Our Film/Video staff surveys the world of moving image art from classic to global, experimental to digital.
On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Walker Staff will point you to other films pulled from a headline in the week’s news in a series called Headline Rewind. News Event: Pfc. Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks Appearing before a military judge yesterday for more than an hour, Pfc. Bradley Manning confessed to supplying a […]
On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Walker Staff will point you to other films pulled from a headline in the week’s news in a series called Headline Rewind.
News Event: Pfc. Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks
Appearing before a military judge yesterday for more than an hour, Pfc. Bradley Manning confessed to supplying a vast quantity of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks. The former intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq alleged that he provided this suppressed information in order to make the public aware of the volatile secrets its government was keeping, as well as to spark an open debate about American foreign policy. According to Manning, he came to the conclusion that none of the materials he uploaded to WikiLeaks — which included videos of airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, logs of military incident reports, information regarding detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and 250,000 cables sent by American diplomats internationally — could damage national security. Nonetheless, his ten guilty pleas could lead to 20 years in prison, and possibly more if military prosecutors decide to charge Manning with violating the United States’ Espionage Act.
Private Manning’s testimony — especially his statement that “the world would be a better place if states would not make secret deals with each other” — has only added to his underground appeal among advocacy and whistleblower groups. The eternal debate regarding government secrets and its willful misleading of the American public (specifically the question of whether policymakers and politicians should suppress information in order to “protect” the country) has only intensified in the digital age, when anyone with Internet access can disseminate vital information to mass populations. This controversial question is manifested in the figure of Private Manning, who represents a courageous freedom fighter for some, and a potential threat to national security for others.
Film Recommendation: All the President’s Men
The Orwellian tendency of governments to hide information from their constituents may be even more pertinent in an online age — a fact supported by the number of WikiLeaks documentaries in various states of distribution — but the question has been relevant (and insurmountable) practically since the days of Nero. One of the finest films to deal with the hegemonic suppression of information, as well as the enterprising quest by journalists and activists to uncover these secrets, is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men. Released less than a year after the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War — a time when the barbaric crimes committed by the U.S. government and military were beginning to come to light, and when American action-thrillers were at their bleakest and most outraged (see also Pakula’s 1974 The Parallax View and Sydney Pollack’s 1975 Three Days of the Condor) — All the President’s Men follows two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who wrote the book on which the film is based), as they uncover the Watergate scandal via their top-secret government contact, Deep Throat. Ultimately they discover that Watergate was not merely an attempt to conceal Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (a scheme intended to sabotage Nixon’s democratic opponent), but American covert operations as a whole.
If Private Manning and Julian Assange, among others, act as modern-day Bernsteins and Woodwards, then All the President’s Men‘s brilliant, formally complex portrayal of the interpenetration (and active resistance) between the government and mass media might shed some light on how volatile information is both concealed and exposed in the 21st century. The dogged investigations and editorial marathons undergone by Woodward, Bernstein, their Post editor Ben Bradlee, and various colleagues have transformed over the last four decades, yet the nebulous infrastructures meant to keep political machinery chugging away have remained in place. All the President’s Men is one of the finest, most disturbing, yet ultimately inspiriting exposés of the dark pathways through which such combustible information travels. The film is available on DVD through Netflix, on instant viewing at Amazon.com, and on YouTube.
On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was. News Event: The Oscars As the 85th Academy Awards loom only days away (they’ll air on ABC this Sunday night, starting at 6pm), a flurry of articles, previews, and opinionated diatribes […]
On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.
News Event: The Oscars
As the 85th Academy Awards loom only days away (they’ll air on ABC this Sunday night, starting at 6pm), a flurry of articles, previews, and opinionated diatribes inundate the Internet, either touting the significance or decrying the irrelevance of this annual dog-and-pony show. Whether it’s the ceremony you love or merely love to hate, there’s little denying the cultural import these festivities carry in American pop culture. As bettors predict the honorees, naysayers lambaste the absurdity, and pundits question whether they even matter anymore, there’s little doubt that the awards will be one of the most-watched televised events of the year, and that a select number of powerful Hollywood studios (and artists) will bask in the glow of mass validation until the cycle of self-promotion begins anew for the next installment.
Film Recommendation: Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman
Among the many filmmakers and cinephiles who have viewed the Oscars with a certain amount of disdain, Ingmar Bergman might be the most pedigreed. As the Swedish filmmaker writes in this brusque letter he sent to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences following the nomination of Wild Strawberries (1957) for Best Original Screenplay, Bergman wanted nothing to do with the “motion picture art humiliating institution.” Indeed, the director’s sobering examinations of human desperation, cruelty, and alienation would not seem to mesh well with the stolid, pseudo-highbrow message movies the Academy tends to favor. (Remember Crash? Or Argo, for that matter?) Wild Strawberries — the bittersweet story of an aging physician who reevaluates his life before accepting a prestigious award at Lund University (a ceremony he significantly considers a hollow ritual) — is available online at Hulu Plus and on DVD through Netflix. One of Bergman’s most well-regarded films, Wild Strawberries also (perhaps to the director’s dismay) won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the eighth Berlin International Film Festival as well as the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
Yet if you’re looking to avoid all the Oscars hoopla by venturing into some foreboding Bergmanian territory, a treasure trove of intense, thought-provoking cinema awaits you online. In addition to the voluminous DVD offerings that Netflix provides, the website also offers Hour of the Wolf (1968), Passion of Anna (1969), and The Serpent’s Egg (1978) through Instant Streaming. The first of these, Hour of the Wolf, would be my personal recommendation: the director’s haunting, nightmarish foray into the horror genre (kind of) literalizes the demons that typically remain under the surface in his films.
Hulu, meanwhile, also offers The Virgin Spring (1960) and Through a Glass Darkly (1961), as well as many other titles through Hulu Plus. But the director’s most emotionally devastating film — and also the one that (not coincidentally) strays the furthest from Oscar territory — is also available for free streaming on Hulu: Cries and Whispers. (Ironically, Oscar voters continued to dismiss Bergman’s indifference and lauded the movie with five nominations, including Best Picture.) Concerning a trio of sisters (one of whom is on her deathbed) in a Swedish mansion at the end of the 19th century, Cries and Whispers returns to familiar Bergman territory (faith, doubt, love, death) while atypically conveying those themes through lush, saturated color cinematography (by Sven Nykvist). Including a shocking scene that’s referenced in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), Cries and Whispers achieves a naked empathy that’s cathartic in its honesty and ambition. If you’re hoping to balance the pomp and glitz of the Oscars with an unsettling appetizer (or if you want to avoid the awards altogether), check out this unflinching masterpiece from an auteur who cared more about cinema’s emotional depths than the laurels it might bring to his mantelpiece.
Smash Cuts is a continuing series in which two members of the Walker’s Film & Video department go head-to-head on a divisive film, debating its various faults and merits. For our inaugural edition, Jeremy Meckler and Matt Levine discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Warning: here be spoilers! Matt: Obviously if you’re going into a Quentin […]
Smash Cuts is a continuing series in which two members of the Walker’s Film & Video department go head-to-head on a divisive film, debating its various faults and merits. For our inaugural edition, Jeremy Meckler and Matt Levine discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Warning: here be spoilers!
