Second #1302, 21:42, Image © Studio Canal
The forging of a new relationship, frozen in time: the expressions on both Holly’s and Anna’s faces, crystallized as they are for our analysis, seem to etch these characters’ emotions into fleshy stone. (After all, aren’t cinematic stills sculptures in light, as petrified and revealing as, say, the emphatic strength exhibited by Michelangelo’s David?) As much as both Holly and Anna may be playing roles in this scene, leaving the most vulnerable, tortured depths of their psyches guarded from one another, today’s still nonetheless provides veiled access to their innermost thoughts. There is a great sadness in Holly Martins’ eyes, obscured though it is by a world-weary drooping of the eyelids. He’s assessing Anna Schmidt, trying to “read” her character (how might he describe her in one of his paperback Westerns?), yet his compassion also builds throughout the scene as his attraction to her becomes increasingly transparent. His soothing voice seems to deepen and become more confident as the scene progresses, betraying what we may have presumed as soon as Holly set eyes on Anna at Harry’s funeral: he’s falling in love with her. We can almost see it happening in this shrapnel of time, especially if we have the benefit of knowing what happens later in the movie.
And what about Anna Schmidt? She combs and primps her blonde wig carefully, a task which allows her to avoid eye contact with Holly throughout their exchange. This comparatively long, static shot—it lasts almost a full minute—reveals the stark differences in their body language and facial expressions: Holly plays the sensitive lothario, suavely reassuring Anna and gazing at her lugubriously, while Anna brusquely, indifferently remains on her guard, even as she wonders aloud if Harry was murdered and admits that she wants to die, too. She’s too wise, too well-versed in heartache and hardship, to open up to Holly immediately; she wears the steeliness of someone whose illusions have already been shattered. (Anton Karas’ zither score corresponds closely to Holly’s reactions in this scene: a soft, melancholy melody rises slowly as he observes Anna talking about Harry, but the music abruptly explodes into an abrasive pluck of the strings as Holly’s taken aback by Anna’s mention of murder.)
As Anna Schmidt, Alida Valli (who was credited simply as “Valli” in The Third Man‘s credits) exudes the enigmatic beauty and doleful elegance for which she was known. In Italy (where Valli lived and was born, in the town of Pola, which is now a part of Croatia), she was dubbed “the next Garbo” before and during World War II, during which time she delivered a string of acclaimed performances in films such as Manon Lescaut (1940), Piccolo mondo antico (Little Old World, 1941, for which she won a Venice Film Festival Award), and Noi vivi (We the Living, 1942). In 1943, however, Valli willfully disappeared from filmmaking, refusing to appear in what she considered Fascist propaganda. She returned to film after the war, most notably in the title role of Eugenie Grandet (1946), a performance that attracted the attention of David O. Selznick, the Hollywood producer who by that time had formed his own independent studio (Selznick International Pictures) and who had convinced Alfred Hitchcock to migrate from England to Hollywood with 1940’s Rebecca.
Valli’s first role in an American film was as the main murder suspect, Maddalena Paradine, in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947); the part was originally offered to Greta Garbo, who turned it down, allowing Valli to step in. The Paradine Case was less successful, both commercially and critically, than many of Hitchcock’s American films to date, but Valli’s performance was, for the most part, well-received, with the New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther commending Valli’s interpretation of Mrs. Parradine as “a compound of mystery, fascination and voluptuousness with a pair of bedroom eyes.” Two years later, Valli would be offered the plum role of Anna Schmidt by Selznick and Alexander Korda, who collaborated on the production of The Third Man.
Even so, Valli never received the international stardom that many expected of her, and most of her Hollywood pictures (including The Miracle of the Bells  and Walk Softly, Stranger ) failed to draw audiences. She returned to Italy in 1951 and would appear in a number of markedly varied roles over the next five decades, including the reckless, quietly desperate Countess in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954); the somnambulistic lab assistant Louise in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960); and appearances in two Dario Argento movies, as the tyrannical headmistress Miss Tanner in Suspiria (1977) and the suspiciously intrusive caretaker in Inferno (1980). She also worked with a number of esteemed Italian directors, including Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, 1967), Michelangelo Antonioni (Il Grido, 1957), and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970).
In many of her roles, including The Third Man, Valli seems to play women who have been battered and disillusioned by the world, who have come to intimately know the cruel ironies that life can offer us. Comparisons to Garbo seem apt: both stars had a stern, icy beauty, with only poignant glimpses at the suffering being endured within their self-forged emotional armor. Valli—a real-life baroness by birth—exuded this public image in her offscreen life as well. She experienced a number of personal tragedies that may have contributed to her steely persona: in 1945, her mother was shot by Italian anti-fascists, and in 1954 she became embroiled in an infamous scandal involving the murder of fashion model Wilma Montesi, whose corpse was found on a public beach. Prolonged investigations uncovered drug and sex orgies involving the Roman elite, including Valli’s lover, the jazz musician Piero Piccioni, who was accused (and eventually acquitted) of being partially responsibly for Montesi’s death. The scandal nearly ruined Valli’s film career.
Though it’s precarious to attribute too much of Valli’s onscreen persona to her biographical life (an always-tricky path to maneuver when contextualizing authorship in cinema), it’s hard not to trace her disenchanted, resilient, world-weary sensibility to the hardships that befell her in reality. In The Third Man (as well as in, for example, Senso and 1900), Valli’s characters seem to have built up walls between themselves and those around them, having suffered emotional calamities that cast a dark light upon the world in which they live, revealing it for what it is. Holly Martins sees Anna Schmidt as a beleaguered damsel in need of rescuing, and considers himself the man to do so. One of the saddest ironies in The Third Man is that she is both wiser and more jaded than Holly, and has already realized that reality, unlike the movies or paperback Western novels, does not allow for miraculous third-act rescues that right the wrongs of the world.
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.