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Still Dots #94

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Dots #93

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Dots #92

Once again, we’re treated to an image that The Third Man has already made familiar: rubble, devastation, barrenness, the ravages of war. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, the film, “shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, its intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets.” The preceding four […]

Second #5632, 94:02, Image © Studio Canal

Once again, we’re treated to an image that The Third Man has already made familiar: rubble, devastation, barrenness, the ravages of war. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, the film, “shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, its intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets.” The preceding four minutes of screen time have particularly emphasized this viscerally real depiction of a wartorn city: the looming shadows that seep over the cobblestone streets (glazed, in classical film noir fashion, with a layer of water to accentuate darkness and light), the chipped-away brick facades of Vienna’s wounded buildings, the ghostly fog that subsumes the city’s diagonally-tilted passageways — this is a place (a space and time) that suddenly seems tactile, realer than real. (The symbolic connotations of black-and-white filmmaking and The Third Man‘s location shooting, so markedly different from the studio sets of most narrative films of the time, help to explain how a colorless, boldly stylized portrayal of Vienna can somehow transcend the reality of actually being there.) The gaping wound staring back at us in Still Dots 92 is a prominent scar bestowed by World War II, an unavoidable reminder of Vienna’s (and Austria’s) turbulent recent history. Within the concrete flesh of this wound, another intrigue plays out at a microcosmic level: betrayal, inhumanity, and greed performed as a three-act play, its characters oblivious to the lessons that the war should have taught them (and which should be manifestly obvious from the terrain over which they’re currently scuttling).

The pair of British MPs who can barely be seen in the upper-right hand corner of today’s frame reveal that this is not only a documentary-like portrait of postwar Vienna: it’s also the initiation of a frenzied chase that will comprise The Third Man‘s climax. At the Cafe Marc Aurel, the three main characters in our drama have congregated: Anna, informed by Baron Kurtz that Holly is cooperating with the police to trap Harry Lime, has burst into the otherwise abandoned cafe and harshly chastised Holly for this betrayal. It is in the midst of her diatribe (actually, ironically, when Anna claims that Harry would never be foolish enough to fall for this trap) that Mr. Lime himself sneaks in through the backdoor. Though he must be aware of the dangerous possibility that Holly is conspiring to arrest him, Harry is still taken aback by Anna’s closing words: “You must feel very proud to be a police informer.”

On Tuesday, Jeremy noted that Harry and Holly’s familiar roles have suddenly been upended: Holly is now the duplicitous betrayer, Harry the entrapped sucker. Before we can feel too much sympathy for Harry, though, the movie reminds us of Mr. Lime’s villainy and of the moral rift between the two men: with subdued fury, Harry pulls a gun, points it in Holly’s general direction, and brusquely motions for Anna to move out of the way. The obvious implication is that Harry, now certain of Holly’s betrayal, intends to murder his onetime best friend (whereas we may still believe, naively perhaps, that Holly only wants Harry to be arrested, not killed). Harry takes one decisive step towards Holly, his jaw set in stoic resolve, yet (luckily for Holly) it is at this moment that Sergeant Paine throws open the front door. Making the only sensible decision he can in this predicament, Harry tucks tail and runs, scrambling down the mountain of rubble that we see in today’s still.

Harry’s interjection into this scene was commenced (if we recall from Still Dots 91) by a brief pan and tracking shot that mimics Harry’s visual perusal of the setting. That brief dolly towards the Cafe Marc Aurel from Harry’s perspective is significant: Jeremy hypothesized that Mr. Lime “truly is one of the phantoms occupying this city of ghosts, and this track is the beginning of his gentle departure from gravity’s bounds.” If this unmooring of the laws of gravity and physics commence with this tracking shot, where does Harry’s movement lead us, figuratively and literally? Towards his covert hiding place (and maybe even his natural habitat), of course: the sewers. The actual tracking shot from Still Dots 91 figuratively continues during this chase scene to a subterranean realm: the site of the uncanny, the once-exposed now made visible, towards hell itself. Like the disturbing and magisterial tracking shot from Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies above, Harry’s phantasmic movements bring us unstoppably closer to a hellish realm of death and inhumanity. The fact that the camera movement in Werckmeister Harmonies (like that in much of Tarr’s latter-day filmmaking) moves at a glacial pace only makes its ghostly march towards cruelty that much more disturbing: with the taunting inevitability of a nightmare, we approach the barbaric. Harry’s sudden descent into the Viennese sewers plays out with similarly awful immanence: from the beginning (when Holly flew across the Atlantic to meet his friend and instead met his coffin), their reunion was destined to lead to this cavernous realm.

The realm of the unconscious: a libidinous subterranean cellar in “Underground.” Image © New Yorker Films.

Holly first learned of Harry’s death from the kindly porter whose own murder Holly indirectly caused: arriving at Harry’s apartment building, Holly is eerily told by the porter that Harry is “already in hell” (while he gestures upwards towards the sky) “or in heaven” (while he points downwards to…the sewers?). Now, about an hour later in screen time, the porter’s catachresis comes full circle, as Harry absconds to the “heaven” in which he’s been hiding out, a throng of British MPs (and Holly) in hot pursuit. The Freudian undercurrents of Harry’s hideout are unavoidable: if the subterranean unconscious is formed by repression, then Harry Lime functions as the Id personified, all of humanity’s inclinations towards self-preservation, megalomania, pleasure and amorality in one combustible package. Holly and the British military’s descent into the sewers, then, entails a penetration into the unconscious itself. Similarly, in Emir Kusturica’s bawdy political allegory Underground, a Communist arms dealer named Marko stows away an entire population in his grandfather’s cellar, convincing his “people” that World War II is raging above them for decades on end (the film is split into three parts — “War,” “Cold War,” and “War” — thus suggesting, not unlike The Third Man, that World War II set in motion a cycle of violence that raged throughout the twentieth century). Marko and his extravagant best friend Blacky, black-market racketeers whose own devious behavior reflects the ongoing atrocities of war, could have been influenced by Harry Lime: embodiments of the Id, they seem to imprison a mini-civilization in their own unconscious, even adding hours to each day so their subjects believe that less time has passed. The cellar and the sewer in Underground and The Third Man thus act as parallel spaces, catacombs where the extravagances of the repressed play out, inhabited by similarly unprincipled men.

