Second #1550, 25:50, Image © Studio Canal
What lurks beyond the open door? The porter points his thumb in the direction of the ominously half-closed passageway, the threshold between one space and the next, made unsettling by its visual inaccessibility. In this way, doors and windows act as stand-ins for the cinematic screen itself, a rectangle/square (depending on the aspect ratio) that offers a limited vantage point into a separate world, yet one that’s abruptly, tantalizingly cut off by its rigid borders.
Actually, in our still for today, the porter is simply gesticulating frenetically, having been agitated by Holly’s suggestion that they call the police for help. The porter has informed him that there was a mysterious third man present at Harry’s death—a cypher who, like the porter, declined to give his testimony at the inquest. Holly is now more convinced than ever that foul play is afoot, that Harry’s death was not an accident—a supposition that sends the porter into a frenzied German diatribe (with a smattering of English): “I should have listened to my wife! She said you were up to no good…”
So the porter doesn’t seem to be indicating the doorway at all; his gesture seems mostly unintentional, but it’s revealing nonetheless. Why is the porter frightened? Is it the police? Possibly, although as a native Viennese and a mere eyewitness, he seemingly would not have to worry about having the correct citizenship papers (a nightmare that will soon torment Anna Schmidt, who lives in the city’s Russian sector) or criminal charges. It seems likelier that the porter knows something about Harry Lime’s former cohorts (who may or may not be members of Vienna’s criminal underclass) and does not want them to think that he’s been ratting to the authorities.
In a way, then, the porter is right to nervously gesture towards the half-open doorway, for somewhere out there in the shadowy, maze-like streets of Vienna lurks something treacherous. The foreboding nature of the unseen threat—the villainous entity that remains offscreen (just beyond the doorframe or the windowpane, perhaps)—is suggested several times throughout this scene. First, immediately after the porter tells Holly that he didn’t get a good look at the third man—he seemed an ordinary-looking, enigmatic figure, spotted from a distant high-angle vantage point—Holly looks out the very same window in an effort to recreate the moment. I have to bend the rules of our self-appointed 62-second timeline here, but it’s worth including Holly’s view from Harry’s window:
“He might have been…just anybody,” the porter says precisely when we cut to this image; Holly even repeats those last two words with a touch of existential anguish. Just anybody—maybe even the two silhouettes making their way through the diagonal shaft of light cutting between these buildings, providing yet another shard of visibility that plunges a good chunk of the frame into murky blackness. This sense of both anonymity and pervasive villainy, in which any random passerby could be a source of treachery, suggests the alienation, rampant corruption, and moral degradation instilled by World War II (which, The Third Man suggests, torments both Holly Martins and postwar European populations as a whole). In terms of cinematic space, Harry’s apartment and this atmospheric cobblestone street are separate worlds, demarcated by a cut to Holly’s point-of-view through the window that exists between them. Figuratively, too, Holly’s world and postwar Vienna are distinctly alien to each other: Holly’s previously iron-clad morals and assumptions about justice and honor in the world are shattered by his rocky introduction to this city. His gung-ho, American heroism has no place in this brutally realistic world.
That window, then, serves as a pseudo-cinematic frame, turning Holly into an audience observing a reality that exists separately from him. The same thing happens with that aforementioned doorway, prominent in today’s frame. The open doors run parallel to the human figures of Holly and the porter, emphasizing the figurative space between them: they’ve been speaking for the last several minutes, but they’ve hardly been communicating (and language barriers are not solely to blame). Indeed, today’s still seems remarkably complex, stuffing the frame with visual information in order to accentuate the gap that exists between these two characters. Flanking them near the edges of the frame are two light fixtures which (by acting as extensions of the two men’s bodies) make the distance between them even more pronounced. More importantly, that open doorway provides a stark vertical section that boldly bisects this composition, splitting the screen into distinct halves. There’s even that monstrous white bust barely visible on the landing outside, as though passing silent, bemused judgment on Holly and the porter’s agitated conversation. Again, then, this door, like the window above, does not serve to connect or unite two worlds; it serves to separate them, its limited visual frame more haunting in what it obscures from us than revealing in what it shows. (To further the cinematic analogy: its offscreen space is more significant than what is provided within the frame.)