Matt: Obviously if you’re going into a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know you’re going to get graphic hyperviolence, a rewriting of both cinematic and real-world history, and a subversion of one of the director’s favorite genres: exploitation flicks from the 1960s and ‘70s. So I wasn’t as outraged by the premise of Django Unchained — in which Jamie Foxx’s former slave teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to kill white slaveowners and racists in the Antebellum-era Deep South — as some other people were (Spike Lee most publicly), though the underlying premise is unsettling (is it possible to make a badass revenge flick while remaining sensitive to this country’s insidious racial history and its unsettling aftereffects?).
After seeing the movie, though, it really does seem like Tarantino doesn’t have the ambition or the intelligence to indulge his fanboy tendencies while simultaneously saying something insightful or original about the knotty issue of race in American history. So my dislike for the film isn’t based on moral outrage or indignation at his insensitivity, since it’s obvious that Tarantino isn’t even trying to open up a dialogue about this tempestuous issue. But that seriously weakens my respect for Tarantino as a filmmaker (which is already only middling) and makes me question my enthusiasm for Inglourious Basterds, which I thought was a clever but precarious deconstruction of the integral roles that media and storytelling play in popular conceptions of history. It’s almost like Tarantino is so postmodern that he subscribes to the empty notion of “post-race,” which assumes that we live in a world that’s transcended racial divides and in which unique racial experiences no longer have to be respected — though anyone who thinks modern America is colorblind is oblivious to incarceration rates (and how they differ between whites and blacks) and to the widening racial and economic segregation in many urban areas.
“It’s almost like Tarantino is so postmodern that he subscribes to the empty notion of ‘post-race,’ which assumes that we live in a world that’s transcended racial divides and in which unique racial experiences no longer have to be respected…”
Jeremy: For me, I was not at all interested in the debate as to whether or not Django Unchained would enhance discussion about race relations in the United States. There have been so many films whose purpose has been to illustrate the very real racial inequities inherent in the culture, and the collective memory of the nation is certainly tied to a contemporary erasure of the horrors of those race relations. But, the thing about those films is that, though critically acclaimed, most of them suck (I’m thinking most specifically of Crash here) and none of them have managed to change the institutional and personal prejudices people face daily. School segregation and economic inequality seem to be increasing, not decreasing, not to mention the startlingly high incarceration and arrest rate differences across racial lines, but no movie, be it a mainstream critical darling like Crash or a deliberately provocative Blaxploitation-inspired-western epic like Django Unchained can make a dent in those problems. So I’m just not interested in judging this film by its ability to initiate discussions about race, whatever Quentin Tarantino may have said in interviews.
But, looking at the film itself, I think it has nothing to do with accurate historical portrayal or with the current situation in our culture. Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving. Tarantino’s films, so often praised for their “realist” dialogue, are so far from that, existing in a space so far from the real world, and so deep into minute obsession with the formal aspects of a particular era of studio production, that imitators consistently fail to keep up. I like Tarantino precisely for this, for his obsession, his use of bricolage and homage, and the way his films talk about issues from the perspective of living inside a 70’s film.
“[Django Unchained] has nothing to do with accurate historical portrayal or with the current situation in our culture. Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving.”
And Django Unchained is one of his best in blending its particular combinations of styles and influences. It owes much of its style to the first revisionist westerns, the ultraviolent and morally complex films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, but it incorporates aspects from all over Tarantino’s library of influences. It has a lot of Blaxploitation in it, particularly a scene in which Jamie Foxx is chained up in a shack full of southern whites that could be copied nearly shot for shot from a scene in Foxy Brown. It also has a lot of deliberate Looney Toons cartoon violence, particularly in Tarantino’s strange cameo in an outrageously bad Australian accent. But beyond its charming blend of influences, the life-blood of Tarantino’s style, this film brings in some incredibly sweet moments between Waltz and Foxx. It’s a great buddy cop picture that happens to be set in the deep south during the wild west era.
Matt: You’re right that the best part of the movie by far is the rapport between Foxx and Waltz, and you’re also right that Crash is awful. I definitely didn’t want another highfalutin message movie about racial tolerance, and I had no misconceptions that Django Unchained could or should do anything to rectify the immense racial conflicts that still exist (have always existed) in this country. That being said, Tarantino’s infatuation with revenge storylines, indebted though they are to blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, is more juvenile and simplistic than it’s ever been. I’m not a big fan of Kill Bill Volume 2, but at least in that movie Bea starts to come to the realization that eye-for-an-eye vengeance might not be as unproblematically gratifying as she had assumed. With Django Unchained, on the other hand, we’re supposed to be titillated and satisfied with the graphic (though, as you mentioned, Looney Toons-esque) violence that piles up in the last hour, including at least two men that are shot in the genitals and a woman who is comically blasted out of one scene by Django’s shotgun.
“Tarantino’s infatuation with revenge storylines, indebted though they are to blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, is more juvenile and simplistic than it’s ever been.”
Aside from any question of racial sensitivity, Django Unchained‘s glorification of violence reveals not only a deluded view of human behavior, but also a filmmaker who seems to be running out of tricks. (I know Django Unchained is celebrated for its originality, but seriously, what does it have that we haven’t already witnessed in at least one Tarantino film?) He borrows some stylistic traits from Peckinpah and Leone, and even some broad plot points, but their treatment of violence is wholly different: Harmonica’s vengeance in Once Upon a Time in the West is carried out with a grim sobriety, as though he has nothing left to live for so he might as well embrace hopeless violence; and Straw Dogs is all about how vengeance can chillingly turn a man into a sadistic monster. As opposed to Django Unchained, which ends with a massacre followed by Django and Broomhilda von Shaft reveling in the carnage as though they’re in post-coital bliss. The movie is indeed supposed to take place in some kind of hermetically-sealed Movieland that has nothing at all to do with reality, but it’s not that simple; movies aren’t released into a vacuum. Django Unchained, in my opinion, operates at the lowest level of postmodernism, which suggests that nothing really matters in reality any more, so we might as well embrace a wholly artificial, mediated world.
Jeremy: Here’s where we differ, I think. Tarantino’s films are definitely postmodern and supremely intertextual. You would have to be a bigger geek than I am (if you can even imagine that) to identify all of the visual and narrative references that Tarantino packs in here for his fellow geeks, fetishists, and lonely purveyors at the few remaining video stores. But just because this world is fake, doesn’t mean that nothing in reality matters. I think it’s exactly the opposite, and that his films use their own shiny exterior to talk about concepts in interesting ways. Tarantino’s garish, polished, stylized universe is one that foregrounds its own artificiality, the way that modern art started to do at the turn of the twentieth century. The film is not intended to be watched as a document of history, and since it is so phony, it can’t really be read that way, even if most of the mainstream critique of the film has come from this camp.
Yes, there are probably historical inaccuracies in the film’s setting and characters; the most commonly leveled one (by a variety of historians and critics) is that the ultra-barbaric and near-unthinkable sport of mandingo fighting never existed. But I think what’s remarkable about this film and much of Tarantino’s work, is just that it really doesn’t matter whether it is “true” in the real world. The sentiment of the characters in his phony universe shines through, and his thesis is strengthened by its unbelievability. Watching a cartoonized, glorified scene of violence and gore on the subject of slavery is a way to think about that unthinkable subject, not because of the conversations it starts about slavery here in the real world, but because that moment of comparison between the real-world horror of slavery and a juvenile revenge plot allows a space to imagine the alternative. The alternative to this film, in my mind, is to put forward something realist that brings up the same issues, and that might be an interesting proposition too, but realist work is just as fake as stylized work. They are both films, just films shot in different styles. And isn’t a willingness to display its own means of production at the heart of modernism, not post-modernism?