But we’re not quite in the sewers yet: for the moment, we’re still above ground, in a Vienna that only barely contains the horrors lingering beneath its cobblestone surface. As Harry Lime races through the canted angles of the streets, dogs bark in the distance, whistles and sirens can be heard, and shadows of soldiers wielding submachine guns dance over the walls. These scenes could be taking place in April 1945, when the Soviets besieged German forces in the so-called Vienna Offensive. The sights and sounds of war — especially in the central district of Vienna, where the current scene was shot and wherein the four national powers occupying Vienna after the war (Britain, the United States, France, and Russia)  rotated monthly control — would be omnipresent until May 1955, when the Austrian State Treaty was signed. Until then, as various national powers traded control over the Austrian capital, it must have seemed to the Viennese populace (as they labored to clear rubble and rebuild their city) that war truly was neverending. It is through this environment that the British military is currently pursuing Harry Lime, and it is beneath this territory that Harry and Holly’s personal war will soon come to an end.

Vienna’s occupying forces from 1945 to 1955. The gray district in the center is the International Zone, in which the four powers would rotate monthly control, and in which Still Dots 92 was shot.

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 #91

Today’s still presents us with one of a surprising perspective. Looking out over the semi-deserted street, bombed out buildings and—as Matt discussed in detail last week—the Cafe Marc Aurel, where Holly lies waiting at the center of a spider’s web, we are looking out from Harry’s point of view. The previous shot situated Harry reaching […]

Second #5570, 93:00, Image © Studio Canal

Today’s still presents us with one of a surprising perspective. Looking out over the semi-deserted street, bombed out buildings and—as Matt discussed in detail last week—the Cafe Marc Aurel, where Holly lies waiting at the center of a spider’s web, we are looking out from Harry’s point of view. The previous shot situated Harry reaching the top of a mound of crumbled marble, right behind this slightly ironic figure of blind justice in the rubble. Curiously enough, or perhaps out of general dimensional ignorance, Calloway’s team of policemen, sent in to “trap” Harry have completely neglected the mountains of rubble surrounding their locale. In typical police fashion (at least from an understanding set forward by Hollywood heist movies) the cops have imagined roads as the only way to approach this spot, and Harry is too smart for their game. Harry traverses Vienna, it seems, mainly through abandoned ruins and complex sewer tunnels avoiding the roads completely, and his chosen mode brings him to this beautiful vantage point.

This frame is a part of one of the most beautiful shots of this entire film. After a quick medium close-up of Harry in his full cigar-smoking lotharian glory, he looks off camera right and we cut into this POV shot. A slow, pan starts at the fountain, where Calloway and Payne are currently hiding, along with their single balloon. It continues across a swath of wartime destruction—literally, city blocks of nothing but flattened buildings—and passes to today’s moment, skirting the object of this gaze, the Cafe Marc Aurel, where Holly waits for Harry. The shot continues from this point, lingering a moment and then starting a slow track forward, above the railing and into space toward the cafe. The POV shot certainly emphasizes the psychological implications of the camera’s movement. The pan seems self-evidently to connote a turning of the head, the zoom or the focus-pull a change of interest—a literal telephotification of the ocular lobe—but the track, especially one as seamless as this, brings a sense of actual movement. This is not a hand-held shot, though, so the movement through space seems infinitely graceful, almost ghostlike as the camera glides toward its destination. Harry will next appear to us coming in the back door of the cafe, seeming to have crossed the police-guarded street by some invisible mode. Perhaps he truly is one of the phantoms occupying this city of ghosts, and this track is the beginning of his gentle departure from gravity’s bounds.

This track, though brief, carries an elegance borne in many of the longer tracking shots in the history of cinema. Whether Max Ophuls’ dance-like movements, or highly formalist tracking like the above shot from Godard and Gorin’s Tout Va Bien, the track has always been the sign of mastery of the cinematic project. Orson Welles himself had a strong penchant for big, obvious tracking shots. Take for instance, this famous shot from Citizen Kane. The sign, which the camera passes through, was built in two pieces that crews pulled apart as soon as the camera was out of view. (The only version I could find on YouTube included an altered soundtrack)

But back to our frame today, one can almost see the shape of the out-of-focus figure conspicuously drinking coffee in the window, gesticulating wildly. In the time since our last post, Anna has walked right in, through the police barricade, and come to try to talk Holly out of narc-ing on his friend and her lover. Spitting with venom, Anna has found out about this sting from Kurtz and the gang, all of whom have been arrested this morning. In one of her most mean spirited attacks, Anna let’s out something we’ve all been thinking: “Honest, sensible, sober, harmless Holly Martins . . . Holly, what a silly name . . .” Then, while Anna is haranguing Holly on how Harry will never be fool enough to come into a police trap, Harry walks in the back door.

