and Anna, who, in another world, might have become dear and everlasting friends, if not something more. (Which relationship is more poignant? It’s hard to say; both are seemingly doomed because of the cruel and violent twists of fate that the world hands us.) Holly doesn’t seem the cowardly type (after all, he’s been blundering his way through a vigilante investigation throughout much of the movie so far), but when he is faced with painful heartache and longing, he seems to find it best to retreat to a world of drunken, carefree insularity (a world markedly different from the one he experiences in Vienna).

Yet before we turn to the warped view of Vienna that today’s still offers us, I’d like to point out that the territory between Still Dots 63 and 64 is some of the most emotionally resonant in the entire movie. True, part of the point of this project is that we’re forced to analyze single frames and fleeting moments in a semi-arbitrary manner, scuttling ahead every 62 seconds in order to shed transient light on those undervalued snippets of cinema that don’t, at first glance, seem altogether significant. This may leave some dramatic, visceral, or otherwise intriguing segments of film unexplored, but that’s the tradeoff in emphasizing how each minuscule part of the cinematic whole contributes to its overall shape—venturing through a proverbial forest by turning a magnifying glass (or telephoto lens) upon a number of seemingly unspectacular saplings along the way. So, really, the flyover country between Tuesday’s and today’s Still Dots should be off limits for my analysis, but I’m going to respect Holly and Anna’s fraught relationship and recount what happened between Anna’s wonderfully off-kilter expression on Tuesday and Holly’s current stroll through Vienna’s cobblestone streets. Furthermore, I’d like to present this by inhabiting Holly’s mindstate momentarily, offering a hypothetical first-person account, in what may or may not be an accurate substitute for paperback writer Holly Martin’s own words, of his feelings for Anna Schmidt:

“A person doesn’t change because you find out more,” Anna said, naively yet sweetly shaking her head at me as she approached with the brilliant white flowers—my flowers—blossoming from the vase she held in her hands. The petals seemed somehow less vibrant as Anna spoke from behind them; they paled in comparison to the hands that held them.

But my drunken haze was giving way to a throbbing weariness, not at Anna but at the world that existed between us, its wars and MPs and illegal passports and, even and especially, its Harry Limes. I waved my hand dismissively at her lecture, absentmindedly playing with the bandage that was wrapped around the birdbite on my right hand. “Look,” I said, “I’ve got a splitting headache and you stand there and just talk and talk and talk…” I trailed off as Anna smirked at my irascibility, so clearly exacerbated by the whiskeys I had imbibed not half an hour beforehand. She let out a begrudging laugh as she turned away, and for a moment, the ghost of Harry Lime (not to mention those of the women and children who died without the penicillin they needed) were whisked away by the beauty of her smile. I approached, not realizing I was smiling too, drawn forward by the warmth of her fleeting happiness.

“That’s the first time I ever saw you laugh. Do it again.”

And in an instant, her smile soured, her eyes darted from me to the ceiling to the floor, as though she were ashamed of escaping, if only for a second, misery. With Harry’s whirlwind exuberance now forever unavailable to her, maybe she took on heartache as her new companion, replacing Harry’s love with its polar opposite: the sardonic cruelties that a bemused universe extends to the humans who occupy it. I could see all the joy flee Anna’s body in a sudden whoosh, her shoulders drooping towards the ground. She collapsed on the nearby bed.

“There’s not enough for two laughs.”

Her hands entwined themselves on the golden bedknob. I approached as silently as possible, wanting to touch her, yet unwilling to pierce the shroud of despair that enveloped her. I sat next to her. Her eyes avoided mine, but I was unable to look at anything but her somber beauty. I spoke, and even I was surprised by the aching, gravelly tones that came out.

“I’d make comic faces. Stand on my head and grin at you between my legs. Tell all sorts of jokes. I wouldn’t stand a chance, would I?”

Her answer was a tear, a single honest tear, sloping along the gentle contours of her face. It fell and left its trail on her cheek. I smiled sadly; asked myself if I had ever felt such love. She looked away.

The soft wind of Vienna floated through the window and I thought I could hear a lonely zither chord in the distance.

