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Still Dots: Top Ten

Still Dots, our year-long plunge into Carol Reed’s The Third Man is over, with an upcoming free screening of the film on 35mm serving as a cap on the thirteen months we have spent thinking about this film. While writing a long form article to sum up our experience working on the project, we couldn’t help […]

Still Dots, our year-long plunge into Carol Reed’s The Third Man is over, with an upcoming free screening of the film on 35mm serving as a cap on the thirteen months we have spent thinking about this film. While writing a long form article to sum up our experience working on the project, we couldn’t help but think back on our favorite posts from the last year. And, as many of you may be trying to catch up on Still Dots before the screening (so that you’ll be able to figure out what the heck we’re talking about) we decided to share our favorites. Here we present our top ten posts out of the hundred and two we wrote. Out of a sense of fairness and midwestern modesty, we’ve each picked our five favorite posts written by the other, as well as a few essentials we couldn’t live without.


Matt’s Top Picks:

Personally, my favorite posts of my own are the ones which allow fleeting, unexpected insight into characters (for example, Still Dots #38, in which we can imagine Baron Kurtz as a lover of violin music, blissfully serenading Vienna’s hoity-toity elites); which bring in other cinematic examples that I previously would have thought had no connection whatsoever to The Third Man (#54, in which the structural patterns of experimental, avant-garde filmmaking come into play); or which forced me to deal with the overarching themes and worldviews with which The Third Man is concerned (#102, which parallels Holly’s unhappy ending with the postwar plight that the city of Vienna is likewise undergoing). But I’m most partial to Still Dots #64, a still image which succinctly represents what Richard Misek would call The Third Man’s “wrong geometries”—a skewed envisioning of Vienna which correlates to the film’s postwar malaise and ambivalent moral outlook. I loved bringing in other examples from visual arts which help exemplify the distinctly distorted aesthetic of the film, but the main reason I look back fondly on #64 is because it allowed me to make a diversion that empathizes with Anna Schmidt’s character. I love Anna: she may be the film’s most courageous and emotionally genuine character, despite (or because of) her undying allegiance to a bona fide murderer and racketeer. Departing from our usual template, I indulged myself by including a still of Anna in between our 62-second intervals, and wrote a hypothetical account from Holly’s perspective of his love for Anna. Such an indulgence broke our own rules, but also allowed me to temporarily inhabit the characters of both Anna and Holly—and isn’t the ability to float in and out of other characters’ mindstates one of the metaphysical luxuries that cinema offers us?

Still Dots was also fascinating because it allowed me to see how Jeremy’s writing and opinions differed from my own. I always looked forward to reading his analyses, his intellectual dexterity and his clear, swift prose, yet if pressed I could narrow it down to five essential, must-read posts:


Second #4836, 80:36, Image © Studio Canal

5) #79: Arriving smack-dab in the middle of my favorite scene in the movie (Holly and Harry’s lengthy, complex, philosophical discussion on the Riesenrad Ferris Wheel), Jeremy’s post juggles James Joyce and Nietzsche (full disclosure: most of my discussions of Nietzsche were based on Jeremy’s previous citations of him) while emphasizing the underlying yet decisive influence of the two men’s Catholic upbringing on their modern behavior. #79 also represents one of the few times that Jeremy and I disagreed about characters’ emotions and motivations (Jeremy has a slightly rosier interpretation of Harry Lime than I do), in illuminating, highly revealing ways.


Second #2604, 43:24, Image © Studio Canal

4) #43: The image here is a cross-dissolve between Harry’s porter (who is about to be killed thanks to Holly’s carelessly loose lips) and Anna Schmidt. I absolutely adore dissolves (no other image could possibly be more cinematic; even a still image of a dissolve suggests the movement of the film projector), and Jeremy connects the history of this cinematic syntagm to one of my favorite directors, Fritz Lang. Even better, Jeremy raises the tantalizing possibility that something scandalous is hidden within Anna’s bedposts – though if this is the case, we’ll never know which shocking discoveries remain inside.


Second #3224, 53:44, Image © Studio Canal

3) #53: One of the most exciting action scenes in all of The Third Man – a chase between Holly and two of Popescu’s goons – is illustrated by Jeremy through a series of stills from various, seemingly unrelated films (The Matrix, High Noon, Vertigo, Casino Royale, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane). In doing so, Jeremy points out the substantial, ontological difference between the still image and the mobile one – a distinction which essentially forms the visual basis of cinema. In Jeremy’s words, “the illusion of cinema itself is the deception that lives between the film frames, that conceptual jump that transforms a series of still images into a living and moving shot, and that magic lives in the formless darkness that flashes itself between the frames.”


Second #2976, 49:36, Image © Studio Canal

2) #49: The man who appears in Still Dots #49 will be onscreen for less than a minute, yet Jeremy nonetheless offers a convincing hypothesis that this taxi driver is in fact a cyborg. In doing so, he also raises the unsettling proposition (via Donna Haraway) that all of humanity is now cyborgized in postmodern technologization – a monstrous hybrid of man and machine. Where else, outside of Still Dots, would The Third Man raise the possibility of mass mechanization replacing humanity?


Second #3720, 62:00, Image © Studio Canal

1) Speaking of the numerous eclectic strands that can be strung to The Third Man via a project like Still Dots, there’s no better example than #61, in which Jeremy cohesively incorporates in-depth formal analysis, the work of film scholar Richard Misek, 2D vs. 3D, the perspectival techniques of Renaissance artists such as Diego Velazquez, the novels of Orhan Pamuk, Copernicus, Galileo, Baruch Spinoza, and Einstein’s theories of general relativity and “Einstein’s Cross.” Our original intention with Still Dots was to explode the possibilities of film analysis through semi-arbitrary, microscopic constraints, which we hoped would lead down unforeseen avenues of exploration; nowhere is this better achieved than in this post.