In a moment of character reversal, Holly is suddenly the cruel bad friend while Harry is the naive fool. Holly, going back on his earlier devotion to his old friend, has set up a huge sting operation to help catch him. Meanwhile Harry, even with the knowledge that all of his co-conspirators had been arrested, decided to come and meet Holly in this suspiciously trappable zone. Whether blinded by his friendship to the dangers that he might encounter, or simply willing to risk those dangers for the sake of the friendship, Harry shows in this moment a selflessness that has been absent from his character all along. And meanwhile, honest, sensible, sober and harmless, Holly has set a trap that will ruin Harry’s chances at freedom. Anna’s statements, at how Harry would never be fool enough to make this meeting, only go to intensify the extreme guilt that Holly must be feeling.

Our frame today also contains within it a glimpse of one of this film’s unseen characters, that of World War II. With half of the frame consumed by a leveled building, it seems impossible to avoid the presence of that war within the film. Harry’s entire character, the black-market profiteer, is a parasitic reaction to the war itself, and the constant and looming presence of the cold war is cemented by the repressed aggression between the British forces (Calloway and Paine) and their Russian equivalent (Brodsky). There are many ways in which this omnipresence can be a sign of the times, especially since this film came from England, a country whose fascination with the subject of World War II has yet to wane, but it can also be read as a deliberate choice. In a sense, all of the plot elements, the actors, the story, the zither-score, could be seen as window dressing for a larger project: to show the horrors of the second world war. It’s reception would certainly go to forward that hypothesis, with Guardian critic Robert Cook writing of The Third Man: “In Britain it’s a thriller about friendship and betrayal. In Vienna it’s a tragedy about Austria’s troubled relationship with its past.”

In this way, The Third Man, shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, it’s intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets. While certainly different, Peter Watkins’ 1965 film The War Game shares many of these characteristics. The War Game was produced for television and (though never screened in Britain due to its graphic and terrifying images) imitates the conventions of documentary to create an image of England after a nuclear attack. Like this understanding of The Third Man, The War Game puts forward a strong anti-war message and leaves an understanding of the horrors of war, particularly those wars waged in cities and impacting thousands. Both films, The War Game and The Third Man carry within them a terror of living in a world in which such things are possible, particularly after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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 #90

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image © Studio Canal.

Image © Studio Canal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Dots #89

Calloway and Paine, our never-separate team of British detectives, skulk in the shadows of a fountain waiting for Harry Lime to walk into their trap, their faces unrecognizable in the mass of darkness of today’s frame. Holly has finally agreed to help “tie the noose” for his friend’s capture, and a veritable noose of British […]

Second #5456, 90:56, Image © Studio Canal

Calloway and Paine, our never-separate team of British detectives, skulk in the shadows of a fountain waiting for Harry Lime to walk into their trap, their faces unrecognizable in the mass of darkness of today’s frame. Holly has finally agreed to help “tie the noose” for his friend’s capture, and a veritable noose of British officers is currently tightening on the cafe where Holly sits as the bait. Were this a Looney Toons cartoon, rather than a subtly shaded noir, the situation might be represented (more comically) like this:

Calloway, our would-be Wile E. Coyote, is seen above skulking in a dark cave and waiting for his prey to step into the trap. The cordon of policemen is tightening around this cafe, shown in the brilliant wordless minute preceding this shot. For now, though, the Wile E Coyote metaphor seems strong. Calloway certainly thinks of himself as a wily and clever Brit, and having no way to imagine an alternative, his plan seems completely foolproof to him.

But just like our hapless coyote above, Calloway’s plan–a plan that seems too simple to fail–is about to go wrong in so many ways. The “bus” which will muck up Calloway’s plan comes in several unexpected forms. First and foremost, though, is a man whose shaky perspective we might be occupying right now. Wandering into this police sting is a man casting a large shadow on an opposing wall, but not the expected Harry Lime. The visual cue is almost blatant, drawing an easy comparison between this figure’s shadow and Harry’s retreating shadow as he ran from Holly’s first encounter with him.

On the left we see the shadow of the figure approaching Calloway and Paine, and on the right, Harry’s shadow as he runs from Holly down a Vienese alley. Images © Studio Canal

But, just as it happened to poor Wile E Coyote, the figure who comes into view is not his intended target, Harry Lime. Instead, wandering into our frame, comes an old balloon-seller who, perhaps ill-informed, has decided to hawk his wares on these deserted streets in the middle of the night. I’m sure Matt will delve further into his ghastly presence in Still Dots #90, but for now suffice it to say that his appearance at this point in the story, at this time of night, is a weird one. This might be easily forgiven if he came a cross as a gag, something that doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. After a minute-long dramatic build-up to the arrival of who we assume is Harry Lime, an old balloon-seller appears. The Marx brothers would have milked this moment for all it’s worth, but this figure, though certainly bizarre, cannot be funny. As he approaches, this anti-Harry Lime, he brings with him an otherworldly aspect. He is a nearly Lynchian character, stepping right out of some bizarre dream. And somehow, though they seem invisible to me, this old balloon man has set his unearthly sights on Calloway and Paine. Something tells him that these men, literally hiding in a dark corner of a Vienna street, might want to buy a balloon from him.

This kind of logic, if nothing else, is definitely not of this world. Take, for instance, one of my favorite scenes in Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Agent Cooper, our almost impossibly good hero, has just been shot in his hotel room, and as he lays dying on the floor an old man comes in to deliver a glass of warm milk. Despite Cooper’s obvious state of dire need, this bellhop, who Cooper’s associate Albert Rosenfeld would later describe as ” the world’s most decrepit room service waiter” and “Señor Droolcup,” proceeds to repeat himself several times, hang up the phone, and remind him to drink his warm milk, rather than help him stop the bleeding. The result is certainly bizarre and not too different from the old fellow selling balloon’s on a Vienna street this late at night.

