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Still Dots #90

Calloway, Paine, and Holly have set the trap that’s meant to apprehend Harry Lime; now, they simply have to wait for their pest to step into it. In this case, the ambush has been prepared at the Vienna Hoher Markt, the oldest square still extant in the city and a prominent marketplace during the Middle […]

Second #5518, 91:58, Image © Studio Canal

Calloway, Paine, and Holly have set the trap that’s meant to apprehend Harry Lime; now, they simply have to wait for their pest to step into it. In this case, the ambush has been prepared at the Vienna Hoher Markt, the oldest square still extant in the city and a prominent marketplace during the Middle Ages. (A popular set of gallows were also located at this site, an unsettling association that does not bode well for Harry Lime.) Holly is tensely awaiting the arrival of Mr. Lime in the Cafe Marc Aurel, a Germanization of the name Marcus Aurelius, the legendary Roman emperor whose name also currently demarcates a promenade near the Hoher Markt (Marc-Aurel-Straße) and a hotel nearby (Hotel Marc Aurel). Interestingly, Google Maps also reveals that a “Limes Restaurant” is today located near this site (on the Hoher Markt near Judengasse Street), though the establishment’s website apparently has nothing to do with the legacy of either Harry Lime or The Third Man.

As Jeremy mentioned on Tuesday, preceding the arrival of the phantasmal balloon man waltzing across Still Dots #90, there is a wordless 64-second sequence (accompanied by Anton Karas’s haunting zither score) comprised of atmospheric, shadowy, occasionally-canted viewpoints of Vienna’s cobblestone streets. The pacing up to this scene has been increasingly breakneck, as the audience is whipped into frenzied anticipation for the climactic rendezvous we know is about to take place; but, as this famous climax is initiated, we have a comparatively lengthy sequence that arrests the motion of the narrative, ratcheting up suspense by forcing us to glimpse a number of conspicuously empty city spaces. It’s impossible to choose a “favorite” scene from The Third Man, but amongst the more grandiose and legendary setpieces from the film (Holly’s escape from Popescu’s goons, the first appearance of Harry Lime, the conversation on the Riesenrad and the cuckoo-clock speech, and the chase through the sewers which we’ll soon witness), this quiet buildup to Harry and Holly’s face-off stands as one of the movie’s most majestic and cinematic. (After all, it’s a montage of pure sound and image, both indexical and transformative of reality – the manifestation of photogénie.) Truthfully, I want to include every shot from this sequence here simply in order to reexperience the precise, almost musical rhythm of its editing, but I’ll include only a few shots to convey the taut mystery that this scene evokes:

The Cafe Marc Aurel, with a tense Holly visible through the front window. Image © Studio Canal.

A British MP keeps an eye out for Harry Lime. Image © Studio Canal.

Image © Studio Canal.

Image © Studio Canal.

Yet another British MP stands guard. Image © Studio Canal.

If one of the benefits of our microcosmic analysis is cherishing unheralded moments that might otherwise pass by unappreciated (or at least dwarfed by more dynamic sequences), then this minute-long montage stands as that discovery for me: a gorgeous parade of sights and sounds that reveals just how talented seemingly every crew member was on this project (Carol Reed, cinematographer Robert Krasker, editor Oswald Hafenrichter, composer Anton Karas, not to mention every lighting technician and camera operator at the crew’s disposal). I can imagine a silent movie that might go on like this (wordless, mysterious, dazzling) for hours. And what of this military officer whose close-up is interspersed with numerous cityscape shots of Vienna? Can we look past his steely, determined gaze and stoic expression (half-drowning in shadow) and ponder what his life might be like? If he has a family waiting back home in London, or an unrequited love not unlike Holly Martins’? All we see of this ultra-minor character is this momentary close-up, yet that close-up alone, simply by nature of its intimate proximity, begs the question of who this man actually is, what’s going on beneath the veil of his outward appearance. Again, the freeze-frame still image provides a wholly different interpretation of this character than his momentary appearance in the context of the narrative; immortalized by this close-up, the unknown soldier becomes a statue carved out of light and chemicals.

But back to the task at hand: this montage is interrupted by the inexplicable arrival of an obviously drunk balloon-salesman, whose buffoonish behavior (what the hell is he doing drunkenly selling balloons on a Vienna street at night?) offers a surreal counterpoint to the tension in which we’re currently embroiled. Jeremy surmised that this balloon-salesman may have been ill-informed as to where (and when) he should “hawk his wares”; given his inability to walk a straight line down this barren street, we may also surmise that he had a few too many whiskeys and is instinctively plying his trade during his drunken stumble home.