Jeremy’s Top Picks:

As far as individual posts are concerned, certainly some shine through as stronger than others. I was particularly proud of the posts in which I managed to integrate disparate topics: Art History, Theoretical Physics, Philosophy/Theory, Literature and those posts which allow us a brief view of a character in a different light. I also, in retrospect, like the posts in which I went a little further off the deep end, so to speak–mostly the result of being unable to think of what to write about aside from a wild tangent. These are admittedly hit or miss, but a few of them rank amongst my favorites.

Among the posts I wrote, I am most proud of #61, which Matt wrote so glowingly about above, a post that manages to straddle countless disciplines without feeling too stretched (I hope). #77 is my most emotional post, and also the one in which we explain our project’s esoteric title. If this is to be a readers’ guide to those trying to catch up on the project, then I would also recommend #5, where Freud entered our co-analytic brain, and #18 where Marx came into the mix. I also prize those wild flights of fancy, #15, #31, #49, and most of all #85, where I trace the history of film all the way back to a bet made by a railroad tycoon and Ivy-league benefactor.

Matt’s posts tended to be well researched and tightly focused, with some marvelously deep analyses of cinematic tropes, historical contexts, and production history, demonstrating a tremendous force and knowledge about the film. His analysis and mine ended up complimenting each other perfectly, with his factual knowledge, graceful writing style and stylistic clarity the perfect balance to my slightly more chaotic blend of ideas. Building off of his analyses mine became stronger and more focused. I love some of his later posts, his last two #100 and the final, #102 are an amazing blend of formal and structuralist analysis, emotional potency, and devoted attention to the history of The Third Man itself (#100 goes so far as to quote the Greene novella on which the screenplay is based). I remember the first of Matt’s posts to really blow me away was #14, which largely consisted of a history of dogs in cinema. At that point, I knew that our project was growing into something good. Beyond that, as it is that time of year, I will offer my top 5 posts by Matt:


Second #4030, 67:10, Image © Studio Canal

5) #66: this one its own flight of fancy. Beginning with the deliberately false assumption that The Third Man can be read as a horror film, Matt dances his way through the genre and makes a sharp compositional comparison between the sewer entrance Harry escapes into and the terrifying monolith that dominates Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The included clip, from Dario Argento’s Suspira, chills me to this day.


Second #4154, 69:14, Image © Studio Canal

4) #68: This one manages to straddle several worlds, drawing together social science, The X-Files, Dostoyevsky, The Aquateen Hunger Force, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man into an argument that is not only (remarkably) coherent and focused, but important as well, about our relationship with corpses. It was also praised as an “eye opener” on Indiewire.


Second #2914, 48:34, Image © Studio Canal

3) #48: I love this post. I can’t tell you exactly why, but each connection, comment and insertion seems perfectly structured, chosen and curated and I cannot read it without watching the entire clip included, from Nicolas Roeg’s eerily beautiful film, Don’t Look Now.


Second #4898, 81:38, Image © Studio Canal

2) #80: I love this post for the same reason that Matt loves my post (#79). It is one of the few places in our analysis where we disagree. The rich and close contextualization of a shot, one of the film’s only extreme clos-ups, can completely transform the tenor of this important scene, and Matt’s analysis adds different paths of comprehension, further enriching the scene. Plus, this post is full and complex, with inclusions of Dadaists, Borgias, and even Nietzsche.


Second #3410, 56:50, Image © Studio Canal

1) #56: Matt takes this opportunity, the moment that Holly realizes the evils that his friend Harry has done, to elucidate the evils of capitalism and war. In one stroke he divines Holly’s wavering trust in memory and friendship and the myriad problems with the military industrial complex. At once focused on these characters, The Third Man, war in cinema, and the real-world atrocities of war, this post hits hard and ties everything cohesively together in a way that makes me happy to be involved in this project.

Still Dots: A Comic

In Still Dots, our yearlong dive into the deep end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), I became so obsessed I began to live and breathe Vienna. So much so, in fact, that I went so far as to draw a few pages of a comic book based on one of the film’s most […]

In Still Dots, our yearlong dive into the deep end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), I became so obsessed I began to live and breathe Vienna. So much so, in fact, that I went so far as to draw a few pages of a comic book based on one of the film’s most famous scenes.

SPOILER ALERT: This comic will ruin a part of the film’s carefully constructed plot. I don’t recommend reading it before you have seen the film, and if you haven’t seen it yet, please consider attending the upcoming free screening at the Walker Cinema, on Thursday January 17th. For more information on the project and what we learned from it, check out our new essay or a complete archive of posts.

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Still Dots #102

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 […]

Second #6252, 104:12, Image © Studio Canal

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.

Still Dots 100: Holly stands at the center of the frame’s vanishing point, perched at a turning point in his life. Image © Studio Canal.

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 [1993], 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).

A digital camera observes the small dramas that play out in the modern metropolis in "Notebook on Cities and Clothes." Image © Anchor Bay Entertainment.

A digital camera observes the small dramas that play out in the modern metropolis in “Notebook on Cities and Clothes.” Image © Anchor Bay Entertainment.