Despite its strange and foreboding images of this figure to come, today’s frame is a bizarre image in itself, one that seemingly counters the conventions of cinematic design. It his generally been contended that viewers’ eyes happen to be drawn to faces, movement, and light, but today’s frame seems to follow the opposite of those rules. There are two ways to understand it. Certainly if this frame followed the opposite of those rules exactly, if that general rule read “people’s eyes tend to be drawn away from light, movement, and faces,” then this would be what much of cinema would look like. All of the action important to the story development is buried in this dark hole at the frame’s center. If we ascribed to, say, Bizarro Cinema, or a VERY modernist view of cinema, this might be what we saw more often.

The other way to read it, is of course, to say that it is still following that rule, and using it to tell us something very different. If indeed, our eyes are meant to be drawn to the brightly lit architecture that frames today’s image, particularly that positively glowing block on the left, then maybe it is a subtle message on what is and is not important. This is certainly a story about the city of Vienna as much as it is the story of Calloway or Paine, and maybe our eyes are being drawn to look straight at that city, rather than focus on the actors who occupy it. Maybe this is a moment of formalist rebellion, yelling “this is the real! this is the war-torn city of Vienna!” Or maybe it’s just a neat shot.

Talking about the tendency to look at those faces, lights, and moving things brings up an interesting project looking into that very principle. The DIEM Project is an investigation into the act of looking, particularly the act of looking at a screen. Using a system they CARPE, they track eye movements across a screen while viewers watch various videos, experimenting with very different images and sounds, sometimes muted, sometimes documentary footage, and sometimes fiction, truly a science experiment on the way we see. Their collection of hundreds of videos, which graph that CARPE-collected information back onto the images that were initially shown, are endlessly fascinating, but definitely defend the idea that we are trained to look at faces most of all. Today I’ll leave off with one of the most interesting, a graph of viewers of the particularly striking Paul Thomas Anderson flick, There Will Be Blood (2007)

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 #88

Holly and Major Calloway have just made a dreary stopover: the ghastly disgust that now oozes from Holly’s facial expression is the result of a visit to a hospital where meningitis-afflicted children, unable to benefit from the penicillin that Harry Lime has stolen and sold on the black market, lie dying from deformity and escalating […]

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

Holly and Major Calloway have just made a dreary stopover: the ghastly disgust that now oozes from Holly’s facial expression is the result of a visit to a hospital where meningitis-afflicted children, unable to benefit from the penicillin that Harry Lime has stolen and sold on the black market, lie dying from deformity and escalating insanity. As Jeremy wrote on Tuesday, the scene in the hospital is made more horrific by our inability to see what is assaulting Holly’s eyes: “we know that what we see must indeed be truly vile, largely because we never see what it is.” Whether or not the offscreen sequestering of these shocking images is the result of censorship in mid-20th century cinema, its effect is sobering, haunting – as though the children’s wounds are so grotesque that they’ve instilled not only horror in Holly, but also a dumbstruck asemia in the camera itself, which draws the line at communicating images so unspeakably (unfilmably?) bleak. Orson Welles said of the earliest films that were recorded at concentration camps following the Allied victory that they bore witness to “the putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage”; ironically, Welles/Harry Lime himself is responsible for the too-horrible-to-see injuries that Holly witnesses here, a putrefaction of Harry Lime’s soul that is too ugly to be conveyed by mere light, chemicals, and celluloid.

Much of The Third Man‘s potency lies, of course, in its fusing of the crime-thriller drama with a more urgent commentary on recent real-life events, and Harry’s penicillin racket is no exception: this and other drugs really were hot commodities in Vienna’s underground trade after the war. The excerpt below from a BBC documentary on The Third Man contains an interview with an Austrian doctor who was active during the war (the sequence in question begins around the four-minute mark): as he says (while foregrounded against an army of discarded teddy bears – the memorabilia of the dead), “I had to get medicine from the Allies. But they refused, so I spoke to a Colonel in charge. I described exactly how patients die without medicine. I had no alternative but to steal the medicine. Three of us raided a medical store at night and took a crate… I had warned of my intentions, so the Colonel turned a blind eye to our break-in.” What the doctor doesn’t include in his account is why he was forced to steal medicine from the Allies, especially when over 646 billion units of penicillin were being produced per year by June 1945 (thanks largely to the efforts of the American War Production Board); the answer is men like Harry Lime, who are able to consider the children they’ve killed as little more than still dots, the price to pay for economic security.

We have yet another dissolve to segue from the hospital scene to the milieu we see in Still Dots #88: an image of the dying child’s metonymic teddy bear (laid upside-down by the nurse, perhaps suggesting that the child has already succumbed to the illness) bleeds slowly into a medium-long shot of Holly, Calloway, and Payne in an Army Jeep, driving through the nocturnal city. The linkage is (again) both temporal and causal: the dissolve shows us that some time has passed, yet also literally superimposes a symbol for the dead child over Holly’s newfound change of heart – he has decided to help Calloway catch Harry Lime, has agreed to be their “dumb decoy duck.” The lonely teddy bear is revealed (by the dissolve as well as by the narrative itself) to be the tipping point, the proof of Harry’s inhumanity in one potent symbol.

Dissolve between the dead child’s teddy bear and Holly, Calloway, and Payne, driving through a nighttime Vienna. Image © Studio Canal.

Calloway is so certain that his ploy to gain Holly’s cooperation has been successful that he’s almost cocky in drawing Holly’s assent out of him. Following their appalling visit to the hospital, Calloway decides to provide Holly with some overemphatic small talk:

CALLOWAY: Payne lent me one of your books. The Oklahoma Kid, I think it was. I read a bit of it, looked as if it was going to be pretty good. What made you take up this sort of thing? Been doing it for long?

HOLLY: Alright, Calloway, you win.

