Second #1178, 19:38, Image © Studio Canal
Today’s still has captured Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), former lover of Harry Lime, at her most bewitching: meeting Holly Martins in her dressing room after a show at the Josefstadt Theater, Anna is both skeptical and intrigued, guarded yet increasingly frank. In other words, she’s somewhere between the role that she plays in the German-language comedy that Holly has just walked out of—we only see snippets of her stage performance, but she seems to be portraying a voluptuous, fetchingly mysterious coquette—and who Anna Schmidt, the actress, really is—a disillusioned woman in the throes of depression whose lover has just mysteriously died (even she raises the possibility that Harry’s death was not an accident) and whose country is struggling to rehabilitate itself after the ravages of war.
Holly has just committed a callous offense against an actor. As Anna runs offstage to prepare for her next scene, Holly discombobulates her stage persona by blurting out, “I was a friend of Harry Lime.” Immediately, Anna falters in front of the mirror, seeing Holly for the first time with wide, aching, imploring eyes. “Afterwards,” she responds simply. Holly has penetrated directly through the role she’s playing, striking the core of Anna Schmidt herself. Only a master thespian could recover from this abrupt emotional shock, and perhaps Anna is exactly that: as soon as she reappears onstage, Anna once again locks eyes with Holly, her heartache nakedly evident; but a split second later, she thrusts herself back into her performance, batting her theatrical eyelashes at her costars with the vivacious innocence of someone not yet aware of the cruelties of life and love.
The depths of Anna’s depression become apparent while she and Holly converse after the show. She plays the good host, welcoming Holly into her dressing room and offering him first tea, then whiskey (both given as gifts by lovestruck fans, and presumably obtained on the black market). Yet, appropriately, Anna becomes more candid, less inhibited, as she removes her make-up and jewelry (those earrings, that blonde wig, her false eyelashes); the character she’s playing literally begins to disappear, revealing the true Anna Schmidt within. Significantly, she begins removing her costume and make-up after Holly asks her if she was in love with Harry; as her stage persona dissipates, she answers that it’s impossible to know or to answer such a question after his death, and that the only thing she knows for sure is that she wants to be dead too.
Actors/actresses serve as conveniently symbolic characters in a number of movies: the duality between the roles they play and their actual selves offers a striking manifestation of the precarious gap between reality and non-reality. Not only do such characters make the audience question the motivations of their actions by implicitly suggesting that they may always be “playing a role,” behaving disingenuously for some ulterior motive—a question that’s likely on Holly’s mind, as he tries to determine if Anna is a trustworthy ally or yet another duplicitous schemer who may have conspired against Harry. Think, for example, of Marlene Dietrich’s career-making character Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), in which we can never definitively answer whether her cabaret performer intentionally ruins her husband’s life or if she’s simply callously self-absorbed.
Actors/actresses on film also constantly remind us of the fictive space of cinema in general: the concept of role-playing, of the fact that movie stars (to borrow an idea from Richard Dyer’s seminal analysis Stars) constantly inhabit themselves (the actual actor/actress), the characters they play, and their celebrity personae as they’re formulated by public appearances, interviews, previous bodies of work, biographical information, and so on. (To use Dietrich as an example again, she was always simultaneously her emphatic, idiosyncratic self; the often-extravagant characters she portrayed; and the public’s conception of her as a provocative, boundary-pushing celebrity.) In other words, seeing an actor playing an actor onscreen reminds us that identity is permeable, as are space and time, in the alternate realities that movies offer to us. Bergman’s Persona (1966) has to be the fullest (and, paradoxically, one of the most abstract) cinematic depictions of this: a hauntingly cryptic film, Persona teems with duplications, refractions, mirroring, and complete obliteration of identities, all centering around a stage actress (played by Liv Ullmann) who seems unable to reconcile her real and fictional selves. She serves as a symbolic marker for the perpetual schism between the real world and the illusions of art (not to mention how they bleed into one another).
The way in which Holly Martins first approaches Anna at the Josefstadt Theatre—silently approaching her as she prepares backstage, peering at her through a door that a stagehand has carelessly left ajar—brings to mind another comparison: Kim Novak as Madeleine in Vertigo (1958). Initially, Vertigo has us believe that Madeleine is inhabited by a different kind of figure: the ghost of Carlotta Valdes, supposedly Madeleine’s great-grandmother, who committed suicide and who now “possesses” Madeleine (and to an extent controls her behavior). Even as the movie goes on and we realize the true nature of Madeleine’s character, the doubling of identities abounds and the obsessive allure of the iconic, movie star-like image becomes phantasmatically powerful. Just as Holly greedily takes in Anna Schmidt’s image through the open door backstage, James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo spies on Madeleine through an open department store door that turns her image into a fetishized spectacle, framed by impossibly vivid flowers.
Vertigo‘s Madeleine isn’t a stage or film actress, but we eventually realize that she is in fact portraying a role, and that the stakes are higher than a mere onstage/screen performance. The jarring dream logic of Hitchcock’s film is actually a succinct illustration of the ways in which acting, of inhabiting another personality for (one hopes) a temporary amount of time, can cause a rupture in the fabric between reality and illusion, a catastrophe that James Stewart’s character comes to understand all too well.
Looking again at today’s still, what’s most striking to me is how “actorly” Anna Schmidt looks here: surrounded by curtains and her dressing room’s make-up tables, extravagantly attired and adorned with fake beauty marks, it is ironically this moment at which Anna begins to drop pretenses and talks to Holly with bracing honesty. Even more ironic: most of the characters in The Third Man (including Holly Martins) are playing roles, keeping up appearances, making themselves out to be nobler than they really are; Anna, the movie’s only actor-by-trade, may be the most genuine, more honest with herself than the rest of them. Frozen here in a tantalizingly ambivalent pose, Anna Schmidt provides one of The Third Man‘s several striking star images: larger-than-life snapshots of figures whose multifarious personalities became visually inscribed into the celluloid on which they appeared.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.