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, 2011For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #101

For this, our last close-up of Holly and our second to last post in this series, I thought it apropos to look through the close-ups we have seen of him so far. If, as Charlie Chaplin is quoted as saying “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” then perhaps […]

Second #6190, 103:10, Image © Studio Canal

For this, our last close-up of Holly and our second to last post in this series, I thought it apropos to look through the close-ups we have seen of him so far. If, as Charlie Chaplin is quoted as saying “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” then perhaps this trip through our memories of Holly will be as harrowing as it is nostalgic, but here it is. Holly Martens, This is Your Life. Click on any of the photos to link back to the original Still Dots post which featured them.

Second #372, 06:12, Image © Studio Canal

Here, in one of our first posts, a lackadaisical Holly Martens meets Harry’s now-dead porter, who tells him that Harry is dead: either “already in hell” (while he gestures upwards towards the sky) “or in heaven” (while he points downwards). Our poor Porter would soon meet the same fate (by way of Holly’s big mouth) but this close-up on Holly marks his real entrance into the film’s narrative–the many deaths of Harry Lime.

Second #372, 06:12, Image © Studio Canal

Now, determined and hatless, Holly presents himself in a strikingly similar fashion to today’s frame. This shot could almost be a closer shot of today’s still, and similarities in lighting, styling and setting (both of these shots take place at Harry’s grave in Vienna’s huge Zentralfriedhof–literally central peace garden) suggest that they may have been shot on the same shooting day. In both frames, Holly seems to be taken with a sense of anguish–and though today’s funeral may be a stronger version of that same emotion–another strong dissimilarity exists. Holly’s gaze in today’s frame is millimeters off from the forbidden lens of the camera, while this earlier funerary moment draws his focus downward, toward the body being interred before him. While his anguish was once directed at his friends death, it is now directed higher and wider. Holly’s distaste is no longer for Harry’s death, partially because he pulled the trigger which caused it, but now is directed at the whole of the world–a world in which he feels obliged to shoot his oldest friend. We will return to these two funerals more a little later, but now:

Second #2046,34:06, Image © Studio Canal

Holly, now in a totally different realm of story and space, seems to have changed little. His petulant investigative style is supremely ineffective on Dr. Winkel, sitting camera left. But sitting in this tchotchke-stuffed space, Holly’s presence manages to draw in more aspects of culture and religion in Vienna than it does secrets of Harry Lime’s life or un-death, and gives Holly countless opportunities to exercise his American exceptionalism, calling the man wink-el instead of the Germanic vink-el.

Second #2728, 45:28, Image © Studio Canal

Here, Holly is on a reprieve from the noir world of murders and secrets, and is standing in Anna’s apartment, helping her rehearse and reminiscing about Harry. As we reminisce about this moment in our analysis, a sort of meta-nostalgia, we can take note of the differences in Holly’s “look” throughout these stills. Notice how dark his hair appears here, versus the almost blonde locks he sports above. His outfit seems almost identical from moment to moment, but perhaps the white shirt – tie – sweater  – jacket combo serves as a de facto uniform for American authors gallivanting through Europe. Either that, or the broke writer has sold the rest of his clothing, and is down to his last good suit. Whatever the situation, his suit, sweater and all, never leave him throughout his journeys, only varying by the presence of the fedora.

Second #2852, 47:32, Image © Studio Canal

Fedora-clad again, Holly has walked back into the noir mystery of this story, his brow furrowed and his look (down at an inquisitive and accusatory child with a ball) almost identical to the look he gives a pesky cigarette above. If it is true that the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Holly hides his soul well with these deep downward gazes and his low-brimmed hat. His expression, mirrored by the more frantic father beside him, seems to connote the beginning of realization of the horrors that may befall him. As he is accused of murder and chased through Vienna by the mob that now surrounds him, Holly may be realizing that he bit off more that he can chew.

Second #3410, 56:50, Image © Studio Canal

In this moment, eyes opened once again, we see another change in Holly. He has gone from lackadaisical literary lackwit to dick-tracy-esque pseudo-detective and now, with Calloway’s explanation of Harry’s horrid deeds, he is again transformed–this time into a skeptic. He has certainly not made his full transition yet, but his trust in the inherent goodness of Harry Lime is beginning to waver. Were Harry to walk out from behind a wall, Holly wouldn’t be able to shoot him dead as he has just done, but he also has no inkling yet (and neither does Calloway who is lecturing him from off-screen) that Harry might still be alive. In a sense, this scene marks Holly at his most jaded, since as far as he knows, he can do nothing and has uncovered nothing through his investigation–nothing except an undeserved murder for Harry’s porter. Holly, in this moment, is close to packing it in and heading back stateside, leaving all of these worries behind him. Yet there still lies within Holly, a little of the silly scribbler who walked into our story, and that romantic, adventurous, American spirit will keep him in this city long enough to get reeled into the middle of things again.

Second #3534, 58:54, Image © Studio Canal

Here, we see the completion of that last transition. In his only smile (at least within the confines of Still Dots) Holly seems to be letting go of childish things. As Matt wrote in this post, “This is a different Holly Martins than we’ve seen before: if our poor cowboy has been, as Jeremy said on Tuesday, “sitting squarely on the fence” regarding Harry Lime’s guilt, he’s now faced with incontrovertible evidence that proves his longtime friend’s barbaric crimes . . . The Holly we see in Still Dots 58, in other words, is a man who’s become convinced that his best and oldest friend is a monster.” This smile is not one of a child’s guileless joy, but is instead a smile of release–an ironic laugh where he should be crying as he realizes the evil for which his friend Harry is responsible.