CALLOWAY: I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas!

HOLLY: I said you win.

CALLOWAY: Win what?

HOLLY: I’ll be your dumb decoy duck.

Aside from providing Holly with a possible title for his next paperback Western (I Never Knew There Were Snake Charmers in Texas) – assuming Holly will continue plying his literary trade once he returns to the States – Calloway has achieved the devious psychological trick of making Holly believe it was his decision to arrest Harry, not Calloway’s manipulation of Holly’s aspiration towards moral rightness. Indeed, maybe some moral decisions aren’t very ambiguous at all: who, faced with the image of a disfigured child on the brink of death whose teddy bear is brusquely discarded, would not be morally outraged? How could Holly now live with himself if he didn’t turn in his onetime best friend?

In any case, we’ve just begun to ascend the climactic peak that towers above The Third Man‘s story graph: all that’s left to do is catch the Third Man himself. Still Dots #89 will inaugurate a new scene, in which Holly sits conspicuously at a barren cafe, waiting for the arrival of his friend/enemy; for better or worse, decisions have been made, narrative wheels have been set in motion, and now only the events and repercussions themselves await us. Though Calloway and Holly’s conversation after their visit to the hospital takes up only 25 seconds of screen time, but it still makes a powerful impact – not only because Holly has now unwaveringly promised to capture Harry Lime, but also because of its visual melancholy. There’s something about dialogue scenes that take place at night in moving cars, with nocturnal cityscapes dancing through the windows in the background – especially if the urban background is rear-projected behind the actors, and the supposedly exterior-set scene is obviously shot in a studio (as this one is). Even though the illusion is not altogether convincing – or actually, precisely because of this reason – the dialogue and the actors’ performances (Calloway’s smug yet affable confidence, Holly’s absolutely deflated resignation) take on larger-than-life proportions, making such scenes epitomes of cinematic intensity and splendor. With the glittering lights dancing in the background and the actors’ faces flawlessly illuminated, this 25-second scene takes place in an abstract space that could only be achieved with a movie camera: an uncanny mixture of artifice and reality, interior and exterior, motion and stillness, light and darkness. There are countless examples of visceral encounters that take place in the back of a moving car at night: In a Lonely Place (1950), Psycho (1960), and Pulp Fiction (1994) are some prominent examples, but the masterpiece of this extremely esoteric sub-branch of filmmaking must be On the Waterfront (1954), in which Terry berates his brother Charlie for making him forsake a life of glory and greatness. On the Waterfront‘s vehicular confession is certainly more grandiose than The Third Man‘s, but both scenes appear to capture people at the brink of an epiphany or a life-altering decision, with each studio-arranged light slanting across their face seeming to expose yet another long-dormant facet of their inner being. Light as truth, in other words – a poignant metaphor that also helps to explain how The Third Man‘s chiaroscuro lighting helps evoke a world in which truths and lies never seem absolute, and good and evil is neither black nor white, but some hazy gradient between.

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 #87

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been looking forward to this still ever since we started this project, not because of its importance as a turning point in Holly’s tragic life, not because of its striking compositional elements (there are sharp diagonals everywhere!) but just because of the hilarious visual comparison between Calloway’s silly mustache, and […]

Second #5332, 88:52, Image © Studio Canal

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been looking forward to this still ever since we started this project, not because of its importance as a turning point in Holly’s tragic life, not because of its striking compositional elements (there are sharp diagonals everywhere!) but just because of the hilarious visual comparison between Calloway’s silly mustache, and this nun’s enormous wimple. Early on in our analysis of the third man, I quoted the description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon as a face described by a “v motif.” If Holly’s sharp angles and pointed jaw signify that uber-masculine v, then Calloway’s over-primped mustache and this nun’s hat draw a definitive “sloppy w” motif. The dark and somewhat imposing figure of Trevor Howard’s Calloway, not to mention the supremely serious look on his face, only serves to undercut the absurdity of the image. While he is not a truly villain in our story, since The Third Man is not really that simple, he is certainly villainesque at points, and the dark and imposing mass of his torso only goes to strengthen that connotation. When compared to the rest of the frame, whose diagonal deep space and bright light stand in stark opposition to Calloway’s shadowy frame, it’s easy to see that this foppish officer is an imposing force.

Of course the emotional power manifest in this scene is not in the buffoonish image before us, but in what we do not see–namely the children lying in all of these cribs. To back up a bit, and put us in the moment of the scene, remember that Holly has just been convinced (by Anna) that ratting on his friend to the police is wrong. So walking into the police station, he asks Calloway for what he’s been itching to give Holly since their first encounter, a one-way ticket out of here. Calloway reluctantly agrees, not only because he has become fond of our noble scribbler, but also because such decision means Holly hes reneged, leaving Calloway to bring in Harry Lime on his own. On their way to the airport, though, Calloway brings Holly into this hospital on a little jaunt, with this little bit of trickery:

Calloway: Do you mind if I drop off somewhere on the way? I’ve got an appointment, won’t take five minutes.

Holly: Of course.

Calloway: Why don’t you come in, too – you’re a writer. It might interest you. 

While Calloway’s deception is painful obvious, especially as they step into this hospital space, it is also painfully effective. As Holly walks, cold, silent, and sallow-faced, through this infirmary, we see him react to the horrors that lie in these cribs, and whatever he sees must indeed be horrible. All we see of any child, who Calloway refers to as “it” rather than “he” or “she,” is the teddy bear that is left, face down, beside the crib as these silent nuns busy themselves with charts and graphs and administering shots. The pretense that Holly ought to see this because he is a writer is obviously a pretense–Calloway’s goal all along has surely been to try to enlist Holly’s help through a combination of guilt and revulsion–but it also suggests that Calloway would, on some level, like to see the truth come out. Calloway would like to see Holly take these images of horror, like so many noble journalists, and spread them to the world to share the true wickedness of Harry Lime. As Holly sits silently in the car, after his journey into the well-lit space of the hospital, we already know his decision. He is once again agreeing to help Calloway to catch Harry. His agreement comes in a phrase nearly as silly as Calloway’s mustache. “All right you win . . . I’ll be your dumb decoy duck.”