“Watching a cartoonized, glorified scene of violence and gore on the subject of slavery is a way to think about that unthinkable subject, not because of the conversations it starts about slavery here in the real world, but because that moment of comparison between the real-world horror of slavery and a juvenile revenge plot allows a space to imagine the alternative [treatment].”
What’s more, this film, more than any of Tarantino’s earlier work, enlarges the gap between itself and reality by injecting a-historical moments, super stylized violence, and a ragged storyline together to create a setting, which no viewer can take for historical. So I think you’re mostly right that Django Unchained is a part of Tarantino’s vague and unexplained obsession with revenge plotlines, it is in no way original or new to his work, and many of its characters are flat photocopies of characters from other Spaghetti Westerns, but that is what makes it a strong film. And though it certainly isn’t much different from some of Tarantino’s other films, largely Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, and Jackie Brown, it is as well crafted as any of them. Django Unchained certainly has its failings, and I do think Basterds and Jackie Brown are both much better movies, but it does some things remarkably well, and does it with style, beauty (in parts) and some genuine Hitchcockian suspense.
Matt: Your comparison between Tarantino’s artificiality and that of modern art in the early 20th century is a very good point, although I think their historical contexts make all the difference: the formalist art from a century ago was responding to a Romanticist tradition that was dedicated to a faithful (or at least emotionally cohesive) portrayal of reality, whereas in today’s world we’ve been inundated with mediated artifice for decades. In other words, whereas the formalism of early modern art was breaking the artistic mold, today that kind of self-reflexive artifice is commonplace (witness the majority of television comedies today, for example Family Guy, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Modern Family, Community, etc.).
In terms of the historical accuracy of Django Unchained, I’m not really concerned with specific inaccuracies and definitely don’t think the movie should be read as a document of history; but I am concerned with the movie’s indifference towards the overall trauma of slavery. I wish I could agree that the combination of cartoonish, glorified violence and highly disturbing scenes of racial brutality offers “a way to think about that unthinkable subject [and] allows a space to imagine the alternative” to this kind of artifice, but I think the common interpretation is the other way around: watching that cartoonish violence side-by-side with scenes (albeit partially offscreen) of slaves getting ripped apart by bloodthirsty guard dogs or mandingo fighters gouging out each other’s eyes and getting offed with a hammer conflates these wildly different brands of violence, as though racial hostility is just another artificial trope for filmmakers to recycle into their own deconstructionist gimmick. This was partially true of Inglorious Basterds too, but not nearly to the same extent: imagine if Tarantino had balanced his goofy revision of World War II history with actual scenes of Jews being ushered into the showers or their corpses carted off by the dozens. He seems to have been aware that his kind of self-reflexive artifice comes off as heartless when paired with actual historical atrocity, so why is he comfortable including similar-minded scenes in Django Unchained? And while you’re right that a film about slavery in a more realist vein would be just as heavily mediated as Django Unchained, its effect on the audience would not be one of escapism and mollification, but (perhaps) an effect of introspection and unease. Django Unchained is certainly well-made, stylish, and visually beautiful—but in this case I don’t think that’s enough.
“Imagine if Tarantino [in Inglourious Basterds] had balanced his goofy revision of World War II history with actual scenes of Jews being ushered into the showers or their corpses carted off by the dozens. He seems to have been aware that his kind of self-reflexive artifice comes off as heartless when paired with actual historical atrocity, so why is he comfortable including similar-minded scenes in Django Unchained?”
Jeremy: Maybe you’re right, and I’m just a sucker for style. I love the tight, visually beautiful, and heavily stylized moments in this film just like I love the spaghetti westerns that they pay homage to. But, I don’t think you’re right to say that this film reacts with indifference toward the trauma of slavery. Take a look, for instance, at the film’s most charismatic character, Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Shultz. This is a character so disgusted by American slavery that he literally throws his life away only to kill a despised slave owner, and edify his sense of pure horror when faced with the reality of slavery. This moment actually makes little narrative sense, and feels relatively disjunctive in an otherwise tightly plotted enterprise, but I think it shows the film’s core, which is a strong refusal to accept this evil practice.
Perhaps there are indeed things and images too sacred, too intrinsically awful and unthinkable to be portrayed in Tarantino’s admittedly sloshy style, and if there are, then slavery may indeed be one of them. But I think criticizing this film for being revisionist or for being stylized is not dealing with it on its own terms. Certainly this film is unseemly, and probably in poor taste, but its vulgarity comes from the same place as Shultz’s misplaced sacrifice, a complete disgust and rejection of the ideas behind slavery. The film hates the institution of slavery so much that it finds it necessary to show some gruesome images of its horrors, and some disgusting rhetoric, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s speech about the phrenological justifications for slavery. What you see as a trivialization of slavery seems to me to be a sign of respect to its massive and terrible influence. It is exactly to avoid producing a mollifying or escapist film that those vile images and ideas are necessary. Absolutely those scenes are incredibly distasteful, but that’s their intent. I have a hard time believing that anyone walked out of that theater the same way they would have walked out of a real escapist film, like Avatar, or that anyone really thought that they walked into another moment in history. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that that’s what all the style and gauche camerawork is for, to make sure that people cannot take this revisionist tale for reality. And the truth that lives outside the film, unseen (like much of that gruesome scene with the dogs) and implied through the narrative, is more terrible. This film reclaims history, rather than portraying it, but by doing so does that somehow negate history’s influence? I don’t think so.
“I think criticizing this film for being revisionist or for being stylized is not dealing with it on its own terms. Certainly this film is unseemly, and probably in poor taste, but its vulgarity comes from the same place as Shultz’s misplaced sacrifice, a complete disgust and rejection of the ideas behind slavery.”
Certainly this film is closer to Blazing Saddles than it is to Lincoln, but through its stylized parody, it gets at something a bit deeper, while remaining beautiful, very funny at times, stylish, and entertaining for those who can hold their screen gore.
The Third Man (and Still Dots) ends with one of the most remarkable final images in the history of cinema, an overwhelming fusion of form and content that makes clear just how irrevocably Holly Martins’ life has changed. Jeremy charted this solemn transformation on Tuesday, tracing all of Holly’s medium-shots to close-ups throughout our series […]
The Third Man (and Still Dots) ends with one of the most remarkable final images in the history of cinema, an overwhelming fusion of form and content that makes clear just how irrevocably Holly Martins’ life has changed. Jeremy charted this solemn transformation on Tuesday, tracing all of Holly’s medium-shots to close-ups throughout our series and discovering a man whose sense of morality has been upturned, who has discovered that the world is so rotten that shooting one’s oldest friend dead may in fact be an ethically justifiable act. Yet if Holly’s morals have been bolstered even in the face of such a sickening realization (revealing the fact that his ultimate aim, it seems, is to strive for some kind of innate yet indefinable human goodness — a reminder, perhaps, of his Catholic faith, which has been alluded to but hardly emphasized throughout the film), Holly is also undergoing an emotional crisis. He still loves Anna Schmidt — indeed, loves her precisely for her compassion, her unwavering loyalty to Harry Lime even once his evil deeds have been unearthed. His decision to work with Calloway to capture Harry, and of course his murder of his former friend, indicate that Holly has chosen an amorphous morality over friendship with Anna; he’s aware that his actions have ensured her ongoing animosity towards him.