Second #3596, 59:56, Image © Studio Canal

Now, post realization (and drunk as a skunk to boot) Holly goes through another stage of grief, this time changing his motives completely, and legitimating his time in Vienna through one person: Anna. With a decision in this scene, indicated by Holly’s oscillating POV gaze, he chooses romantic love over the fleeting joys of lust and flirtation that (literally) dance before him, buys a bouquet of flowers, and resolves to go confess his love to Anna. Of course, as we will find out more deeply in Still Dots’ final post on Thursday, this attempt at romance will fail and Holly may indeed be left wondering what brought him on this fool’s errand to Vienna in the first place. Whatever the cause, his forlorn gaze down at the whiskey glass in front of him is telling, and Holly finds alcohol an apt fortification against the pain associated with the realities of life.

Second #4774, 79:34, Image © Studio Canal

After a close-up hiatus, due mostly to the appearance and prominence of the film’s other main character–Harry Lime–Holly now stands face to face with his oldest friend, fearing for his life. Harry has just intimated that he ought to shoot Holly and throw his lifeless body from the top of the Ferris wheel they now occupy. Imagine how rough this moment would have been on the happy-go-lucky Holly who smiled his way through Still Dots #6 above. Now, a threat mostly unthinkable at the outset,does not bring Holly to tears, but leads him to hug tightly to the gondola’s frame, preserving his life over his longest friendship. All of the innocence in Holly’s character has been burned off and he is now the detective he always romantically imagined he was, facing off against a dangerous smuggler and holding his own. One wonders if this too, might be a moment in which Holly might wish he’d never come to this city, and never burned off the gentle kindness that pervaded the scribbler’s silly notions.

Second #4960, 82:40, Image © Studio Canal

Here Holly’s alliances switch–his misplaced and unrequited love for Anna has overcome the nostalgic love he once bore for Harry. This look of determination and the cold hardness in his eyes is the signification of this shift. Holly has just decided to sell out his best friend for the woman they both have loved, whether she likes it or not. Of course, Anna will play no part in this scheme, tearing up the passport she is given, but for Holly the shift in relationships has already occurred. He has made the decision to abandon Harry, and he will not renege on it. We are getting ever closer to a Holly willing to do the unthinkable deed he has just done. Holly isn’t ready yet, but he is closer (he has just uttered “he deserves to hang, you proved your stuff. But twenty years is a long time – don’t ask me to tie the rope.”).

Second #5394, 89:54, Image © Studio Canal

Suffering from his last case of cold feet before the plunge, Holly has just been shown something unseeably awful. Bundled up into himself, nearly disturbing his perfect detective/academic/author costume, Holly is ready to descend, ready to throw Harry under the bus, ready (almost) to shoot him. It will take the killing of Sgt. Paine to truly push him over the edge, but this frame shows distaste more than any before, causing an almost visceral reaction (Holly looks like he might be sick). Whatever he is staring at, off in the dark distance, he is thinking of how Harry must fall.

And all of this brings us to the Holly we see today, a man we will spend little time and less dialogue with. What is made clear–through both his actions and his physical posturing–is that he is not the same man we have seen thus far in the movie. He is harsh, and cold–resentful of a world that has betrayed him and his romantic ideals of friendship, justice, goodness and (perhaps most of all) God. Holly has experienced his own Nietzschean awakening, but while for Nietzsche “Gott ist Todt” is an expression of freedom as well as collapse, Holly sees only collapse in the godless plane he occupies. I only wish we could see what happens next in the life of Holly Martens, whether he turns back (now jaded and existentialist) to writing westerns, whether he stays here in Vienna, friendless and alone with Calloway as his only companion, or whether he sets off for some other greener pastures, hoping for something that could let him forget the events that occurred here in Vienna.

Any hints that we might have to what this future holds lie only in today’s close-up. The close-up, as we have discussed, initiated the world of emotive cinema, the cinema which contained within its series of cuts and edits, a built-in narrator. Certainly there has been much attention paid to the close-up throughout movie history, be it the obsessively chronicled history of Steven Speilberg’s particular adaptation (video above), the countless close-ups that have dug their way into our collective cinematic memories, or even the close-up’s particularly notable position in the glory of Hollywood, displayed below in Sunset Boulevard‘s famous last scene. If, as Marlon Brando said, “In a close-up, the audience is only inches away, and your face becomes the stage,” then this still marks our last entrance into the historic Holly Martens theater. Though, despite the undisputed power of this shot, the shot that comes next is probably the most notable of the film, offering incredible emotional depth from an extreme long perspective.

Analysis of The Third Man’s final shot will have to wait, until Matt’s final post this Thursday, but now, with Holly attending Harry’s funeral for the second time, I cannot help but be reminded of the words of Karl Marx, who said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

This quote has cropped up countless times, most recently in a scene in Ben Affleck’s Argo, between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. But as Harry watches a coffin containing the body of Harry sink into the ground, for a second time, it seems to have played with this formula. If this funeral, which bookends The Third Man, is an example of history repeating itself in this way, then which is the farce? Certainly Harry’s death is tragic, so it would appear to be the first (fake) funeral which is our farce, with this second repetition as tragedy. But, remember, our first funeral contained within it, the body of a hospital orderly, the unlucky Joseph Harbin. Harbin may have been colluding with our gang of thuggish racketeers (Kurtz, Popescu, Winkel, and Harry) but it is hard to see his death as more deserved than Harry’s, particularly considering that he was likely murdered–like our poor porter–in cold blood. So maybe Harry’s real funeral, despite his charms, is the farce; perhaps, in a sense of ultimate irony Harry is being buried in the same grave he had dug to fake his own death. While the moment feels tragic, it is certainly ironic too. A man who cheated death has eventually led himself to it, and the extenuating circumstances that led him here make up the farce.