Something in the pairing between the ludicrous and the horrible gives strength to both of them, and the two quotation marks on this scene–Calloway’s mustache and Holly’s “dumb decoy duck”–serve to make the revulsion and overall wrongness that Holly experiences in between all the more potent. Certainly there is much to be said for the power of Joseph Cotten and Trevor Martins in conveying this too, but all we see is them, yet we know that what we see must indeed be truly vile, largely because we never see what it is. This unseeable and unknowable evil is a common trope throughout the history of Horror in cinema, but here it is an evil that is more awful than the monsters lurking in the shadows of 70s B Horror movies. One can only guess what kind of terrible deformities would cause Calloway to refer to a child as “it” but watching this scene, one cannot help imagine it. For me this particular evil is reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone. In It’s A Good Life, a small town lives at the mercy of Anthony, a little boy with god-like powers who can horribly deform people he doesn’t like or simply “wish them away into the cornfield”.

Take a look, for instance at the beginning of this scene in which he makes a three-headed gopher, an image which must be repulsive indeed, but which the helpless adults surrounding him must call “a real fine one” for the fearo f their lives. This creature, which dangles its way off the bottom of the screen and out of our view, has clawed a bigger hole in my mind than most other monsters ever pictured on the screen. Through it’s conspicuous absence it gains power.

Though our scene today has no visible Anthony to be afraid of, Holly and Calloway both know where to place the blame for the deformities before them. The godlike little boy in our story is Harry Lime, whose speech on the Riesenrad certainly shows that he thinks of himself as particularly godlike. So as we leave today’s frame, with Holly agreeing to be Calloway’s “dumb decoy duck,” I’d like to leave on a slightly lighter note, by doing something I have intended to do since Calloway’s ridiculous mustache first sauntered onto the screen. Here is a small rogues gallery of iconic mustaches:

Speaking of ducks, Duck Soup progenitor, Groucho Marx had one of the biggest mustache’s on the big screen.

Dutch hat company Hut Weber pointed out the enduring icon that is Chaplin’s mustache in this ad campaign.

John Waters’ signature pencil-mustache even accompanied him onto The Simpsons.

Salvador Dali’s mustache mimicked the maddening precision of his brush-strokes.

Tom Selleck’s mustache is so notoriously thick, it spawned its own internet meme, which inexplicably pairs him with a waterfall and a sandwich.

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 #86

After Tuesday’s metacinematic interlude, vivified by the intricate connection between cinema and railroads, we’re back to the story proper: Anna has sharply lambasted Holly for agreeing to cooperate with the police and turn in Harry Lime, tearing her passport (which Holly helped procure) in half and tossing his overcoat brusquely on the floor of the […]

Second #5270, 87:50, Image © Studio Canal

After Tuesday’s metacinematic interlude, vivified by the intricate connection between cinema and railroads, we’re back to the story proper: Anna has sharply lambasted Holly for agreeing to cooperate with the police and turn in Harry Lime, tearing her passport (which Holly helped procure) in half and tossing his overcoat brusquely on the floor of the train station. A dissolve segues from the image of Holly’s tossed-aside coat to Holly himself rushing up the stairs of the military police headquarters: his mind has been changed by Anna’s merciless (yet justified) iciness, and he races to find Major Calloway before it’s too late. The dissolve between the two scenes serves not only a temporal bridge (indicating, through the dissipation of visual space, that some time has passed) but also a thematic one, pointing out that Holly’s change of heart is directly the result of Anna’s animosity. As the image of the overcoat and of Holly rushing up the stairs momentarily fuse with one another, we have a visual melding of cause and effect, via a technique that only the cinema can accomplish.

Calloway assumes that Holly is rushing in to get Harry’s apprehension over with, so both he and Sergeant Payne are surprised when Holly blurts out, “I want to get a plane out of here tonight!” Momentarily dumbstruck, Calloway quickly surmises what’s going on: “So, she talked you out of it.” Holly offers Calloway and Payne Anna’s ripped-up passport as evidence of her indignation, to which Calloway offers a reply both appreciative and condescending: “A girl with spirit…”

“She’s right,” Holly grumbles. “It is none of my business.” His excuse for agreeing with Anna is flimsy but understandable; even if he knows that Harry is arrested or even killed by Calloway, he will be able to assure himself that he himself didn’t “tie the rope,” as he put it so vividly earlier in the film. He will not have been present for Harry’s apprehension, and that evasion of moral culpabilitythe fact that Holly won’t visually observe his own participation in his friend’s damnationmay allow him to convince himself that the whole thing couldn’t have ended any other way, that Harry’s capture was inevitable. Indeed, Calloway points this out to Holly in this scene: “It won’t make any difference in the long run. I’ll get him.” This is fine with Holly, as long as he’s not the tool to set the wheels in motion. A moment later, Holly, Calloway, and Payne depart to find a flight back to the States for Holly; the entire scene is over in 41 seconds, but in those 984 frames of film, Holly makes a moral decision that sums up the life of honor and loyalty he wants to lead, yet one that will also presumably haunt him for the rest of his life.