Following Harry’s “second” funeral, Calloway offers to drive Holly to the airport, presumably to return to the United States to begin what must certainly be an entirely new phase of his life. (Surely Holly can’t continue writing hackneyed Western paperbacks, given his discovery of how knotty human morality and relationships actually are; maybe he’ll initiate a second career as a modernist James Joyce acolyte?) Seeing Anna walking alone at the side of the road, Holly asks Calloway to pull off to the side. “There isn’t much time,” Calloway reminds him; and more to the point, a second later, well aware of Holly’s desire for a final farewell with Anna, Calloway advises Holly to “be sensible.” Holly replies, “I haven’t got a sensible name, Calloway,” reminding us of Anna’s of final dig towards Holly in the Cafe Marc Aurel: “Honest, sensible, sober, harmless Holly Martins. Holly — what a silly name.” In other words, it’s not just Harry’s funeral that’s being repeated here: almost all of this scene, from Calloway offering Holly a ride, to spotting Anna on the side of the road, to an admonition of Holly’s insensibility and absurd name, is an echo of something that has come before. Yet, as Jeremy pointed out on Tuesday, Marx’s aphorism that all historical events repeat themselves, first as tragedy, then as farce, may be inverted by their sequencing in The Third Man: Holly first arrived in Vienna a naive, idealistic Romantic; now hardened into a weary realist, he perceives the same events through a morose veil of tragedy and sacrifice (a sacrifice of innocence, of happiness).
The emotional rift between Holly and Anna is conveyed through a remarkable aesthetic decision: we witness Anna stroll past Holly, without a word or even a glance in his direction, in a single unbroken shot that lasts over a minute. Still Dots 102 is a fragment from this long take; indeed, Anna has already been walking for about forty seconds when she reaches this point. Certainly such an extended take seems extraordinary in today’s cinematic climate, in which most mainstream films, edited into unmalleable form by cuts lasting an average of two or three seconds, dictate precisely what the audience sees (and how) and fractures scenes into a multitude of fragments. But even at the time of The Third Man‘s release, the Hollywood style of continuity editing (and, by extension, the style adopted by most narrative films internationally) had already accustomed audiences to sporadic edits within scenes: cut-ins, cutaways, close-ups, POV shots, establishing shots, inserts, and other pieces of film vocabulary which convey emotion, theme, and information by purely visual means. This is partially why The Third Man‘s last image hits us so hard: it seems anomalous even within the film itself, which typically edits much more frequently. We watch Anna walk and walk and walk, as the leaves fall drearily and Anton Karas’s zither score swells; we get the sense of life irrepressibly moving on, even during times of great personal anguish.
We may remember a similar composition from last week: in Still Dots 100, we see Holly Martins immediately after his murder of Harry Lime, a silhouette at the vanishing point in the center of the frame, teetering precariously at a drastic turning point in his life. The swath of darkness and bold locus of light represent truth and unknowing, though which of these Holly has passed through and into which he’s about to step are more ambiguous. Today’s frame, while vastly different in lighting and narrative content, has a similar composition: a single human figure beginning as a distant shape in the center of the frame. The difference is between moral belief and emotion, or perhaps even between death and love: if Still Dots 100 showed us a Holly Martins who was about to venture down a passageway of cold, harsh reality, then Still Dots 102 shows us the same man suffering from a brutal emotional epiphany — the realization that he may never again see or speak to the woman he loves. Holly’s incongruous position at the side of today’s frame emphasizes how he doesn’t belong, either in this city or in Anna’s life, which will continue without him.
We should remember here that this ending very easily could not have been: Graham Greene was pushing for a happy ending, in which Holly caught up with Anna, who would be unable to resist his blusterous American charm and walk down the promenade, arm-in-arm. Carol Reed was the one who pushed for this bleaker, more realistic ending, alleging that a more generic happy ending would in fact be “unpleasantly cynical,” taking place immediately after Harry’s funeral. Richard Raskin, in his excellent essay “Closure in The Third Man: On the Dynamics of an Unhappy Ending,” points out that most critics interpret Anna’s climactic snub of Holly as proof of the filmmakers’ own disparaging view of their protagonist — in other words, that Holly, the foolish, naive, clumsy American who caused (either directly or indirectly) the death of three people, “deserves” this unhappiness. Raskin disagrees, as do I: though Holly is indeed foolish and out of his element (a point Jeremy and I have reiterated several times), he is ultimately simply a human trying to enact goodness and honesty rather than evil and corruption, which is essentially what most human beings strive for in their fleeting lives on this planet. Raskin cites Lynnette Carpenter, who claimed that the film sympathizes with Holly’s attempt to reconcile his optimism with his burgeoning cynicism, and in so doing “advocates humanity and compassion in the face of increasing pressure to categorize, generalize and dehumanize, a pressure that leads, when unresisted, to totalitarianism.” The fact that Holly and Anna don’t happily end up together is not proof of Holly’s mediocrity as a man, especially in comparison to Harry Lime; instead, it offers a viewpoint of love and relationships as wearily realistic as the film’s viewpoint towards human morality. People may never have a list of objective ethical criteria by which they lead their lives, but we try nonetheless to be good, aspiring to a vague principle of justice; similarly, in a perfect world love would always be requited and directed towards the appropriate counterpart (and never threatened by inane amendments), but this simply (and tragically) is not the case. The bleak ending of The Third Man is a heartbreaking realization of this.
When Roger Ebert wrote, “of all the movies that I have seen, this one [The Third Man] most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies,” he may have been thinking primarily of this ending. (Ebert himself describes the final shot as “absolutely perfect,” “a long, elegiac sigh.”) Every time I see it (and I’ve watched The Third Man about half a dozen times now), it blindsides me, aching with sadness and beauty in a larger-than-life way that only movies can accomplish.
The point of Still Dots has been to discover how our interpretation of film changes when we arrest its motion and analyze still photographs instead, and extend those analyses over the interval of a year by semi-arbitrary time requirements. This is why we have abstained from including actual clips from The Third Man in our posts. Yet, contrary to Roland Barthes’ assertion in “The Third Meaning” that “the filmic, very paradoxically, cannot be grasped in the film ‘in situation’, ‘in movement’, ‘in its natural state’, but only in that major artefact, the still,” cinema is an art form of visual movement. This was the goal that obsessed innovators like Eadweard Muybridge, Louis La Prince, and Étienne-Jules Marey in the 19th century, and that made pre-cinematic novelties like magic lantern shows and phenakistoscopes so popular; the ability to propel still photographs into motion was miraculous at the time, and the ability for cinema to mimic life should still be astounding to us, at least if our culture wasn’t already so embroiled in rampant technological advancement. In other words, freezing the final sequence of The Third Man into one still reveals what is lost by this process of petrification. Today’s still allows me to see the pleasantly symmetrical composition, the skeletal trees, the blanket of leaves on the ground, Holly’s hopeful and Anna’s defiant stances, but it doesn’t allow me to see the leaves falling, Holly’s not-quite-immobility, or most importantly Anna’s boldly unimpeded progress from the middle of the frame to its foremost edge. Even when film is immobilized, as in Chris Marker’s La Jetée, movement is referred to by its conspicuous absence, especially by the nature of film editing and by the momentary glimpse of movement in that film. (We may also think of Derek Jarman’s Blue , which, although it visually consists only of a single blue screen, still entails movement when it’s projected on film thanks to the movement of celluloid through the projector and the flickering of film grain.)