In the end, much has changed, and little has changed. Holly will continue to act as a moral being–if a broken one–Anna’s compassion will continue to be her guiding light. Calloway will keep fighting corruption in Vienna, even without his trusty companion. Vienna itself has not been cured, by any means. While one racketeer has indeed fallen, and his team of cronies arrested, another will rise to take his place. What has really changed, most of all, is that a little bit of charm and a little bit of evil have left the world, along with his trusty porter and the nice-guy cop who hunted him. Like this five-minute ending montage from legendary HBO series The Wire, the film’s real main character–the city–keeps moving as it has been. People have fallen on both sides of the eternal war between cops and robbers, but new figures on both sides will take their places. Vienna (and Baltimore) live on as it has and all that we have left is a tired man whose eyes bear the weight of all he’s seen. So we bid farewell to Holly to Harry, to Anna and Calloway, but know that the film’s true hero, and most complex character–Vienna–lives on to this day.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.


Still Dots #100

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 […]

Second #6128, 102:08, Image © Studio Canal

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.

Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) in Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (1937). Image © Rialto Pictures & Janus Films.

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 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #99

After a long subterranean sewer chase , and many escape attempts by Harry, foiled by the team of nameless police officers who haunt every exit and underground nook and cranny, Harry’s fingers are finally tasting the cool, clean air of freedom. In the tunnels below, Sergeant Paine lies dead or dying, fatally shot by Harry’s […]

Second #6066, 101:06, Image © Studio Canal

After a long subterranean sewer chase , and many escape attempts by Harry, foiled by the team of nameless police officers who haunt every exit and underground nook and cranny, Harry’s fingers are finally tasting the cool, clean air of freedom. In the tunnels below, Sergeant Paine lies dead or dying, fatally shot by Harry’s gun. Harry too has been shot, by major Calloway whose bullet comes almost reflexively as a response to Harry’s own. Down below, Calloway cradles Paine’s limpening form, loosening his military cravat and generally making his passing more comfortable, while Harry drags his weakened body up a spiral staircase to freedom. Meanwhile, behind him, Holly loosens Paine’s grip on his revolver and takes it, heading out on his own. Holly is unnoticed by Major Calloway, whose attention is focused closely on his dying friend. Matt wrote last week about how “intimate male-male relationships have had a central place in action movies and, especially, films noir,” and the doting intimacy that Calloway shows, loosening the tie and unbuttoning the shirt of his dying partner, is indicative of the near-romantic nature of those relationships. Were it not for this emotional closeness, Calloway would certainly notice Holly as he snatches up Paine’s gun and goes to follow his own injured friend. But, due to the intimacy in both of these relationships, both dying men will have a loving (if cruelly so on Holly’s part) witness to their passing.

Our frame today, though, represents Harry’s last push toward life, toward freedom, and away from that self-destructive death drive that has cropped up so often recently. The upward push of these fingers on the grate will barely manage to wiggle the steel barrier until, seemingly exhausted from the effort and the life spilling out of his bullet wound, Harry collapses back into the underworld. This frame will be a close as he can come to freedom. Then, collapsed back onto the stairwell, gun in hand, Harry and Holly will have their last moment of intimacy–a silent stare through the Vienna tunnel. Their guns imply the truth that both seem to know: only one of them can walk out of this tunnel alive. Then, after a stunningly emotional series of wordless closeups accompanied by the off-screen voice of Major Calloway (now aware that Holly has gone and taken Paine’s gun) yelling after him “Martens! Martens! Don’t take any chances. If you see him, shoot,” Harry, with a pair of doe-ish eyes give a little–almost imperceptible–nod. The myriad implications in this gesture are beyond my grasp, but as far as our narrative is concerned, he seems to be both bowing to Holly’s righteousness and giving him permission to dole a final death-blow to the man he has been hunting since this film began. Thus ends the life of Harry Lime, with a bullet from Paine’s revolver, held by his oldest friend.

But what drives Holly to pull the trigger? Certainly there ware many factors to push down that hammer for him. Calloway’s yelling words, the recent fall of Paine, and the implied violence in their exchange pushes him in that direction, with the gun that dangles from Harry’s fingers suggesting that Harry will go down in a blaze of glory if Holly doesn’t put him out of his misery. But still, for such a moral creature as Holly Martens, it seems hard to justify this action due purely to the heat of the moment. Certainly the man is a romantic and apt to get caught up in the narratives he sees around him, but would Holly really murder if he could avoid it? Couldn’t he have just disarmed Harry, rushed him to a hospital, where he could be healed well enough to spend the rest of his years behind bars? Perhaps something in the gaze that the two men exchange, something in the little nod Harry gives him, tells Holly what he must do. Whatever the outcome, Holly has certainly changed. His action is so unimaginably out of character–truly a courageous, if cruel, act and far from the mincing ideals that he walked into our story with–that he must really have gone through a major transition to reach this point.

For Calloway, the willingness to use lethal force on Harry comes at a definitive moment: the shooting of Sergeant Paine. His shot fires off, an echo of Harry’s own, and perhaps for Holly, this is a breaking point as well. Holly might once again feel responsible for this death. Paine was, after all, only running out in the open, an easy target for Harry’s shot, because he was trying to protect Holly. His last words are selfless as he calls out, drawing attention to himself: “Mr. Martens, sir, get back! Get back! Keep back, sir! Hurry, come back, sir!” In these last few sentences, Paine manages to squeak out three sirs, even though he is dealing with the same reckless fool he has dealt with for the whole film. Paine dies, ever the gentleman, and for Holly’s sake.