Holly’s dutiful allegiance to his old friend, even while he’s aware that justice requires Harry’s capture, offers a striking comparison (or, perhaps more accurately, contrast) to the cowboy heroes in Holly’s paperback westerns. Would the Lone Rider of Santa Fe or the Oklahoma Kid play a role in the arrest or murder of a villainous former friend? Would he himself pull the trigger? Or would he evade the situation in a manner similar to Holly, freeing himself of moral guilt by refusing to play any role whatsoever? In the ethically black-and-white world of the classical western genre (as opposed to revisionist westerns like The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven), it’s hard to imagine the cowboy hero ducking out of the situation like Holly does (or, at least, wants to). Then again, one of The Third Man‘s themes is Holly’s gradual realization that the moral code by which his fictional characters abide has no place in the “real world.”

A pertinent point of comparison here might be Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, the director’s second feature (and, according to many critics, his first great film). As it was made early in his career (in 1962), Ride the High Country definitely leans more to the classical end of the western spectrum (as opposed to the revisionist end, which Peckinpah would soon become known for embracing). The story concerns two old friends, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who are hired to transport a stockpile of gold from the Sierra Nevada to the town of Hornitos, California. What Judd doesn’t know is that Westrum is planning to steal the gold with his young accomplice, even if it means he has to kill his longtime friend in the process. When Judd discovers this plot, he furiously challenges Westrum to a draw; in other words, faced with a similar situation as Holly (the discovery that his best friend is a criminal who may pose a danger to him), Judd chooses not to evade the moral implications of killing his old friend, but instead leaps to this decision immediately. (In that movie, Judd even has less moral imperative to kill Westrum than Holly has to kill Harry.) Westrum, in the case of Peckinpah’s film, refuses to participate in the proposed draw and even seems to go along obediently with Judd’s plan to escort him back to the nearest prison (that is, until Westrum escapes with an outlaw’s horse). Thus, we have a revisionist trope in an otherwise classical film, as the ostensible hero (Steve Judd) embraces his murderous proclivities, and the supposed villain (Gil Westrum) cannot bring himself to kill or even injure his old friend. In any case, the ending of Ride the High Country provides a bittersweet embrace of stoic masculinity and honor among men (in the fashion of many classical western films): another group of villains enters the picture in the climax, and Gil and Steve band together to eradicate the greater threat. As one of them dies from a gunshot wound, his friend offers an epiphanous promise that he will honor the dying man’s memory, carrying out justice as he would have wanted. While Ride the High Country closes with a classical narrative scene that restores moral order between two temporary antagonists, The Third Man doesn’t provide such easy moral solutions, as their will be no poignant rapprochements between Harry and Holly. Steve Judd exists in a genre-driven world where black-and-white moral decisions are possible, even embraced; but this is a world in which Holly Martins does not live, and in which morality offers a nagging, perpetual ambiguity, rather than a reliable code by which to live one’s life.

Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in “Ride the High Country” (1962)—friends driven apart by betrayal, and back together by their innate moral goodness. Image © MGM & Warner Home Video.

Holly wants nothing more than to hightail it back to the States, ridding himself of a moral obligation to act upon his friend’s villainy. As we’ll soon see, though, things don’t quite go according to plan, thanks to Calloway’s brilliant last-ditch effort to enlist Holly’s cooperation (which we’ll witness next week). For now, on a brief narrative fulcrum that sets the last act of the film in motion, we find Holly trying to define who he is, what he’s capable of, how he wants to define himself. Though Calloway has been increasingly sympathetic towards Holly throughout the second half of the movie, Holly must also be aware that Calloway is judging him, appraising his character, relying upon the assumption that Holly is, deep down, an innately moral human being who will act on impulses of justice, decency, honor, etc. Who is the harshest judge of Holly Martins, the one whose reprobation or approval matters mostCalloway, Anna, or Holly himself? We shouldn’t forget, also, that Holly is Catholic, that his friendship with Harry developed in a Catholic boarding school, and that Holly used faith in God (or lack thereof) as an accusation against Harry during their discussion on the Riesenrad. True, Holly may follow Catholicism more in spirit than in practice, but it seems divine judgment still holds a great deal of significance for him. In other words, perhaps more than Calloway’s, Anna’s, or his own judgment of himself, Holly is grappling with a moral dilemma with which most of humanity is seemingly forced to contend: the possibility that his decisions will ultimately be questioned by divine judgment.

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 #85

What we are looking at today is a visual conflation of modern-era technologies–we are looking at a train on film. As Holly and Anna wait in this deserted station cafe (you can see the edge of a poster in the upper left), we watch Anna’s train depart without her on it. But for this post, […]

Second #5208, 86:48, Image © Studio Canal

What we are looking at today is a visual conflation of modern-era technologies–we are looking at a train on film. As Holly and Anna wait in this deserted station cafe (you can see the edge of a poster in the upper left), we watch Anna’s train depart without her on it. But for this post, we will depart from our usual incursion into story, and focus instead on the marvelous image we are presented with. I know it may not seem like much, but bear with me. Today we see a train window, illuminated and ghostly in the residual steam and smoke of the engine, as it flashes by our view, a window glowing within a window. What this still fails to capture, is the motion. Conveying to our story that 0h-well shrug of the missed opportunity, these series of glowing squares, the windows of the train, flutter by with increasing velocity as the train picks up speed. So, our resulting image is a frame, alternately filled with squares of light or darkness, eerily reminiscent of the filmic image itself. The film projector, of course, projects similar alternations, squares of light followed by darkness, which through their strobing alternation create the elusive illusion of motion, the living element of the film itself. Lacking only a shutter, which would allow these train window “frames” to enter or vision and leave it under cover of darkness, this image is the structure of the film projector.

