List Grid

Blogs Crosscuts

Still Dots #93

And now we find ourselves in The Third Man‘s last significant setting, the surreal subterranean space of Vienna’s ancient and magnificent sewer system. While nearly all of this movie has been shot on location in the city of Vienna, and a good deal of these sewer scenes were shot in Vienna’s real sewers, it also […]

Second #5694, 95:04, Image © Studio Canal

And now we find ourselves in The Third Man‘s last significant setting, the surreal subterranean space of Vienna’s ancient and magnificent sewer system. While nearly all of this movie has been shot on location in the city of Vienna, and a good deal of these sewer scenes were shot in Vienna’s real sewers, it also presents a strikingly different space than any we have seen before. Even in Vienna’s avenues and boulevards (except for the notable shot that will end this film) we have not been thrust into the realm of deep space as we are in these sewers. The back of this frame seems to stretch on into the wild blue yonder, or as Paine explained earlier, “right into the Blue Danube.” One can almost see the mouth of that river yawning out of the back of today’s frame, ready to swallow Harry Lime and his pursuers into its immensity. If we accept Matt’s assumption from last week, that “Holly and the British military’s descent into the sewers entails a penetration into the unconscious itself” then the invisible connection to the Danube that almost certainly lies in this frames shadowy distance could be seen as a connection between Vienna’s unconscious and the collective unconscious of Eastern Europe. The Danube is the most prominent river in this part of Europe, running through ten countries and four capital cities (more than any other river in the world) and penetrating the heart of eastern Europe before eventually flowing out into the Black Sea. The Danube’s influence on cinema itself is also notable. Take for instance, this scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey set to the dulcet tones of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz:

And if our setting indeed succeeds in offering us a ladder down into eastern Europe’s collective unconscious, then our shot’s principal characters offer us insight into Britain’s mind. A recurring image throughout British literature and film, we see the officer and his assistant, a bond which can never be broken. Think of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Inspector Clouseau and Cato, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, or perhaps more notable even, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien was known to have patterned their powerful bond on that of the military officer and his batman (no, not the superhero but a uniquely British position–sort of a wartime butler), and though Paine is a Sergeant and not a lowly batman, he is still filling this role for Calloway. While in many ways, The Third Man, like many of the films of Orson Welles’ own, is a tale of masculine betrayal, Calloway and Paine’s is a different story. These two men, no doubt, learned to rely on each other during wartime, and now as they operate as military policemen, their war-forged bond is all the stronger. Whether they are journeying into the sewers to catch a notorious racketeer or into the fiery heart of Mount Doom, these two figures are essential to the British collective memory.

The wartime moment is particularly salient, since our two British military officials are currently under fire. They have chased Harry down this flowing hall and seemingly have him cornered, when a couple of shots ring out in the darkness. Calloway’s look of consternation and the sense of lateral motion come as he lunges toward the cover and safety of the wall. All but holed up in opposing trenches, Harry and his captors are involved in a standoff here in the dark tunnel, and while his pursuers certainly have the advantage of numbers, he has a couple of advantages of his own. He is a sewer dweller, and in his home turf, he can turn corners and climb ladders knowing exactly where they lead. He is also unencumbered by the moral sensibilities that plague Holly and fortify Calloway, and these gunshots (the first we hear fired in the film) are a testament to his own moral turpitude.

But today’s frame brings us into another subterranean realm, a literal realm of sewers and pipes that live under the city. Most urban cities contain some kind of elaborate underground system, be it the Parisian catacombs, the New York subways, or Montreal’s RÉSO, these systems operate as a circulatory system, moving different aspects of the city around beneath the surface. Our subdermal adventure leads us into a complex sewer system, which must serve some essential functions for the city of Vienna, but it is clearly not designed for its ease of traversing, nor is it lit in ways that preclude all hiding spots. The only reason people are supposed to come down to these depths is to maintain the sewers, so the skinny catwalks and slippery walkways are not designed to be occupied by more than a couple of men, and the dozens of policemen at Calloway’s beck and call are quickly filling these spaces. However, each shadowy inlet (like the two visible behind Paine’s head) offer Harry dark hiding spaces from pursuers. In a sense, these veins and arteries of the city are a perfect place for a virus like Harry to hide; they offer him maximum fluidity with the hundreds of grates, manhole covers, and other entrances across the city. But, as the police close in on him on all sides, he must feel a little viral, like a floating entity surrounded by the city’s own immune system.