In other words, speaking of today’s still without comparison to its position in the moving image is like hearing a single note from a symphony, or reading a single word from the final 85-word sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude: it’s revealing in a semiotic or experiential sense, but perhaps disrespectful to the power of the art form. So, if there’s ever been an opportune time to break our own rules, it’s in the final post of our series, in deference to one of the best cinematic endings ever (a superlative I feel safe in making):
Harry’s life has been ended, Holly’s and Anna’s discombobulated, but as Jeremy noted on Tuesday, Vienna “keeps moving as it has been.” Of course the city is not impervious or ahistorical; indeed, Vienna revealed itself to be one of the most wounded cities in World War II, a city whose scars parallel the human characters’ suffering. But if the city is The Third Man‘s “true hero and most complex character” — a notion with which Charles Drazin agrees — then it is heroic and complex precisely because of the human dramas that play out within it. All Vienna can do is bear rapt, silent witness to the violence and cruelty, or (as The Third Man is careful to suggest) love and goodness, that are staged within its borders. Just as the camera eye can only look on, mutely yet emotionally, the disembodied being of Vienna likewise provides a proscenium for the human passions enacted in The Third Man. Wim Wenders made a similar connection between cinematic and (for lack of a better word) metropolitan observation in his one-of-a-kind cine-essay, Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989).
Where will Holly Martins go from here? It is one of art’s wonderful limitations that it can only offer us a slice of life, an interval; The Third Man‘s ending pains us precisely because we care so much for Holly and Anna (and Calloway), yet can only imagine what awaits them extra-diegetically. The British radio series The Lives of Harry Lime (1951-2), in which Orson Welles reprises his legendary role (and even contributed some of the scripts, harkening back to his Mercury Theater radio days in the 1930s), provides some lighthearted anecdotes from Harry’s black-market days before the arrival of Holly Martins, but as for the other characters’ post-Third Man days, we can know nothing — except for the movies that might play out in our heads afterwards.
And what about the movie itself — is there more to be said about it? Of course; no exploration of a great work of art can ever be inexhaustible. There are also the real-life inspirations for the characters of Harry Lime and Holly Martins (allegedly based on a real-life Soviet spy and a Viennese journalist, respectively), the ways in which The Third Man dazzlingly complicates notions of the auteur theory (with director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene, both then at the height of their popularity, vying for the title of “auteur” along with Orson Welles and significant collaborators like cinematographer Robert Krasker and music composer Anton Karas), and the connections between the film and literary modernism.
But finality must come to all things, even if (as it is for The Third Man‘s characters) that finality seems achingly inconclusive. At the very least, we hope these Still Dots posts have revealed just how multifarious and complex The Third Man is, how fluidly it moves back and forth between registers of visceral, invigorating entertainment and implicit thematic commentary. The “essence” of cinema (if such a thing exists, which, hopefully, is not the case) is fascinating because it hovers somewhere between the domains of photography and movement, or space and time, which we hope our project has also intimated. At some point in the next several weeks, Jeremy and I will be posting a follow-up article about our experience undertaking Still Dots over the last year, a project which seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye (or in one-twenty-fourth of a second?). And on January 17, 2013, the Walker Cinema will be hosting a free screening of The Third Man to commemorate the end of our project (and, more importantly, to provide audiences with an opportunity to see this masterpiece on 35mm!). In the meantime, as Anna continues down her road and Holly, a changed man, smokes a cigarette alone somewhere in Vienna, all we can do is imagine the scenes that transpire after the film runs out.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots has grabbed a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project began on December 13, 2011. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
Harry Lime — the dead man who became undead, then alive again; the phantom who permeated the streets of Vienna; the name that crossed the lips of every main character in The Third Man; the unseen face (for the first hour, anyway) whose devious charisma haunted the mind and memory of his friends, lovers, and […]
Harry Lime — the dead man who became undead, then alive again; the phantom who permeated the streets of Vienna; the name that crossed the lips of every main character in The Third Man; the unseen face (for the first hour, anyway) whose devious charisma haunted the mind and memory of his friends, lovers, and enemies — is dead. Dropped by a bullet fired by his onetime best friend, Holly Martens, Harry has become one of those still dots he so imperiously exploited, as though they were simply entries in a monetary ledger. For our centuplicate Still Dots post, it seems fitting that the occasion is marked by the death of the film’s most godlike character (revealed to be a mere mortal after all), not to mention the morose evolution of Holly Martens from an idealistic, romantic scribbler of dime novels to a hardened realist, whose morals have been both bolstered and embattled. Today’s haunting still regards from afar Holly Martens, murderer (albeit a killer with ample ethical justification): the tunnel through which he’s about to pass is, perhaps, the passageway from optimistic naivete to soul-shattering disillusion.
Why did Holly Martens kill Harry Lime? The question seems both easily answerable and impossibly tricky. True, Calloway advised Holly not to “take any chances” and to fire upon Harry on sight (a word of advice/warning that may have more to do with Calloway’s anguish at the death of his partner and friend, Sergeant Paine), but Holly and Harry have a long, emotionally fraught standoff during which both men are armed — in other words, Harry could easily kill his friend if he wanted to. If Harry had seemed to advance threateningly towards Holly, gun drawn, in the Cafe Marc Aurel, something has changed in the last eight minutes of screen time — namely, it seems, Harry’s realization that the end is near. No longer intending to murder Holly, Harry instead offers him a slight nod, and with it implicit permission to heed Calloway’s advice and pull the trigger. That nod is vitally important: without it, Holly had given no indication that he would raise his gun against his onetime best friend.
This overwhelming murder scene, at once viscerally direct and ambiguous, may gain some clarity if we refer to Graham Greene’s novella of The Third Man (which he had not intended to publish and which was intended as a blueprint for the screenplay he would subsequently write). The murder of Harry Lime is narrated by Holly as such in Greene’s book:
“For a moment I thought he was dead, but then he whimpered with pain. I said, ‘Harry,’ and he swivelled his eyes with a great effort to my face. He was trying to speak, and I bent down to listen. ‘Bloody fool,’ he said — that was all. I don’t know whether he meant that for himself — some sort of act of contrition, however inadequate (he was a Catholic) — or was it for me — with my thousand a year taxed and my imaginary cattle-rustlers who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean? Then he began to whimper again. I couldn’t bear any more and I put a bullet through him.” (117)
This account differs crucially from its cinematic counterpart — there are no words shared by the two men in the film, and Holly’s tone is a bit more unambiguously contemptuous in the book — but Harry’s murder in the film seems as well to be a sympathetic mercy killing, and the notion of foolish human endeavors ending in violence and misery is retained (albeit more on Harry’s part). Harry truly does seem like a caged rat as he claws at the sewer grate above him, and Holly’s solemn gaze conveys pity more than anything else. But if Holly pulls the trigger primarily to put Harry out of his misery, he also (unwittingly, to be sure) allows Harry to retain his Übermensch mystique by killing him before he’s apprehended by the police. Can we imagine Harry Lime — the cavalier villain whose irrepressible charm was inseparable from his haughty contempt for the rest of humanity — succumbing to a prison sentence? Of course not; the man is outside and above any conception of law and order.
If we flash back to the two men’s complex conversation on the Riesenrad, we may remember that Harry told Holly, “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we?” Clearly, Harry has the ubiquitous visual evidence of World War II (manifested in the rubble that litters Vienna’s streets) to corroborate his claim — even to national governments, people are no more than dots with the potential to be stilled, albeit for military rather than economic purposes. Given his contempt for penal and political systems, Harry must resist arrest at all costs — preferably while surviving, but through self-sacrifice if necessary. Ironically, then, precisely when Holly believes he is committing the only morally just action — executing Harry for his barbaric crimes against humanity while simultaneously honoring his onetime best friend’s desire for death — he is in fact committing the immoral action of allowing Harry to remain outside the system of “civilized” law and order.