It should not really be all that surprising, considering the shared history of cinema and the railroad, both in development and appreciation. Take, for instance, the comments of subcultural documentarian and confirmed tramp, Bill Daniel. In an interview for the Walker site two years ago he put it this way:

“Railroads and cinema are essential cousins. The mechanical and formal relationships between sprockets/frames and wheels and cars are incredible. Cinema and Railroads were invented and developed
around the same time. They both had profound effects on our space/time. And trains are wonderfully photogenic and cinematic. They love to be photographed.”

And looking at these cousins, it becomes apparent that their connection is more than coincidence. Even on a technological (or to continue to humanize them, physiological) level, there is an aesthetic connection between the two systems. A train track observed from above looks an awful lot like a film strip, and the wheels and engines, are not dissimilar to the internal workings of a projector.

Viewed from above, train tracks and filmstrips follow an essentially identical structure, with railroad ties dividing the ground into comprehensible frames and the rails standing in for sprockets and sound tracks.

The results between film and railroads are not dissimilar either. The experience of looking out a window of a moving train (or car) and seeing the illusion of motion as a series of fenceposts, trees, or other semi-identical objects whiz by is undoubtedly a cinematic experience. Take, for instance, this cinematic graffiti piece installed in the New York subway system by Bill Brand:

Brand harnesses the illusion of motion that can be created by this system of transit that puts us in front of a window screen watching things whiz by. We, on the train, become the film flitting through the projector, essentially watching the strobed images of passing faces as if they were a film themselves. But, just like Einstein’s twin paradox, the difference between the non-moving and moving perspective is specially relative, and both observers may see the same illusion of motion.

Backing up a bit to the development of today’s cousins, cinema and railroads, there is no doubt that both technologies changed the world, engaging in what Marx so quotably called “the annihilation of space by time,” but it is also clear that railroads changed the world first. The railroad, particularly in countries as vast as the United States, allowed a massive unification to take place. Essentially, it is with railroads that “the West was won,” whether it was using trains to massacre thousands of buffalo (as a sort of scorched earth policy against the native Americans who relied on them for food), carry messages and goods from the city to the frontier, or connect the disparate coasts of the U.S., trains played an essential part in the development of this country. And the sordid history of the railroad empire is directly connected to the roots of cinema.

In May of 1869, at a ceremony in Promontory, Utah, Leland Stanford drove in the “golden spike” connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. This event was perhaps the first “mass media” event, with telegraphs connected to the actual spike so that the railroad’s ceremonial completion would literally send a click to telegraph operators the moment it happened. (This telegraph hookup failed, though, so the word “DONE” was sent out coast-to-coast moments after the spike was driven in.) But, three years after this event, Stanford commissioned British photographer Eadward Muybridge to settle a bet. Stanford wanted to know whether, while galloping, a horse’s four feet ever left the ground. The resulting pictures, taken in fast succession, demonstrated a scientific breakthrough in the study of motion, and later inspired Muybridge to invent one of the first primitive film projectors, the Zoopraxiscope.

Muybridge’s horse photos were later animated to create this image. The photographs achieved two essential goals. They won Leland Stanford’s bet, and they started the invention of cinema.

The rest, as they say, is history. Inspired by Muybridge’s photographic experiments, many innovators designed their own moving image devices, but in the end, something about the magical shared experience of the theater won out, and the Lumiere brothers’ cinematographe (a combination camera, developer, and projector) broke new ground in what would eventually become today’s movie-theater experience, spawned at least partially, from Leland Stanford’s work with railroads.

But that is only half of the story. Today’s Still Dots, which sparked this wild line of exploration is indeed a visual representation of the technical and developmental similarities between cinema and railroads, those cousins, but it is also an image of a train. And the history of film is littered with images of similar trains. Back to the beginning, we can look again at the work of Auguste and Louis Lumiere, whose story is one of those essential cinematic creation myths.

When the Lumiere brothers first screened L’Arrivée d’un Train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) in 1895, the audience was supposedly driven into a panic at the realism of a train headed straight for them. Whether or not this myth is true or, as some scholars and historians now claim, a sort of “viral marketing” stunt to promote the glory of the cinematic image, what matters is trains’ inclusion in these earliest films.

Sixteen years later, D.W. Griffith would again break cinematic ground with a train. The Lonedale Operator (1911) introduced cross-cutting, the basis of the classical Hollywood system for narrative filmmaking, and the close-up to Hollywood. Matt has already discussed this legendary close-up, but it all revolves around the train. The operator himself is the hero coming to the rescue and in this early masterpiece, it is only the train that can save the day. And all of that is not to mention the generations of parodies to come from Griffith’s classic train narratives. The steam engine has almost become a stand-in for early cinema.

Another example of early filmmaking brilliance and the train is Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). This medium close-up was hand tinted to increase the terrifying realism as the bandit turns his gun on the audience.

Of course, the train’s importance in cinema did not die out with the cinema of attractions. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s train-centered pictures, from North by Northwest, to Strangers on a Train or even Marnie. In the world of less arty films, how about that terrific train-based fight scene in From Russia With Love or Indy’s train chase in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Or how about the train scene in Dogma? Whatever the example, it’s clear that cinema’s love affair with trains has not ended yet.

Back to Holly and Anna, this frame also acts as a visual break before one of my favorite lines in the film. Through this frozen visual image of cinema, we can see the percolating dismissal building in Anna, the dismissal that will legitimize this films now-famous last scene. After this break, Anna will turn to Holly and say:

If you want to sell your service, I’m not willing to be the price… I loved him. You loved him. What good have we done him. Look at yourself, they have names for faces like that.

And as she should, with aplomb, she walks out and drops Holly’s overcoat on the floor behind her, condemning him andas far as the story is concerned bringing us ever closer to The Third Man‘s final climax.

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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