Second #2790, 46:30, Image © Studio Canal
In a matter of moments, Holly and Anna will be plunged even deeper into an abyss of murder and corruption, but for now they’re offered a melancholy moment of togetherness and reflection. The subject of their revery, of course, is Harry Lime, the unseen phantom who reigns over The Third Man, guiding the action without even appearing onscreen. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, “Harry is the man that brought this unlikely pair together, but it is Anna’s erstwhile feelings for him that are keeping them apart.” That bitter irony, which is surely tormenting both Holly and Anna, may be more powerfully conveyed in this scene than any other in the film. Their platonic relationship gains great emotional depth as they share in each other’s loneliness, even while both of them are doubtlessly aware of Holly’s unrequited love for her. After Anna drearily professes that she doesn’t ever want to fall in love again, Holly — ever the gentleman — suggests they drink away their troubles. But the suggestion only makes Harry’s absence-as-presence more deeply felt, as Anna says that was always his go-to solution.
Holly has, up until now, been patiently understanding towards Anna’s all-consuming loneliness, but now he becomes visibly exasperated. “Well, I didn’t learn that from him,” he flatly says as he walks away from Anna, towards the door. His frustration grows a few moments later as Anna, hoping to brighten Holly’s mood and tag along with him to visit the porter (already dead, unbeknownst to them), admits, “We’re both in this Harry.” Holly pauses emphatically before he corrects her: “Holly… Might get my name right.” The look on Anna’s face once she realizes her mistake is heartbreaking: she recognizes Holly’s heartache even as she finds herself unable to escape her maudlin memories of Harry. She behaves towards Holly the way a loving sister might towards a sibling, a fond intimacy that likely gives Holly no comfort. This all leads to one of The Third Man‘s sweetest lines of dialogue: before exiting, Anna teasingly tells Holly, “You know, you ought to find yourself a girl.”
Visually, there’s nothing overtly striking about this scene: it forges an “invisible” style that the Hollywood system of narrative filmmaking prioritized, devoted to characters and dialogue and linearity of space and time. Mostly, the scene is comprised of medium shots (or medium close-ups) that allow us to discern the actors’ facial expressions fairly clearly (save for an unexpectedly powerful close-up of Anna after Holly’s suggestion that they get a drink reminds her, once again, of Harry). But the scene is still stylistically powerfully thanks to its mise en scène, the term applied to cinema by a number of French theorists to describe the arrangement of visual elements before the camera (composition, set design, props, the blocking of actors, costume design, and lighting). Though the Viennese vista visible through Anna’s window provides a semi-romantic backdrop, director Carol Reed includes subtle visual elements — the bare, dying flowers on Anna’s windowsill (indicators, perhaps, of Anna’s apathetic neglect of the immediate world around her following Harry’s death); the heavily scarred wall visible in today’s still, a figurative sign of violence that presages the danger that Anna and Holly will experience in the following scene — in order to convey the impression of foreboding doom. These elements might be subtle, and the viewer may pick up on them only subconsciously, but they nevertheless serve an emotional and even thematic purpose.
As such, Carol Reed and The Third Man reflect the emphasis on meticulous composition espoused by French critics such as André Bazin, who, in his 1948 essay “William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing,” defined the utmost purpose of mise en scène: this “styleless style” achieves a self-effacement in which “the story and the actors are at their clearest and most powerful” (Bazin at Work, 2). Bazin used Wyler’s masterful 1941 film The Little Foxes to argue that “the highest level of cinematic art coincides with the lowest level of mise en scène… It is the camera itself that organizes the action by means of the frame and the ideal coordinates of its dramatic geometry” (4; The Third Man‘s “dramatic geometry” is something we’ll be addressing very shortly in Still Dots). A year after Bazin wrote this essay, Carol Reed would utilize both a “styleless” mise en scène as well as a plethora of striking cinematographic tricks (canted and distorted angles, deep focus, low-key chiaroscuro lighting) to alternate between emotional/narrative clarity and visceral impact in The Third Man. Our current scene displays Reed’s skill with subtle mise en scène at its most effective.
The Third Man is, as we’ve discussed before, quite the genre chameleon: it’s both comedy and tragedy, film noir thriller and fast-paced whodunit, breathlessly entertaining and utterly serious in its existential commentary on postwar dread. Underlying all of this is another strand: The Third Man is also a romance tinged with sadness. Holly, Harry, and Anna form a doomed love triangle, their passions and emotional yearnings smoldering beneath the movie’s more overt genre trappings. (Indeed, the last shot of the movie — one of the most emotionally resonant in the history of film, I would wager — powerfully brings this tragic romance to the surface.) As Anton Karas’ zither score reflects this dynamic shuffling of tones and styles, Holly’s spurned love for Anna (and her pained attachment to Harry) deepens the movie’s angst-ridden deconstruction of postwar amorality (and counterbalances its more comedic moments). The fact that The Third Man‘s male and female protagonists don’t end up together aligns their non-romance with the doomed relationships in such films noir as Laura (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), In a Lonely Place (1950), or Orson Welles’ own The Lady from Shanghai (1947), not to mention the classic non-union that closes Casablanca (1944, with which The Third Man has a few other things in common). If it’s true that, as Bazin suggested, utilizing the subtle mise en scène style in The Third Man‘s dialogue and dramatic scenes allows “the story and the actors [to be] their clearest and most powerful,” maybe that’s why the romantic intrigues pulsing beneath the surface are so emotionally devastating; we become convinced that Anna and Holly are fully-formed lost souls, sharing an intimate kinship over their loneliness, confusion, alienation, and moral anguish (the very torments that ultimately keep them apart). In a better, alternate world, maybe Anna and Holly would have ended up together after all.
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.