What happened to Harry and Holly to estrange them from each other? Was it simply Harry’s personal devolution, or were social and political forces the real mechanism that drove them apart? It’s impossible to know for sure, but if it was in fact the war that contributed to the corrosion of Harry’s morality, then The Third Man acts as a parallel to Jean Renoir’s classic 1937 antiwar film, Grand Illusion. The film that Ginette Vincendeau says should be revisited as Renoir’s true masterpiece (over La Règle du jeu), Grand Illusion is, like The Third Man, a story of brotherly love dissolving into animosity and murder, with world war as the backdrop. The setting here is the first world war: two aristocrats, the German Captain von Rauffenstein (played with unparalleled Teutonic bravado by Erich von Stroheim) and the French Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), realize they share similar histories and numerous friends, each respecting the other’s gentlemanly honor even while de Boeldieu is held as von Rauffenstein’s prisoner of war. (Their first interaction is held over an elegant lunch shortly after de Boeldieu is shot down and captured.) There is genuine respect and affection between them, but that doesn’t stop the forces of nationalism and war from driving them apart: de Boeldieu offers to provide a distraction during two of his compatriots’ escape attempt, a scheme that von Rauffenstein uncovers in media res. While de Boeldieu’s fellow Frenchmen escape the military prison and hightail it to Switzerland, von Rauffenstein pleads with de Boeldieu to give himself up, knowing full well that his actions must face with execution otherwise; de Boeldieu refuses, forcing von Rauffenstein to shoot his friend (and wartime enemy) in the stomach (though he had meant to shoot him in the legs). In his dying moments, de Boeldieu pities a remorseful von Rauffenstein, predicting that the war will obliterate their aristocratic order and strand the German officer in a refashioned society that operates through mechanistic war and capitalism rather than pre-industrial class systems. In other words, the Great War ushers in both de Boeldieu’s and von Rauffenstein’s loss of innocence, tragically revealed by the murder of one friend by another.
Is this not what happens in The Third Man, with World War II replacing the Great War? Whether or not the war was primarily responsible for transforming Harry Lime into the callous nihilist we see in the film, it’s clear that the violence enacted by Harry, Holly, Calloway et al. is merely a condensation of the multinational warfare whose effects are strewn throughout the city of Vienna. The friendship between Holly and Harry, like the friendship between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, is eviscerated by a modern world that knows only violence, war, and greed. Hence the compassion between all of these men, even after two of them are shot by their friends: they all seem to be aware that they’re simply enacting global forces that engulf them, cataclysmically.
Today’s composition — a small figure at the vanishing point in the middle of the frame — is striking enough to be redeployed in The Third Man‘s famous final image, which we’ll discuss next week (Still Dots’ last!), though in that case an entirely different relationship has been irreversibly destroyed. Less solemnly, this composition would find its echo in the famous gun-barrel logo used 13 years later to open the first official James Bond movie, Dr. No (and to inaugurate every James Bond film thereafter). Interpreting the tunnel we see in Still Dots 100 as a gun barrel lends it a morbid and unsettling tone, as though Holly is immediately taunted by the very architecture of these sewers immediately after he shoots his friend. The strong backlighting and ghostly fog also serve to subtly establish Holly Martens as a newly phantasmal presence, his psyche unsettled by the emotional trauma he’s recently undergone (in a sense he steps into Harry Lime’s spectral, morally ambiguous shoes). More simply (yet just as powerfully), the sheer amount of darkness in this still represents the bitter reality into which Holly has so cruelly been thrust. (Whether or not he’s passed through this darkness into the light of realization, or passed through the light of blissful ignorance into the darkness of repulsed cynicism, is another question entirely.) If we want to get truly meta-cinematic, we can also say that this tunnel represents the aperture of a lens on a film camera, in which case the opening at which Holly stands acts as the focal plane and our vantage point is somewhere within the mechanical gears inside of the camera. (Obviously this is not intentional, but the mind likes to wander…) One thing is sure: the tunnel before him represents a formidable journey, both that which he’s already taken and that through which he will be forced to persevere. Like the silhouette of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at the end of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Holly’s silhouette signifies both truth and unknowing — the angst of standing before a world that can never be completely comprehended.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
One of The Third Man‘s most iconic images, Still Dots 98 petrifies Harry Lime on the brink of life and death: after killing Calloway’s partner-in-arms and loyal companion, Sergeant Paine, Harry is himself plugged by Calloway and scrambles up this iron walkway, only yards away from the chilly open air of Vienna and, perhaps, yet another […]
One of The Third Man‘s most iconic images, Still Dots 98 petrifies Harry Lime on the brink of life and death: after killing Calloway’s partner-in-arms and loyal companion, Sergeant Paine, Harry is himself plugged by Calloway and scrambles up this iron walkway, only yards away from the chilly open air of Vienna and, perhaps, yet another narrow escape from certain death. (Harry’s affinity with felines emerges once again: maybe Mr. Lime really does have nine lives.) If, as Jeremy surmised on Tuesday, Harry Lime has been enacting his death drive and (unconsciously or not) gravitating irreversibly towards certain doom, he now realizes the calamity of his actions and clutches desperately at survival. As Don Draper and his associates realized on the pilot of Mad Men, the death drive only has valence as a subconscious mechanism; people don’t want to hear about (much less embrace) death, as it contradicts the very survival instincts of any biological entity (not to mention the supreme importance of happiness in advertising).
Harry’s amoral view of humanity as dispensable dots, whose potential to be stilled has no significance or bearing whatsoever, would seem to be contradicted by his current frantic fight for survival: if his nihilism is really as all-consuming as he pretends it to be, presumably he would have to accept that he is simply one of those dots whose death is unavoidable and meaningless. (As a tangential side note: today’s still also suggests the double-meaning of “Still Dots,” in that the composition of this image is strikingly beautiful, in its stark blacks and whites and graphic dynamism, even when wholly removed from its mobile context in the moving image. The “still dots” of grain we see in this frame—the light bubbling up from below, the sweaty, furrowed brow of Orson Welles’ face—remind us once again of the subtle significance of Roland Barthes’ “third meaning.”) Like the unnamed narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, who makes a show of nihilistically distancing himself from the rest of humanity yet ultimately craves its acceptance—“I wished with all my might to show that I could do without them; and yet I purposely clumped with my boots, coming down hard on the heels. But all in vain. They paid no attention.”—Harry seems to care little about life and death, yet claws at freedom when his mortality is most endangered. On the other hand, a fleeting gesture that Harry will soon make to Holly might prove how little he does, in fact, value his own survival; but we’ll save this consideration for next week.
