Second #2170, 36:10, Image © Studio Canal
With the police detainment of Anna Schmidt, she and Holly Martins became separated for the first time since they’ve joined forces (or, maybe more accurately, since Holly roped Anna into tagging along for his investigation). While Anna paces the military office of Major Calloway, cutting slightly angular paths through a succession of canted frames, Holly is once again playing the Lone Vigilante, solely tracking down and interrogating the highly suspicious Dr. Winkel. Today’s frame brings us back to Calloway’s lifeless office (after a dissolve that temporally bridges the two scenes). The military bureau in which British and Russian (and, perhaps, French and American) officers share occupancy is nothing like the numerous examples of Romanesque and Baroque architecture to be found in Vienna: it’s a stuffy, officious building defined by the enormous military maps and sheaves of bureaucratic documents that litter the offices. In other words, an environment that uneasily parallels what Anna is going through: anxiety and loneliness, bolstered by Major Calloway’s brusque distrust of her.
We’ve just come from Dr. Winkel’s apartment, a scene in which Holly is pitted against the slyly evasive doctor. Still Dots #36 denotes another one-on-one standoff of sorts: Anna Schmidt’s naked, all-too-human emotionalism (she’s vulnerable and steely at the same time) versus Major Calloway’s callous punctiliousness. The disparity between them is conveyed by the following exchange:
Major Calloway: Miss Schmidt, you were intimate with Lime, weren’t you?
Anna: We loved each other. You mean that?
Of course that’s not really what he means; he’s a coldly rational MP who assumes that their sexual past makes Anna a collaborator of sorts, or at least a crucial witness. Human passion and fallibility don’t enter into the equation for him, at least not yet. Anna, meanwhile, is still convinced that the military police are entirely wrong about Harry, that he couldn’t possibly have committed the injustices (whatever they are) of which he’s convicted. If the previous scene—Holly Martins vs. Dr. Winkel—waged a battle between dogged moral absolutism and oily, pernicious amorality, then this scene (Anna vs. Calloway) pits tempestuous human emotion against the cold, calculated machinations of justice. (Holly and Calloway are more alike than they think: both men believe in a clear moral righteousness and are attempting to defend that as swiftly as possible, though at this point they’re doing so in contradistinctive ways.)
Calloway presents another piece of evidence that hints towards Harry Lime’s alleged criminal activity: a photo of a doctor in a military hospital named Joseph Harbin. In today’s still, Calloway sternly presents this photograph to Anna, who responds that she’s never seen him. Calloway is exasperated, distrustful: “It’s stupid to lie to me, Miss Schmidt,” he says. “I’m in a position to help you.” Turns out that Harry, in one of his letters, had asked Anna to telephone Harbin at the Casanova Club, passing on the message that Harbin was to meet Harry at the latter’s apartment. “Harbin disappeared the day you telephoned,” Calloway informs her. “We have to find him. You can help us.” All Anna can do is respond meekly that Calloway has it “all upside-down.”
Does the visual evidence of the man who Harry seemingly made disappear unsettle Anna’s loyalty towards him? Are doubts, suspicions beginning to sneak into her romantic, melancholy memories of Harry? It’s hard to know at this point. It’s interesting, though, that the strongest card Calloway has played so far is this still image of Joseph Harbin. Though we don’t see much of the photograph in this scene, Calloway’s use of the still as a tactic to gain Anna’s trust points towards the apparent incontrovertibility of the visual image (“seeing is believing,” to put it simply). Anna is not yet convinced, but Calloway will use photography/cinema once again later in the film as a means of proving Harry’s criminal acts to his former best friend, Holly. Calloway seems to realize that visual evidence is a potent way to convince skeptics, to illustrate uncomfortable truths. (The intensity with which he’s looking at Anna look at the picture in today’s still seems to emphasize the power of looking as a way of ascertaining the truth.) It’s the same kind of understanding that David Hemmings’ character Thomas comes to in Blow-Up (1966): still images contextualized, transformed, refracted, or magnified beyond their original composition (for example, a number of still images placed in succession and catalyzed into cinematic movement) may reveal a hidden truth that underlies the still photograph (though Thomas understands too late that that truth may itself be misleading or incomplete).
The veracity of the photographic and/or cinematic image has been notably commented upon by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, among many others. Barthes in Camera Lucida, for example, bemoans the inability for still photographs to capture the essence of things, or (in his words) “the impossible science of the unique being.” He found this especially true while flipping through photographs of his recently deceased mother: “I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her entirely… straining toward the essence of her identity, I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false” (28). Obviously, the photograph that Calloway displays to Anna in The Third Man denotes only what Joseph Harbin physically looked like (what Barthes deemed the studium), but not the essence of the man himself or what happened to him after the photograph was taken.
Sontag seems to agree with these concepts throughout much of On Photography: by noting that still photographs turn reality into a “mental object,” “miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire,” she seems to say as well that photographs can’t incorporate the subjectivity or full range of experience that inflects reality with Barthes’ “impossible science of the unique being.” Photographs turn subjects into objects, she says—objects we can acquire and own. While she recognizes the extent to which photographers interpret and transform the reality around them, Sontag nonetheless concludes that “photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.” (In fact, this is corroborated by one character in The Third Man and disproved by another—a point to which we’ll return later.) But that evidence contains a more “innocent” relation to reality than other mimetic objects, argues Sontag; a relation that provides a narrow transparency of the world in which subjectivity, or truths beyond the mere visual appearance of things, remain concealed.
So how does Anna respond to the seemingly simple, but possibly incriminating, photographic evidence that Calloway shows her? Does it indeed “furnish evidence,” suggesting to her that her former lover Harry Lime may indeed be a heartless criminal? Or does the photograph’s very lack of subjectivity, of humanizing context, fail to persuade her of Harry’s injustices? Perhaps Anna simply responds with the ambivalence with which most people view photographs, or even (especially) watch movies: the visual information is persuasively immersive (we do in fact feel like we’re watching a certain reality unfold before us), yet we’re also perpetually aware that we’re seeing an illusion, rays of light and chemical reactions (or binary information) that necessarily transforms reality. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing.
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.