“You did tell me I ought to find myself a girl…”

Image © Studio Canal

Like I said, this indulgence violates the self-appointed rules of this project, but hopefully I can be forgiven in honor of Holly and Anna’s plight (and in honor of one of the most powerful portrayals of unfulfilled love that I can think of in the movies).

But on to today’s still: Holly has said goodbye to Anna and now wanders Vienna, overwhelmed by loneliness and longing and confusion (and probably still drunk). Still Dots 64 is a perfect illustration of what Richard Misek calls The Third Man‘s “Wrong Geometries,” an idea that Jeremy summarized last week. Essentially, writes Misek, director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker utilize low-key chiaroscuro lighting, emphatic use of line and shape in the mise en scène, off-kilter camera angles (especially canted or “Dutch” angles), and a mostly immobile camera to create compositions with numerous offscreen vanishing points, essentially disorienting the onscreen space and turning Vienna into a nightmare vision of a real-world space, a la German Expressionism. The bold sectioning of space in today’s still and the numerous diagonal lines it creates are reminiscent of the groundbreaking set design in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), for example.

'The Third Man''s "wrong geometries" echo those of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," which featured a bold use of line, shape, lighting, and composition to disorient viewers from a seemingly real space. Image © Kino Video

 Misek even cites today’s very still as an example of wrong geometry. He writes of Still Dots #64:

The disorientating potential of multiple vanishing points is taken to an extreme in [this shot]. Like much of Vienna’s innenstadt, Schreyvogelgasse, the street in which this shot was filmed, is built on a steep gradient. On one side, a row of houses resists the incline of the hill and clings to horizontality; on the other side, there is a sheer drop to another street with a different gradient. Krasker’s cinematography transforms this improbable place into a seemingly impossible space. Mise en scène and lighting combine to emphasise multiple orthogonals, directing the eye to multiple vanishing points simultaneously, as if the image were a collage of irreconcilable perspectival environments. The effect, exacerbated again by the use of a wide angle lens, is closer to the psychotic spatial overcrowding of Max Beckmann’s Die Synagoge (1919) than the placid linearity of Crivelli’s Annunciation (1486). The startling image of Schreyvogelgasse highlights the fact that even the basic standard of spatial orientation, a stable horizon, is absent from The Third Man.

What’s more, the removal of that “basic standard of spatial orientation” in The Third Man serves an emotional and even thematic purpose: as the world must seem disorienting and disfigured to Holly Martins given everything he’s been through in Vienna (and as much of Europe itself seems literally disfigured after World War II), so does this particular intersection seem impossibly distorted even to the eye of the film camera. For reference, here are the two paintings that Misek cites:

"Die Synagoge" by Max Beckmann. Collection of the Stadelmuseum, Frankfurt.

"Annunciation" by Carlo Crivelli, 1486.

And, just for good measure, an image of the same intersection in today’s still, Schreyvogelgasse, taken from the opposite viewpoint in 2009:

"Panoramic view southeast down Schreyvogelgasse from the intersection with Molker Steig," John Schwenkler (Panoramio)

Clearly, the 2009 snapshot of Schreyvogelgasse resembles the neat vertical and horizontal lines of Crivelli’s “Annunciation,” with its fairly central perspective, minimal vanishing points, and neat sectioning off of geometric spaces. This very same location as seen in The Third Man, however—as Misek writes—has more in common with Beckmann’s “Die Synagoge,” with its jarring diagonal lines, contradictory vanishing points, and malleable perspective, which all serve to disorient the viewer and make an ostensibly real space look and feel hallucinatory. Again, in the context of The Third Man, this spatial dislocation—courtesy of the shot’s low-key lighting and canny use of composition to emphasize line and shape—serves to place us in Holly Martins’ shoes, reflecting the overwhelming loneliness that he’s feeling given the emotional frankness of his goodbye to Anna Schmidt. If Holly were indeed to return to America the following day, would his hometown—wherever that might be—appear to him in the same disorienting conflux of jagged, converging lines and angles? Are the things we see, the cityscapes we encounter, always transformed by the emotions coursing throughout our senses? Or is there another reason that Holly’s view of Schreyvogelgasse is so nonlinear and distorted, perhaps an unknown, phantasmic presence somewhere on these Vienna streets, a figure which Holly Martins may soon encounter in one of the city’s darkened doorways?

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.

No posts