This symbolic, disturbing function of windows and doors becomes even clearer when, at the peak of the porter’s heated admonishment of Holly (he basically tells him he’s no longer allowed inside the building), an intruder bursts unexpectedly through the door. Again, I have to break the rules we’ve set for ourselves in order to demonstrate the figure who suddenly appears onscreen/in the doorway:
A ball bounces innocently enough into the frame, followed by this precocious toddler, observing Holly and the porter’s altercation with astonishment (and maybe a little morbid glee). If we think this ball can be easily equated with childlike innocence, then perhaps recalling the horrifying opening to Fritz Lang’s M (in which a ball gently rolling into the frame conveys the murder of a young girl no longer able to play with it) makes us reconsider. What’s more, this little boy is not as sweet and innocent as he might look: later on in The Third Man, he almost singlehandedly instigates a witchhunt against poor Holly Martins. (More on this when the time comes. In a way, this young boy is a darkly sardonic reversal of young Philippe in The Fallen Idol, the first collaboration between Carol Reed and Graham Greene, from 1948. A movie about a very young boy witnessing the unfolding dramas of immoral adult characters, The Fallen Idol suggests childhood innocence and purity as diametrically opposite to, and unable to sufficiently comprehend, adult behavior; meanwhile, The Third Man presents this adorable young boy who jumps to the most horrid conclusion and, in a darkly comic turn of events, eventually sics a Viennese mob on the American outsider.) In any case, this door once again sets up a stark border between separate worlds; when the two leak into each other (as when Holly undertakes his vigilante quest in Vienna) the results may be disastrous, or at least distressingly ominous.
Doors and windows framing (and obscuring) the action in a screen-like fashion has been featured in cinema basically since its advent: think, for example, of the prominence of windows in several of Louis Feuillade’s crime serials from the 1910s, most notably Fantômas (1913-14) and Les Vampires (1915-16). In those serials, sundry criminals, terrorists, anarchists, and supervillains lurk, barely visible, behind open windows, spying on other characters with foreboding omnipresence. The Vampires, an anarchist-terrorist gang, even use the same trick repeatedly throughout Les Vampires: armed with a noose on the sidewalks of Paris, they lure their prey to an open window several stories above, then lasso their unwitting victim as they lean outwards, yanking them to the concrete below.
Scenes such as these (in which villains utilize urban architecture to conceal themselves and prey on their victims) reflected the changes in city life that had begun transforming the topography of urban areas in the mid-19th century. As metropolises became more heavily condensed around the fin de siècle (thanks in part to modernized forms of transportation and communication, such as trains and telegrams), there arose the sense that everyone was instantaneously connected, in perilously close proximity both literally and figuratively. Windows and doors, then, became treacherous tools for criminals, who exploited new forms of urban architecture in order to provide swift access to their victims. The screen-like portals of windows and doors, simultaneously exposing and concealing separate spaces from each other, fascinated not only early filmmakers like Feuillade and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset (whose Zigomar serial reflected many of the same anxieties) but also early surrealist writers like Robert Desnos and Louis Aragon, who appreciated the newfangled art form of cinema as an oneiric passageway into an alternate reality. It all comes together (in a way) with a 1922 text by Desnos entitled “Pénalités de l’enfer ou Nouvelles Hébrides,” which equated the movie screen with a tantalizing though perilous entryway into another space:
Furiously, I wanted to take a closer look. I climbed toward the screen. I was blinded by the light coming from the projector and saw in the screen two holes that were big enough to allow passage. I put my head through one of them. A panorama of the city spread out before my eyes. [Surrealist writers Louis] Aragon and [Jacques] Baron were trussed up through their bellies on two cathedral spires.
I understood that they too had wanted to see what lay behind the screen and the very beauty of their suicide was revealed to me.
Two holes in the screen, like two windows or doors, revealing a new world to film audiences—yet a world that ultimately sacrificed anyone who dared to venture to the other side. The Third Man, meanwhile, though hardly a surrealist film, provides doors and windows through which Holly Martins comes to know the alien world of postwar Vienna. Will his journey through these portals destroy him like it did Aragon and Baron, impaled as they were on cathedral spires within the screen-space? Stay tuned to find out…
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.