While the trap that Calloway et al. have arranged for Harry is set on Vienna’s Hoher Markt, the arrival of the balloon-salesman was actually shot elsewhere in Vienna. This astoundingly thorough rundown of The Third Man‘s locations tells us that the balloon-salesman emerges in front of the Alte Hofapoteke, which was located on the Michaelerplatz less than a mile away from the Hoher Markt. (The Michaelerplatz is also where Harry Lime’s apartment, seen earlier in the film, was located.) The fact that the Balloon Man is never seen in the same shot as Calloway, Payne, or any of the other military officers – despite his highly amusing attempt to sell both Calloway and Payne a balloon, a pitch to which Payne exasperatedly succumbs – further proves that this character’s brief role was shot at another time and place as the rest of the scene. (Though we’ve avoided including actual film clips from The Third Man in Still Dots, here, for further reference, is the scene in question.) Clearly this separate location was chosen for its hauntingly barren appearance (note the immense pile of rubble gaping at us from the left side of Still Dots #90) though scheduling logistics may have also had something to do with it. Today, the Michaelerplatz looks vastly different: the Alte Hofapoteke is now an office for Generali (the international insurance and finances organization) and the pile of rubble has been replaced by a boxy, utilitarian set of buildings housing apartments and small shops:

Vienna’s Michaelerplatz (the same setting as Still Dots #90) as of 2008. Image © G. Opelt.

This breakdown of Viennese locations and their transformation over time may seem overly trivial and esoteric, but as Jeremy suggested on Tuesday, The Third Man is just as much about the character of Vienna as about Holly, Harry, Anna, Calloway, or Paine. Location shooting was still a relatively rare expenditure in the late 1940s, especially for semi-mainstream films (and, as a co-production between Alexander Korda’s London Film and David O. Selznick’s 20th Century Fox, The Third Man was at least semi-mainstream). Obviously great care and money was put into emphasizing the war scars of Vienna itself, the piles of rubble and disfigured buildings that provide a haunting backdrop to Harry Lime’s barbaric intrigue. Thus, the transformation of humanity is paralleled with the evolution of urban landscapes: war assaults its human victims just as much as (if not more than) its architectural ones. Noting The Third Man‘s real-life locations, as well as how jarringly different they are today, helps us realize just how turbulent was the flux Vienna was undergoing during the film’s production. A more comedic reflection of wartime destruction paralleling postwar malaise can be found in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), one of the first films to be shot on location in Berlin (Wilder’s hometown through the 1920s and early ’30s) after the war; in that case, the socioeconomic strife Berlin was undergoing (including the prominence of black-market transactions) offers a bleakly sardonic counterpoint to the petty political and emotional squabbles its characters enact.

Though the Balloon Man seems like a surreal interjection that provides both bizarre comic relief and a bewildering glimpse of the uncanny, it turns out the figure was borrowed from real life: balloon sellers like this one were familiar characters in postwar Vienna, and were known either as “Wurzelsepp” (a more derogatory epithet) or “Very Much Obliged” (their oft-repeated phrase to their English-speaking customers). Unfortunately I can’t find much information on the historical significance of this figure, but if Viennese folks were pitching anything they could on the black market to make a dollar (including, of course, penicillin), it only makes sense that balloons would be one such commodity. Even if this character points to the real-world economic desperation of Vienna after the war, though, he also functions as both a comedic and an unsettling figure; in fact, he’s unsettling precisely in his comic absurdity, the uncanny appearance of drunken clownishness in a sea of shadow, violence, and alienation.

Balloons, furthermore, have a surprisingly rich cinematic history, from the metaphorical poignancy of Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937), to the haunting coming-of-age parable The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956) and its cross-cultural reworking The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007), to the liberating escape provided by a cornucopia of balloons in Up (Pete Docter, 2009). Most pertinent to our case, though, is a “Wurzelsepp” scene made in 1931 by a Viennese native: Fritz Lang. In one of the Austrian-German director’s masterpieces, M, we’re introduced to horrifying child murderer (and suggested pedophile) Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) via the seemingly incongruous character of a blind balloon salesman. Poor Elsie Beckmann, introduced to the audience while bouncing a ball in blissful innocence, will be killed (offscreen) by Hans in the film’s opening scene. After he buys Elsie a balloon from the grizzled old Wurzelsepp (who seems to provide a more sobering prototype for the character we see in The Third Man), Hans accompanies the girl offscreen to her impending doom. Later in the film, the blind balloon seller will reappear with a vital clue: he overheard Hans whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” before committing this heinous crime. For now, though, we have a trio of symbolic shots which, through their haunting barrenness, connote the little girl’s death: an empty plate, set by her mother at the kitchen table; her ball, rolling ominously into a patch of grass; and the balloons bought from the Wurzelsepp, now stuck in the fiery telephone wires overhead, having floated upwards from Elsie’s hands with a fate as morbid as that of the girl herself. While the Wurzelsepp in The Third Man does at least partially provide a comedic element, his precursor in the Fritz Lang film suggests only the violence and destruction to which the figure of the Wurzelsepp stands in contrast. M, released in 1931, reflects the devastating war and socioeconomic morass that Germany was suffering from, and which would only become worse; The Third Man, released eighteen years later, bleakly proved to Austria how little had changed in the interim. In both cases, however, the man selling balloons simply passes (or stumbles) by, bearing witness to the cruelty of humanity, yet unable to do anything more than meekly hawk his wares.

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.