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Still Dots #94

The audience, along with the British military police, has followed Harry Lime into his dank natural habitat: the sewers that underlie Vienna, a twisty and cavernous network that enables Harry’s covert maneuvering through (and beneath) the city. Jeremy noted on Tuesday the recurrence of sewers as a pop-culture motif from The Time Machine to Teenage […]

Second #5756, 96:06, Image © Studio Canal

The audience, along with the British military police, has followed Harry Lime into his dank natural habitat: the sewers that underlie Vienna, a twisty and cavernous network that enables Harry’s covert maneuvering through (and beneath) the city. Jeremy noted on Tuesday the recurrence of sewers as a pop-culture motif from The Time Machine to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, surmising that this setting “must tap into some archetypal storyline.” The winding, claustrophobic passageways, the looming shadows, trickling water and refracted light—sewers offer an ideal setting for atmospheric horror movies, from Jeremy’s examples to two Guillermo del Toro films, to the famous “rats” scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (making use of Venice’s network of underground catacombs), to those classics of ’80s grade-Z horror, Alligator and C.H.U.D.

Indiana Jones and Dr. Elsa Schneider encounter a long-lost catacomb (and an army of rats) in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Image © Paramount Pictures.

C.H.U.D. is under New York City. Image © Image Entertainment.

On the other hand, portrayals of underground sewer systems’ inhabitants in documentaries take on a decidedly more somber tone. If sewers provide a visceral setting for escapist horror, they also provide a desperate shelter for the dispossessed and impoverished from real-life cities. Marc Singer’s 2000 documentary Dark Days may be the most sobering example; it’s about a self-forged community living in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York City, populated by people who have experienced the harshest cruelties life has to offer. (This cavernous community thus acts as dioramic proof of modern society’s alienating effects.) New York is hardly the only example, though, as this short documentary of homeless children living in the sewers of Bogota, Colombia demonstrates.

Interestingly, the Viennese sewer as seen in The Third Man almost bridges these two modes: certainly a site of atmospheric tension (thanks to Robert Krasker’s characteristically shadowy and precise compositions), Harry Lime’s hideout is also a disturbing example of just how completely he has estranged himself from humanity, concealing himself from the view of those he’s exploited and killed. It’s hardly a coincidence that the scene in which Harry voiced his despicable worldview takes place at an extreme height, as the Riesenrad Ferris Wheel reaches its zenith; this bird’s-eye view similarly allows Harry to observe humanity from a distanced, nihilistic perspective, seeing them as nothing but a smattering of dots, valuable only in their monetary potential. Now, Harry has plummeted to a literal and figurative nadir, from the greatest heights to the lowest depths—a journey appropriate for a man currently face-to-face with mortality. Indeed, both Graham Greene and Carol Reed emphasized the centrality of these two locations (the Riesenrad and the sewers) for Harry and Holly’s relationship, as Brigitte Timmermann points out in her book about The Third Man; for both director and screenwriter, the Ferris Wheel represents the end of Holly’s innocence while the sewer symbolizes Harry’s death. Harry’s prior assertion that Holly wouldn’t really feel anything if one of those “dots” stopped moving of course has great bearing on this scene, in which Holly will soon have an intensely intimate relation to one of those Still Dots; but we’ll save this analysis for later, since we still have plenty of time to spend with a frenzied Harry in the sewers.

Whether sewers in general offer such a visceral setting because of their visual intensity, their psychoanalytic semblance to the unconscious, or their mythological echo of the river Styx and its passageway to the world of the dead, it should be mentioned that their context in The Third Man has a real-world connection as well. As this British Pathé documentary from 1934 shows, Viennese criminals did often employ the underground sewers as a hiding place as well as a covert transportation network. Bombings during World War II, however, severely damaged the sewer system (which was struck by bombs approximately 1,800 times), and they weren’t completely restored until 1950 (which helps to explain why Harry is the only postwar criminal currently hiding out beneath the city).

All of this is somewhat ironic in relation to Still Dots 94, since the still itself hardly even looks like a sewer. As Harry ducks down a side passageway (we can see the shadow of his head in the lower right part of the frame) a gang of British MPs enter the scene in the upper left. The bizarre fracturing of space in this shot, somewhat reminiscent of a logic-defying M.C. Escher creation, illustrates how labyrinthine this space actually is, and how Harry’s acute knowledge of its interconnected passageways gives him a drastic upper hand.

“Hell,” by M.C. Escher, 1935. Cavernous or subterranean spaces seem metaphorically present here, especially given the work’s name. Unsurprisingly, “Hell” is based on a concept by Hieronymus Bosch.

Our current chase through the Viennese sewers brings to mind another real-world chase throughout much of Western Europe: an epic game of hide-and-seek waged between Orson Welles and The Third Man‘s European producers. In the film’s pre-production stages, Carol Reed was practically the only person who wanted Orson Welles for the role; the producers, Alexander Korda and David Selznick, wanted to avoid him at all costs. (Korda resisted Welles because he was notoriously difficult to work with; Selznick thought he was box office poison. Robert Mitchum was initially the producers’ top choice to play Harry Lime.) Reed eventually convinced his producers and cajoled Welles into the role, only to have the Hollywood wunderkind (who was at the time preparing his film version of Othello in Venice) race around Europe, from Rome to Florence to Venice to the Isle of Capri and finally to Nice. Such grandiose mischief was typical of Welles, although some suspected he was also “getting back at” Korda for the failure of several previous projects between them that failed to come to fruition. In any case, Alexander Korda ultimately had to enlist the help of his brother Vincent to chase Welles all over Europe, finally catching up with him in Nice and sending him back to London on a private jet. The real-life chase that ensued simply in order to pin down Orson Welles is a more lighthearted version of the chase we are currently witnessing in the Viennese sewers: a team of Britons doggedly pursuing the mercurial American. To add to the irony: many of Welles’ scenes in the sewers were actually shot back in London on a soundstage, as Welles refused to shoot in the actual sewers. (“Carol, I can’t work in a sewer,” Welles told his director. “I come from California.”) Welles’ petulance extended, at times, to questioning Reed’s guidance (a conflict Reed mollified by shooting some scenes without film in the camera, unbeknownst to Welles), but practically anyone who’s seen The Third Man would likely claim that the difficulties were worth it: who else could combine Harry Lime’s impish charm and his despicable evil, crafting a character who’s both morally repugnant and utterly irresistible?

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.