The audio that accompanies today’s frame, and indeed this whole upcoming sequence, is also relatively remarkable. For the next four and a half minutes of screen time, the minimal dialogue will come through in unintelligible shouts and whistles. The clanging zither strings that have filled most of this film have also dropped out. Most of the soundtrack will be occupied by the sounds of running footsteps and stomps, and the ever-present sound of running, rushing water. In this sequence, aurally at least, we are submerged in the water of the sewers, our ears barely high enough to pick up the faintest shouts echoed by the sewer’s cavernous walls. We have spoken of Nietzsche frequently in our analysis, but he would have been in hell in this underground maze, because–if psychoanalyst and feminist theorist Luce Irigaray is right–water is his greatest fear. In her book Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche she writes a dialogue between two characters: one is Nietzsche and the other is water itself, which he loves and hates and which he is currently submerged in.  From that book:

“Out of the sea the superman is reborn, but still he fears to sink under her waters even as he aspires to their vastness. Hermit, tight-rope walker or bird, he always keeps away from her great depths.

Between sea and sun, he lives on the earth. And whether those two attract or repel each other in the same element, he still remains between. Life is given him in the (female) one, but he also received it from the other. Cross between plant and ghost. And he can be neither born nor reborn without water, can neither live nor live on without fire and light. But the source of his beginning is always overturned. Because he is walking toward his end. Dwelling in the element necessary to him–the air.”

And like Irigaray’s supposed Nietzsche, our masculine heroes and villains all find themselves in this world between water and sun, living on Earth’s surface and barely clinging to the air which sustains them. Throughout this sequence (where we will live for the next few posts) Harry’s loud breathing as he runs through the tunnels becomes more and more belabored. Could it be that this creature of sun and air, this Nietzschean nihilist, operating purely from his own self interest, also fears the water he has chosen as a refuge? Could he–like the Nietzsche put forward by Irigaray–fear the water and the feminine for the same reason, that he cannot understand it to exploit it?

Whatever Harry’s reasoning, we now occupy a subterranean realm like the one put forward by Bob Dylan’s seminal Subterranean Homesick Blues. An alternate underworld, operating silently and in relation to the simultaneous overworld, but alien to most visitors, and the den of racketeers and criminals. This is a setting repeated so many times (think of Bane’s sewer-based gang in The Dark Knight Rises, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ own lair, the Mines of Moria, or the Morlock’s underground city in The Time Machine, to name a few) it must tap into some archetypal storyline. Whatever the initial source, they certainly seem as if they could be linked to one of the most famous underground rivers, the river Styx. Styx, one of the many rivers of Greek myths’ underworld, was the river one must cross in order to reach the afterlife. The expression “a coin for the ferryman” comes from this river, since those newly dead could pay Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, with a coin they were buried with. The Styx is also the river, where the baby Achilles was dipped, making him invulnerable everywhere except his famous heel, where he was held during his dip. But importantly, this underground waterway was the border between life and death, and that essential human fear carries with it an importance that lodged this image in our collective brains, like a morsel stuck between teeth, forcing us to repeat it over and over. As our underground crusaders here chase Harry through the tunnels beneath Vienna, guns in hand, bullets whizzing by, it is only fitting to see them sitting there, on the border between life and death themselves, and from their behavior–everyone but Holly at least–they certainly know it.

This week’s Still Dots will end on a high point (literally) with a scene in a similar setting, from The Fugitive (1993).

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