Second #2542, 42:22, Image © Studio Canal
This ghostly image is an ominous portent of things to come: here, Dr. Winkel is preparing to bike to “the bridge,” a meeting point to which Popescu has called his cohorts (Baron Kurtz, Popescu, and the unknown Third Man are also en route) in order to address the situation with Harry’s former porter. Having foolishly informed Popescu that the porter saw the mysterious Third Man ushering Harry’s corpse across the street, Holly has unwittingly set in motion the machinery of murder. Holly, the self-styled cavalier vigilante, is in way over his head, only he doesn’t know it yet; soon, the repercussions of his solitary investigation will become clear to him.
Popescu has also cryptically threatened Anna Schmidt, whom Jeremy aptly labeled “the only truly courageous character” in the film. The previous scene (Holly’s interrogation of Popescu at the Casanova Club) ends with Popescu pointedly eyeing Anna, sitting at the bar alone: “A nice girl, that,” Popescu intones in his half-Romanian, half-German accent. “But she ought to go careful in Vienna. Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this…” A jarring zither chord is struck and a montage, bridged by a series of dissolves, indicates Harry’s former cohorts preparing for their next deadly endeavor.
As if to corroborate Popescu’s alarming appraisal of Vienna, this series of shots emphasizes the fact that The Third Man was indeed shot on location in this troubled city. True, almost all of the film was shot on location, and we’ll see plenty of examples of the architecture and maze-like design of Vienna forming a threatening backdrop to the action. But this montage is one of the most striking examples; it does somehow seem as if the city is instigating, or at least reflecting, these characters’ criminal behavior. Today’s still, for example, proceeds to pan left as Winkel walks his bicycle into the street, revealing an immense pile of rubble—one of the many scars inflicted upon Vienna by World War II:
If this gaping war wound serves as an appropriate backdrop to the villainy of Winkel and his associates (contrasting state-sanctioned atrocity with murder, greed, and corruption on a more personal level), an ensuing extreme high-angle shot of the gang meeting at the aforementioned bridge reemphasizes the role that the city itself might be playing in the terrors to come:
This bridge is Vienna’s Reichsbrücke, which spans the Danube from Vienna’s Leopoldstadt to Donaustadt. (Interestingly, this bridge was the only one over the Danube that was not severely damaged during World War II. Earlier, in the 1930s, the Reichsbrücke was reconstructed as a suspension bridge in an effort to reduce the level of unemployment in Vienna—itself an indication of the economic woes that plagued the city before, during, and after the war.) In The Third Man, director Carol Reed typically employs overt camera angles to add tension to moments of suspense and/or action. The canted angle is the most prevalent of these stylistic tricks, but the sudden cut from a street-level observational shot to this vertiginous extreme high-angle not only jars the audience into a heightened sense of alarm; it also gives the impression that these men’s behavior is pre-ordained or at least guided by larger sociopolitical or metaphysical forces—that they’re the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of their own destiny. (Among The Third Man‘s many ideas is the sense that iron-clad notions of heroism and villainy aren’t always applicable to a turbulent world assaulted by war, nationalism, and capitalistic self-interest.) James Agee said of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out that it “paints a melancholy, multitudinous portrait of a night city” (in that case, the city is Belfast); the same can be said about The Third Man‘s Vienna, a night city if ever there was one, which seems to have a tragic, almost preternatural influence over its inhabitants’ actions.
Yet Still Dots #42 transfixes and, in a way, unsettles me for vaguer reasons, reasons that are very difficult to put into words. Its perhaps unending row of brick facades, its whitish grain that resembles pockmarks on concrete, and the translucent lines and shapes on the right side of the frame (due to the fact that the dissolve from the previous shot is not yet complete)—all of this seems to manifest an otherworldly reality in which the shock of World War II lingers like a phantom. It’s as though the brutal reality of the war shows us reality as it is, and it’s more surreal than we ever could have imagined. Like Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, visions of a reality suffused with war and uncertainty take on a hallucinatory quality:
What this image from The Third Man and the movie Come and See as a whole offer us, in other words, is the laying bare of “the Real,” a sort of hyperreality which Slavoj Žižek calls:
…the key feature of the twentieth century… In contrast to the nineteenth century of utopian or ‘scientific’ projects and ideals, plans for the future, the twentieth century aimed at delivering the thing itself—at directly realizing the longed-for New Order. The ultimate and defining moment of the twentieth century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality—the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality. (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 7-8)
Žižek also defines the “fundamental paradox of the ‘passion for the Real’: it culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle—from the Stalinist show trials to spectacular terrorist acts… The passion for the Real ends up in the pure semblance of the spectacular effect of the Real” (9-10; emphasis in original). And what is a film still but a “pure semblance” of that which it’s filming? Today’s still from The Third Man in particular takes on a ghostly quality precisely as a vicious cycle of murder and greed is maintained by Popescu and his cohorts. Is the “effect of the Real” to make clear just how spectacular and “non-real” the modern world actually is? Mixed in with The Third Man‘s entertaining, darkly comic murder mystery is, perhaps, a fleeting glimpse of “the Real” after it was horrifically transformed by the world wars—a single frame that bears witness to the “peeling off [of] the deceptive layers of reality.”
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.