The last time Holly was (indirectly) responsible for a death–that of Harry’s friendly porter–the intrigue became real for him. He realized that he wasn’t, as Calloway had intimated, some foolish scribbler looking for a story where there was none, and that there really was some nefarious plot going on beneath the surface. Paine’s death, however, seems to hit home with Holly in a new way. The nearly wordless Holly we will see after this death has a hard set jaw and a pessimistic, harsh view on the world. Holly has fully transformed himself from Romantic to Naturalistic and his dour, no-nonsense viewpoint matches that well. Perhaps it is his new-found lease on life that enables him to pull the trigger, one that like John Steinbeck or Jack London, sees the world as a cruel harsh place where only the toughest survive. And lest we forget, this Holly is very different from the pre-Vienna Holly–a ludicrous writer of popular fiction, with Sergeant Paine as his only fan. With Paine dies any connection this old Holly, the man Calloway once called “only a scribbler with too much to drink.” This new post-Paine Holly is harsh, serious, and deadly. It is hard to imagine that this changed man might never write another romantic western. And so, again we face the fact that Holly kills Harry.

We’ve brought this similarity up before, but a scene from John Steinbeck’s grade-school-English classic, Of Mice and Men, bears a striking resemblance to this killing, here represented onscreen by Gary Sinese (who directed and plays the gun-wielding George in this scene):

Like George, Holly kills his best friend, a man he has known since childhood and grown to feel safe with, but a man who he knows can be a menace to others. But while George’s slaying of Lennie is portrayed as a mercy–when compared to what would have happened if he had been found by the lynching party after him for murder–Holly’s shot comes for the sake of justice, not pity. So while Lennie’s death is coded as the tragic killing of a hapless innocent who knew not what he did, Harry’s death is coded as the satisfaction of a lifetime of crimes, even those too unthinkably vile to be portrayed on the screen. So while Holly is indeed forced to (like George) “kill his own dog,” he is not in the same scenario. Holly is not protecting Harry from some greater evil that could befall him, he is just exacting the strong sense of justice he feels. Another interesting moment in Steinbeck’s short novel comes after the shot is fired:

Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. “Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”

But Carlson was standing over George. “How’d you do it?” he asked.

“I just done it,” George said tiredly.

“Did he have my gun?”

“Yeah. He had your gun.”

“An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”

“Yeah. Tha’s how.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.

Slim twitched George’s elbow. “Come on, George. Me an’ you’ll go in an’ get a drink.”

George let himself be helped to his feet. “Yeah, a drink.”

Slim said, “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.” He led George into the entrance of the trail and up toward the highway.

Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys” (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, 1937)

While we never get this moment with Holly, we never see his reconciliation with himself as he comes to term with killing his best friend, we can draw from this moment some of what he may be going through in this instant of turmoil. Such a huge event cannot truly be overcome, and perhaps like George, Holly will lie to cover that unthinkable truth. Maybe Holly too, will let the story be told that he wrestled the gun from Harry’s hand and shot him with it, in self defense. But Holly, like George, must always live with the truth: that he shot a man in cold blood.

There is, of course, another option for our analysis. If we understand Harry’s death as a mercy killing of its own then Holly’s act takes on a slightly different timbre. To understand the act this way hinges on our understanding of today’s still, the fingers reaching through the grate, as the true end of Harry’s life. If Harry, collapsing back into the underworld before staring sullenly at Holly and offering him a slight nod, had already resigned himself to his death, then perhaps that nod really was a gesture of permission, and maybe it really was an act of mercy. Harry certainly would be miserable in a cell for the rest of his days, and maybe something in his subtle nod tells Holly–in a secret code developed through a shared boyhood–that it’s okay to send him on to the next world. If that is the case, then this act is more reminiscent of a different literary figure, one from the 2000’s, not the 1930’s. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows it becomes clear that a similar permission-based murder occurred. Here is the scene from the 2011 film adaptation:

If this were the case, then we would see Harry’s nod as the same merciful message as Dumbledore’s, “You must be the one to kill me, Severus. It is the only way.” Seen in this light, the weight of the killing must still hang heavy on Holly’s mind, but at least he might sleep easy knowing that it was not his choice, and that Harry’s significant surrender and subservient nod granted that same permission.

I realize now, nearly 2000 words into this post, that I have neglected to talk about today’s frame from any angle than that of the story. The only important thing I have to note, beyond the gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting of this dark Viennese street, is to look at the fingers themselves. Relatively innocuous, these fingers are long stately ones, cuticles clean and well tended, with no dirt under the nails. Hardly the fingers of Harry Lime, a man who has been scrabbling through the sewers in secret since his supposed death, nor of Orson Welles, who himself spent the weeks of shooting gallivanting around Europe. That is, of course, because they are not Harry’s or even Welles’ fingers, but instead the fingers of the film’s director, Carol Reed. As Matt pointed out a few weeks ago, Welles told the director “Carol, I can’t work in a sewer, I come from California.” And so, for this shot from the real Vienna sewers, Reed acted as Welles’ finger double. But there is a second level of elegance to these fingers’ placement in the film. It was, remember, Carol Reed’s voice that introduced our story, our setting, and our dastardly Harry Lime way back and the beginning of this tale. I find it a little poetic that it should be his hands, then, that offer us the last gesture of Harry’s life, since with his death, so dies the film. And, of course, so dies our project with it. Matt will post the final Still Dots #102 on November 30th. Thanks for reading.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #98