If the upcoming denouement of The Third Man will emphasize the (non-)romantic relationship between Holly and Anna, the film’s climax focuses on not one but two male friendships: Calloway’s and Paine’s as well as Holly’s and Harry’s. As already mentioned, it is Harry’s shooting of Paine that compels Calloway to return fire; soon, the relationship between Holly and Harry (already frayed to its breaking point) will similarly resolve itself through violence and sacrifice. Intimate male-male relationships have had a central place in action movies and, especially, films noir from Wings (1927) to Out of the Past (1947) to Reservoir Dogs (1992; not to mention the most homoerotic action movie of all time, 300). Yet the male friendship that parallels Holly and Harry’s most tellingly is that between Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity (1944). Undeniably a more genuine relationship than that between Neff and the movie’s archetypal femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Neff and Keyes spend the entire film as either friendly competitors or inevitable nemeses. There is real affection and respect between them: in the world of insurance claims adjustments, they’re the ones shrewd enough to see through every loophole and oversight, whose ritualistic sharing of a cigar/cigarette is revealing for more than its phallic symbolism. The fact that Neff is ultimately the culprit whom Keyes has been pursuing for most of the film—and that Neff dictates his confession to Keyes with his dying breaths—results in a poignant final embrace, during which Neff half-sarcastically tells Keyes “I love you, too” while Keyes lights Neff’s cigarette for the last time. The friendship between Holly and Harry is never quite as predominantly (if symbolically) homoerotic, but there is still, of course, great intimacy between the two one-time best friends, an intimacy revolving around the simultaneous respect and rivalry each has for the other. Ultimately, of course, Holly morally condemns Harry, but perhaps, even as they battle and confront one another, the paradoxical kinship between them grows even stronger. The linkage between Double Indemnity‘s and The Third Man‘s male friendships will become even more prominent next week, as our climax draws to a close; in both films, it seems, and in true male-weepie fashion, the passionate bond between two men can only be subsumed by violence.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
The swath of darkness and shadow we see above is courtesy of two Austrian policemen, whose unsubtitled German commands echo along the sewer tunnels to an increasingly frenzied Harry Lime. Montage editing conveyed an ensemble of nameless military policemen in Still Dots 95 — nameless but, as Jeremy noted on Tuesday, not faceless, as their […]
The swath of darkness and shadow we see above is courtesy of two Austrian policemen, whose unsubtitled German commands echo along the sewer tunnels to an increasingly frenzied Harry Lime. Montage editing conveyed an ensemble of nameless military policemen in Still Dots 95 — nameless but, as Jeremy noted on Tuesday, not faceless, as their momentary close-ups bestow upon these unknown men an air of individuality, tactility, of fully-lived lives. Jeremy aptly compared this breathtaking sequence to Eisenstein’s didactic (in the best possible way) Soviet montage, which sought to overwhelm the audience with a number of shocks (juxtapositions and parallels between and within shots) that conveyed larger messages addressing a social totality. Yet in addition to Eisenstein’s theoretical purpose in allowing cinema to “think” through images, his use of montage editing (and its application to this scene in The Third Man) also relies upon purely formal connections — what Eisenstein deemed “metric” and “tonal” montage (based solely on the length of the film/duration of the shot and its graphic elements, respectively) in his essay “Methods of Montage.” As The Third Man‘s chase in the Viennese sewers goes on, the intensity builds and a distressed Harry becomes aware of the impossibility of escape — a tension established by the quickening pace of the edits (some of the shots which Jeremy discussed on Tuesday literally last for less than a second). It sounds like common-sense to say that montage editing achieves tension by cutting between shots with increasing rapidity, yet that careful attention to temporality was in fact one of Eisenstein’s (many) groundbreaking achievements; as Robert Stam argues, the director “temporaliz[es]…the essentially spatial juxtapositions of Cubist collage.” Jeremy included the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925) on Tuesday; here’s another example from my personal favorite of the director’s films, Strike (1925):
Carol Reed and editor Oswald Hafenrichter achieve a similar temporalization in the sewer chase scene, flawlessly manipulating time to affect the audience subconsciously. What’s more, The Third Man‘s chase scene also ratchets up the intensity by creating graphic juxtapositions between shots; the visual space through which Harry flees becomes increasingly constrained as the scene progresses, creating the impression that the tunnels are literally closing in on him. If the sort of micro-analysis that our series calls for serves to reveal the importance of precise split-second edits and the tiniest alteration in composition, then this montage sequence might be the fullest indication of that significance: cinema is many things, but among them it is a craft of ultimate spatial and temporal precision, in which one twenty-fourth of a second or one incremental camera movement can affect the audience in overpowering ways.
In its stasis, though, Still Dots 96 reveals to us not the mobile precision of montage editing, but the visual prominence of shadows on celluloid. If shadows have played a vital role in The Third Man’s visual palette, what with its dazzling chiaroscuro lighting and metaphorical interplay of light and dark, then this still might be the most blatant illustration of that centrality. (Think, for example, of the famous image of Harry Lime’s looming, distorted shadow dancing across the buildings of Vienna as he flees from Holly after their first encounter — the shadow not of Orson Welles, but of assistant director Guy Hamilton, who wore a padded oversized coat to fill in for the actor while he was gallivanting around Europe.)
If cinema is, as many have axiomatically put it, the art of “painting with light,” then shadow is of course one of its essential tools (we might call it dissonance to light’s harmony, to put it in musical terms). Obviously shadows have always existed on celluloid, but it seems they did not become a crucial artistic feature until the work of German Expressionist directors such as F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, Robert Wiene, and Fritz Lang. (We may remember here that German Expressionism was one of the foremost influences on film noir, the quasi-genre most known for its emphasis on shadows.) Murnau made the landmark 1922 horror film that might still stand as cinema’s most accomplished use of shadow as a central figure: Nosferatu.
On a slightly more metacinematic note, aren’t film images themselves “shadows” of reality? This signifying relationship between the film image and its counterpart in reality underlay much semiotic film theory in the latter half of the twentieth century: the idea that the film image clearly is not the object itself, but is a mimetic signifier of that object, with a more inextricable relationship than that between word and object (signifier and signified). Not to get too theoretical, but the film image thus acted as the shadow of that which it represented. (We’re not seeing Orson Welles or Joseph Cotten, but their figurative shadows.) In actuality, the idea that movies were shadows of reality came to prominence before theorists like Christian Metz and Peter Wollen embraced it in the 1960s and ’70s. In postwar Italy, for example, filmmaker-theorists like Cesare Zavattini, in an effort to reclaim Italian national identity through cinema, espoused realist filmmaking that portrayed the everyday lives of downtrodden people — a project especially suited to films, since they resembled reality encountering itself (the shadow speaking to the object that casts it). The most famous proponent of this mindset in the postwar years, though, was André Bazin, who thought that the mechanical recording function of the film camera created an ontological bond between the onscreen image and what it represents (in the manner of light casting a shadow). Later, in the 1970s, theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry drew a parallel between the luminous nature of cinema and the allegory of Plato’s cave from the Republic (ca. 380 BC), which told of a group of prisoners chained against a wall in a cave who would observe shadows projected into the cave by sunlight, and thus give representational forms to those shadows. (Plato’s allegory of the cave may thus be the earliest forebear of cinema itself.)
Another American writer in the postwar years used the metaphor of the cinematic shadow to decry the inhumanity of portrayals of black characters in Hollywood films. On December 6, 1949 (less than two months before The Third Man opened stateside), Ralph Ellison — author of (my favorite book) Invisible Man — wrote an essay entitled “The Shadow and the Act” for the Reporter. Centering on Hollywood depictions of race conflict such as Intruder in the Dust, Pinky, and Lost Boundaries, Ellison, while charting the malicious history of black representation in American film, offered this remarkable appraisal: “To direct an attack upon Hollywood would indeed be to confuse portrayal with action, image with reality. In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action, but illusion.” Films thus act as shadows of social forces in reality, mirroring (but not originating) the cruelties and evils that exist amongst humanity. If movies are indeed shadows of sociopolitical actuality, then The Third Man casts a particularly rich shadow of postwar greed, barbarism, amorality, and devastation; if the province of the film is illusion, it is one in which the real-world shadow of postwar Vienna looms large within the projector’s beam of light.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
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 […]
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.
