Second #1798, 29:58, Image © Studio Canal
Our thirtieth still from The Third Man immerses us in a moment of visual pandemonium: so many human figures are clashing with each other directionally and compositionally that it just seems like a throng of people have wandered aimlessly in front of the camera. If we were to chart each individual’s eyeline in this shot, we would have a messy grid of disconnected angles, visually conveying a total lack of communication between them.
Some filmmakers (like Jean Renoir, William Wyler, Jacques Tati, and—maybe most pertinent to our case—Orson Welles) compose lengthy, typically static shots from a more distanced perspective, allowing the viewer to “democratically” peruse the frame, following the action yet absorbing a great deal of supplementary visual information as well. (This has been called “editing in the camera”: guiding the audience’s attention through composition and mise en scène rather than cutting between shots.) But this instance from The Third Man is something else; director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker seem to be aiming for visual chaos, filling the frame with figures that don’t seem to have any kind of spatial relationship to each other.
This kind of composition—a tableau setup in which there doesn’t seem to be one focal point or organizing structure—might be familiar to us from very early (pre-classical) cinema, about 1895 to 1910. Before the institutionalized “rules” of Hollywood narrative filmmaking set in (according to which filmmakers “invisibly” cut between shot scales to present the story information as clearly as possible), cinema was caught between a spectacular vehicle for visceral attractions and a storytelling medium. This often meant that busy, elaborate scenes would play out in a somewhat distanced tableau setup, offering the audience little guidance as to where their eyes should be focused (think of the Edison Company’s Life of an American Fireman, the opening to Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, or early D.W. Griffith shorts like Those Awful Hats).
But today’s cluttered frame from The Third Man suggests something else: whereas pre-classical cinema utilized a tableau setup mostly for technological and logistical reasons (given the size of cameras, it simply wasn’t feasible at the time to set up numerous different perspectives for a single scene, especially since the visual style of the theater still held sway), Reed and Krasker momentarily convey this semi-chaotic nature for a psychological reason. So Still Dots #30 isn’t so much a case of “editing in the camera” as much as it is a lack of editing entirely, in the sense that the viewer’s attention (visual and otherwise) isn’t being directed towards a specific individual or action at this particular moment. Instead, we get the impression of a preponderance of meddling officials, so numerous and uncommunicative that they turn the frame into a slapdash, messy amalgamation.
This visual approach is meant to reaffirm the police’s callous treatment of poor Anna Schmidt. Anna and Holly Martins have just returned to her apartment, only to find it overrun with officers and patrolmen combing through her belongings for any evidence (love letters, forged passports) pertaining to Harry Lime’s disappearance. Jeremy and I have both discussed the brusque tactics employed by the military police and the tense reactions they elicit; on Tuesday, Jeremy pointed out that Anna (a seasoned Viennese) seems more well-equipped to deal with the MPs’ bureaucracy than Holly is (he keeps on playing the brash, cowboy-esque American). In other words, no one seems to be on the same proverbial page in this scene; even Holly and Anna, who have been acting something like cohorts in the previous scenes, have a sudden rift open up between them (Anna barely responds to Holly’s interventions in this scene, and then only grudgingly). The fact that we still don’t know which crimes Harry allegedly committed suggests that the police truly are invading Anna’s privacy for no reason, persecuting innocent individuals in a nightmarish police state. (Only later in the film will their justification be revealed.) Today’s frame, then, visually manifests this complete lack of communication, this tightening web of investigation and persecution, as Anna’s apartment teems with a mob of individuals mostly disinterested in her plight.
The intentional evocation of visual chaos has been a distinguishing characteristic for some filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard and Dusan Makavejev come to mind), but the most closely aligned to today’s still might be Robert Altman. Admittedly, Altman would seem to be one of the last directors to come to mind in comparison to The Third Man. But for this 1/24th of a second at least, when the seemingly spontaneous movement of individuals through the frame conveys a nebulous ensemble moving in and around the central storyline, Altman comes fleetingly to mind.
With his penchant for master shots that roam, via leisurely zooms and pans, throughout entire scenes with apparent spontaneity, Altman conveys a dynamic, remarkably rich world that’s both electrifying and compromising in its chaos. (The wealth of extras whose bodies and voices appear momentarily in Altman’s films somehow take on both a vivifying and an alienating tone.) Even United Artists’ promotional materials for The Long Goodbye (1973) seemed to realize this:
For whatever reason, I can’t look at today’s Third Man still without imagining the camera panning slowly, in raw and improvisatory fashion, through Anna’s apartment while officers’ meaningless background chatter becomes barely audible on the soundtrack. While Altman’s films often create a polyvalent world wherein groups of people can be both harmonious and corrupt (think of the ambivalent ensembles portrayed in MASH or The Player), Still Dots #30 suggests an altogether more sinister conflux of unknown lawmen entrapping Anna within a shapeless mass of sorts. True, only a few frames after today’s still, several characters vacate the screen and the camera focuses more directly on Holly and Calloway’s interaction, so the momentary analogy between The Third Man and Altman dissipates almost as soon as it emerges. This linkage (which may not actually be a linkage at all) is interesting because it seems to have been made possible thanks to our durational project, a fleeting (and perhaps illusory) idea forged from the petrification of an image meant to last only a fraction of a second.
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.