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 […]

Second #6004, 100:04, Image © Studio Canal

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’ faceremind 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 filmand that Neff dictates his confession to Keyes with his dying breathsresults 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 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #97

Here he is, finally standing before us as an honest-to-God human being. Harry Lime is no longer a glossy, larger-than-life übermensch staring down upon his domains, but now a human body, wet and cold in Vienna’s sewers, terrified and running for his life. Harry’s rehumanization is, of course, a combination of carefully crafted stylistic and […]

Second #5942, 99:12, Image © Studio Canal

Here he is, finally standing before us as an honest-to-God human being. Harry Lime is no longer a glossy, larger-than-life übermensch staring down upon his domains, but now a human body, wet and cold in Vienna’s sewers, terrified and running for his life. Harry’s rehumanization is, of course, a combination of carefully crafted stylistic and narrative factors.

From the first, his transference (to borrow a word from psychoanalysis) would not be possible if his entrance into our story hadn’t been so grandiose. The first two thirds of the film swing by without his presence, except as the mythic glue that ties together each of our other characters. This treatment would do much to boost any ego, but when Harry Lime enters the narrative, alive and smirking, the mythic pedestal he stands on has been raised sky high. And when you consider the shot that introduces him, in which his face seems to glow its way off the screen. This would have been only more striking in 1949, since most films were printed on nitrate film base, a substance whose beautiful image was only surpassed by its dangerous flammability. With a nitrate print and a silver screen, though, the moving images were said to glow with a luminescence since unmatched, spawning the term “movie star” for the way actors and actresses lit the theater in close up. Imagine how striking this appearance would be if Welles’ face seemed to be glittering its way out of the darkness of the night sky.

But beyond the power behind that radiant shot, the narrative buildup of 66 minutes of screen time, and even Welles’ larger than life persona (he could never really play an ordinary fellow) it is his character that above all separates him from we mere mortals. His deadly blend of coy charm and callous selfishness make him so beyond our comprehension we can’t help but fall in awe. He is a cruel Machiavellian but a people person nonetheless, and we can’t help but love him even while we fear and hate him, putting us in a position much like Holly’s own. In a way, Harry walks into this film as much more than human, closer to a super-villain or master-mind, but one so cloaked in charm and moxie as to be unrecognizable. Take for instance, this description of Batman’s eternal foe in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth.

A description of the Joker in Grant Morrison’s Batman graphic novel, “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.” Image © DC Comics

Much like this image of the Joker, Harry seems almost more human than human, functioning at a level of “super-sanity” well beyond the realms of normalcy. Harry has moved beyond the level of cognitive dissonance we practice in our every day lives, in order to subscribe to the limitations of society, and graduated into an amoral universe of selfishness and guile. He is a sociopath, as he saunters into this film, but now, chased into the sewers by our heroically moral protagonist, he has sunk to the level of a human, one of the dots he so famously talked about from on high.

The moment of this transformation, as we have noted before, may come not on his end, but on Holly’s. It may come the moment that Holly sees those children, the unseeable children who convince him that he must help to bring in his oldest friend. And maybe that really proves that this film is Holly’s story, not Harry’s as is so often seen. It is in the moment that Holly’s perspective changes that Harry falls from on high, becoming a flesh-and-blood man rather than a haunting shadow. Then, when Harry steps like a particularly clever fly into Harry’s (and Calloway’s and Paine’s) elaborate web, it is as a man and not a god.

And now, as he flees through the sewers, embarrassingly human in his wet shivers, loud footsteps, and even the moist air escaping his mouth in the cold night air, Harry is suddenly vulnerable in a way he has never been. When this film began, he was dead, then he was undeada spectre or a vampirebut now he is alive and like all living things, he hovers on the brink of his own end. Here, looking off for pursuers in this dark tunnel, Harry seems to be thinking that this might be the last place he will ever see. The comparisons to the hell he once believed in, at least during his catholic school upbringing, seem obvious.

But beyond the metaphysical, his physical comes to the fore. The misty air that visually signifies his breath, the flat lighting that makes his face seem realist and wrinkled, not flawless and shiny, and the fast wordless cutting all combine to make us see a cold, wet man running for his life. Whatever our perspective on Harry’s evil deeds, he is pitiable in this moment as his eyes see the last door closing on his chance of escape. With dogs and guards at all the exits, and teams with lights circling him and getting closer, the expression on his face can only be one of doom.

Freud, who is almost present in this unconscious level of Vienna’s infrastructure, would see the conflict in Harry’s eyes as a conflict between two of his internal drives, which he referred to by various terms. Eros and Thanatos, the libido and destructive tendencies, or simplest of all, the drive to life and the drive to death. Named for the Greek personification of death, Thanatos (whose twin brother Hypnos is sleep and dream personified) became for Freud a part of the essential human condition, or indeed the condition of all life. From Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

It must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are able to take it as a truth that knows no exceptions that everything living dies for internal reasonsbecomes inorganic once againthen we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before animate ones’ (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Norton, 1961, pages 45-6).

And so, as Harry faces his own impending doom, be it death or capture, he is facing up to the satisfaction of a drive that has plagued his actions his entire lifea drive to return to the dead matter from whence he came. Of course it is this same drive toward self destruction/death that likely lead Harry in his foolhardy decision to even show up to meet Holly in the cafe which was almost certainly a trap. Whatever his motivation, Harry now stands surrounded in a dark tunnel with few options left to him, drawing in some of the cold breaths that could be his last.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #96

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 […]

Second #5880, 98:10, Image © Studio Canal

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.)