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.
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?
Once again, we’re treated to an image that The Third Man has already made familiar: rubble, devastation, barrenness, the ravages of war. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, the film, “shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, its intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets.” The preceding four […]
Once again, we’re treated to an image that The Third Man has already made familiar: rubble, devastation, barrenness, the ravages of war. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, the film, “shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, its intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets.” The preceding four minutes of screen time have particularly emphasized this viscerally real depiction of a wartorn city: the looming shadows that seep over the cobblestone streets (glazed, in classical film noir fashion, with a layer of water to accentuate darkness and light), the chipped-away brick facades of Vienna’s wounded buildings, the ghostly fog that subsumes the city’s diagonally-tilted passageways — this is a place (a space and time) that suddenly seems tactile, realer than real. (The symbolic connotations of black-and-white filmmaking and The Third Man‘s location shooting, so markedly different from the studio sets of most narrative films of the time, help to explain how a colorless, boldly stylized portrayal of Vienna can somehow transcend the reality of actually being there.) The gaping wound staring back at us in Still Dots 92 is a prominent scar bestowed by World War II, an unavoidable reminder of Vienna’s (and Austria’s) turbulent recent history. Within the concrete flesh of this wound, another intrigue plays out at a microcosmic level: betrayal, inhumanity, and greed performed as a three-act play, its characters oblivious to the lessons that the war should have taught them (and which should be manifestly obvious from the terrain over which they’re currently scuttling).
The pair of British MPs who can barely be seen in the upper-right hand corner of today’s frame reveal that this is not only a documentary-like portrait of postwar Vienna: it’s also the initiation of a frenzied chase that will comprise The Third Man‘s climax. At the Cafe Marc Aurel, the three main characters in our drama have congregated: Anna, informed by Baron Kurtz that Holly is cooperating with the police to trap Harry Lime, has burst into the otherwise abandoned cafe and harshly chastised Holly for this betrayal. It is in the midst of her diatribe (actually, ironically, when Anna claims that Harry would never be foolish enough to fall for this trap) that Mr. Lime himself sneaks in through the backdoor. Though he must be aware of the dangerous possibility that Holly is conspiring to arrest him, Harry is still taken aback by Anna’s closing words: “You must feel very proud to be a police informer.”
On Tuesday, Jeremy noted that Harry and Holly’s familiar roles have suddenly been upended: Holly is now the duplicitous betrayer, Harry the entrapped sucker. Before we can feel too much sympathy for Harry, though, the movie reminds us of Mr. Lime’s villainy and of the moral rift between the two men: with subdued fury, Harry pulls a gun, points it in Holly’s general direction, and brusquely motions for Anna to move out of the way. The obvious implication is that Harry, now certain of Holly’s betrayal, intends to murder his onetime best friend (whereas we may still believe, naively perhaps, that Holly only wants Harry to be arrested, not killed). Harry takes one decisive step towards Holly, his jaw set in stoic resolve, yet (luckily for Holly) it is at this moment that Sergeant Paine throws open the front door. Making the only sensible decision he can in this predicament, Harry tucks tail and runs, scrambling down the mountain of rubble that we see in today’s still.
Harry’s interjection into this scene was commenced (if we recall from Still Dots 91) by a brief pan and tracking shot that mimics Harry’s visual perusal of the setting. That brief dolly towards the Cafe Marc Aurel from Harry’s perspective is significant: Jeremy hypothesized that Mr. Lime “truly is one of the phantoms occupying this city of ghosts, and this track is the beginning of his gentle departure from gravity’s bounds.” If this unmooring of the laws of gravity and physics commence with this tracking shot, where does Harry’s movement lead us, figuratively and literally? Towards his covert hiding place (and maybe even his natural habitat), of course: the sewers. The actual tracking shot from Still Dots 91 figuratively continues during this chase scene to a subterranean realm: the site of the uncanny, the once-exposed now made visible, towards hell itself. Like the disturbing and magisterial tracking shot from Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies above, Harry’s phantasmic movements bring us unstoppably closer to a hellish realm of death and inhumanity. The fact that the camera movement in Werckmeister Harmonies (like that in much of Tarr’s latter-day filmmaking) moves at a glacial pace only makes its ghostly march towards cruelty that much more disturbing: with the taunting inevitability of a nightmare, we approach the barbaric. Harry’s sudden descent into the Viennese sewers plays out with similarly awful immanence: from the beginning (when Holly flew across the Atlantic to meet his friend and instead met his coffin), their reunion was destined to lead to this cavernous realm.
Holly first learned of Harry’s death from the kindly porter whose own murder Holly indirectly caused: arriving at Harry’s apartment building, Holly is eerily told by the porter that Harry is “already in hell” (while he gestures upwards towards the sky) “or in heaven” (while he points downwards to…the sewers?). Now, about an hour later in screen time, the porter’s catachresis comes full circle, as Harry absconds to the “heaven” in which he’s been hiding out, a throng of British MPs (and Holly) in hot pursuit. The Freudian undercurrents of Harry’s hideout are unavoidable: if the subterranean unconscious is formed by repression, then Harry Lime functions as the Id personified, all of humanity’s inclinations towards self-preservation, megalomania, pleasure and amorality in one combustible package. Holly and the British military’s descent into the sewers, then, entails a penetration into the unconscious itself. Similarly, in Emir Kusturica’s bawdy political allegory Underground, a Communist arms dealer named Marko stows away an entire population in his grandfather’s cellar, convincing his “people” that World War II is raging above them for decades on end (the film is split into three parts — “War,” “Cold War,” and “War” — thus suggesting, not unlike The Third Man, that World War II set in motion a cycle of violence that raged throughout the twentieth century). Marko and his extravagant best friend Blacky, black-market racketeers whose own devious behavior reflects the ongoing atrocities of war, could have been influenced by Harry Lime: embodiments of the Id, they seem to imprison a mini-civilization in their own unconscious, even adding hours to each day so their subjects believe that less time has passed. The cellar and the sewer in Underground and The Third Man thus act as parallel spaces, catacombs where the extravagances of the repressed play out, inhabited by similarly unprincipled men.
But we’re not quite in the sewers yet: for the moment, we’re still above ground, in a Vienna that only barely contains the horrors lingering beneath its cobblestone surface. As Harry Lime races through the canted angles of the streets, dogs bark in the distance, whistles and sirens can be heard, and shadows of soldiers wielding submachine guns dance over the walls. These scenes could be taking place in April 1945, when the Soviets besieged German forces in the so-called Vienna Offensive. The sights and sounds of war — especially in the central district of Vienna, where the current scene was shot and wherein the four national powers occupying Vienna after the war (Britain, the United States, France, and Russia) rotated monthly control — would be omnipresent until May 1955, when the Austrian State Treaty was signed. Until then, as various national powers traded control over the Austrian capital, it must have seemed to the Viennese populace (as they labored to clear rubble and rebuild their city) that war truly was neverending. It is through this environment that the British military is currently pursuing Harry Lime, and it is beneath this territory that Harry and Holly’s personal war will soon come to an end.
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 […]
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:
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:
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.