The shadow of The Third Man. Image © Studio Canal.

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.)

“Plato’s Allegory of the Cave” by Jan Saenredam, 1604.

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 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #95

Deep in the subterranean world beneath Vienna, be it the city’s unconscious mind or the ancient Greek border between life and death, we are completely submerged in this nearly wordless world with a partially new cast of characters. Before us today stands one of them, one of nearly a dozen shots of nameless, wordless characters […]

Second #5818, 97:08, Image © Studio Canal

Deep in the subterranean world beneath Vienna, be it the city’s unconscious mind or the ancient Greek border between life and death, we are completely submerged in this nearly wordless world with a partially new cast of characters. Before us today stands one of them, one of nearly a dozen shots of nameless, wordless characters that we see in close-up in this segment. Beyond the abnormality of this in the Hollywood style of filmmaking–close-ups are ordinarily reserved for the most highly paid stars in each picture–this series of close-ups seems to posit an alternate film, one populated by these wordless figures. In the following catalog of these, one can see and understand the power relations and emotions rushing through these characters in a fashion similar to that of a comic book or french photo-roman. But while watching the film–in which each shot commands the screen for 0-5 seconds–the psychology of this team might be less visible.

Along with today’s still, here are those close-ups:

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Not a word of comprehensible dialogue is spoken through this segment, only whistles, yells, and the sounds of these men running, climbing, and jumping through the tunnels. All of these actors are uncredited as well, yet their faces inject a sense of purpose, excitement and suspense into what would otherwise be a simple chase sequence. By creating these distinct characters chasing Harry through the tunnels, rather than the faceless force of the British police we’ve seen thus far in the film, Reed’s direction manages again to put us into a moral grey area, identifying with the pursuers through these personal close-ups, and identifying with the pursued through his witty charm and prodigal presence throughout the film. It’s also worth noting that, hard as it is to find out who these uncredited actors actually are, one of them went on to a position in that essential British cinema franchise, the James Bond movies. Following Bernard Lee, who plays Sgt. Paine in this film and M in the early Bond movies, Robert Brown (who holds the flare in the second of our line of close-ups) would go on to play M in four of the next five Bond’s, before seeding the role to Dame Judi Dench.

But these close-ups are interesting for more than just the interlocking comicky story they tell in conversation with each other. Edited rhythmically into the action sequence, almost evenly spaced, these closeups and their editing are very reminiscent of some of the films of Sergei Eisenstein, put forward two decades earlier. Eisenstein’s remarkable use of the close-up is historic. Inspired largely by the films of D. W. Griffith, who is largely seen as the first to utilize a close-up, Eisenstein took the close-up in a completely different direction. Where Griffith’s close-ups created more intimacy with the story’s main characters and revealed things that could only be seen in detail, Eisenstein’s closeups often operated on a more metaphoric level, introducing several characters in close up to gauge the population of a group of characters. Eisenstein’s close-ups were not about romanticizing figures the way Griffith’s were, but instead used this technique to deromanticize the archetypal figures he used, making them into people again. Just as Eisenstein and Griffith’s politics were at odds, Griffith was a traditional conservative, responsible for Birth of an Nation and Eisenstein was a Bolshevik leftist, so too their takes on a particular technique was opposite. Take a look in this amazing sequence from Battleship Potemkin:

As Eisenstein wrote in his treatise Film Form, his cinema was against Griffith’s romanticized use of the close-up and crosscutting. From that book:

In 1924 I wrote, with intense zeal: “Down with the story and the plot!” Today, the story, which then seemed to be almost “an attack of individualism” upon our revolutionary cinema, returns in a fresh form, to its proper place. (Through Theater to Cinema, 1934)

Eisenstein’s wording is definitely strange, here, and to the untrained eye his phrasing would lead us to believe that he had come to believe–through some form of maturation–in an almost Griffithian mode. The real truth, of course, is that his words came out through coercion. In 1932, under Stalin, Soviet art forms came under much stronger scrutiny and the formalist experimentation of Eisenstein’s earlier work too closely resembled the work of European bourgeoisie modernists for Stalin’s liking. Eisenstein, and many other great pioneers, were forced to conform or give up their life of making art. The new state-mandated style, socialist realism, called for romanticizing in similar ways to that Hollywood style instituted by Griffith, and so much of Eisenstein’s later work became interested, once again, in story. But this sentence, and indeed this entire book, can be read in a different way. Rather than assuming that Eisenstein had truly given up on what he believed, “with intense zeal,” one can see these words as a code four us later readers to decipher. Like Da Vinci’s notebooks, these pages hold a valuable method but we must unlock its secret before we can understand them. So when Eisenstein talks of what a fool he was, quoting himself, he is really putting forward the argument he would put forward if the censor did not exist.

This of course brings to mind many things we’ve mentioned throughout this project, from the literal censorship involved in 1940’s British Films to Freud’s uncanny “censor” agency in the mind and even the literal censorship in this film with those images too horrible to be shown. What is apparent throughout, though, is that that which is censored is also that which is important. And if these faces mimic Eisenstein’s alternative soviet cinema in form, then they also mimic the censored in content, for these are the only characters whose power to speak has truly been erased. Perhaps like Eisenstein’s words, those horrible dying children, and Freud’s repressed memories, these censored beings hold–within their stoic and silent presence–some secret that the rest of the film lacks. Perhaps their silent close-ups truly lie at the shadowy underground heart of this film steeped in the sewers of Vienna.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

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