Anna’s compassionate smile and odd mismatched gaze, not to mention the bouquet of flowers that masquerade as a furry cat in front of her, present today’s still with a stirringly fake image. Far from most images in this complex film, we see Anna standing in front of a wall with a decorative curtain as a backdrop. While this may not actually be shot on a set in London, since this film was reportedly shot almost entirely on location in Vienna, its composition suggests much of the photo studio. One can imagine a cheezy photography studio, the kind you see in malls or amusement parks, but in lieu of the wild west/victorian era costumes and props, this particular studio would advertise “Decimated Post-war Europe Photos.” Families could pay a fee to slip into the grandeur and imagination of the time by slipping into velvet jackets, grabbing strange bouquets, and standing in front of dingy, past-their-prime curtains just like Anna is here. But of course, were this a cheezy photo booth, she would have selected one of the many other pictures to represent herself, not this one, which cuts off the top of her head and in which the two sides of her face seem to be engaged in different expressions.
But this frame, like many others we have interacted with so far, brings some of the stink of the uncanny. Perhaps it is the chiaroscuro lighting, or the frequently canted angles and perspectives, but many shots within this film come across as off kilter in some way, and this frame is no exception. Anna’s ambiguous expression is certainly linked to that uncanny sense, since we seem to have caught her in a moment between two looks, but something in that inhumanly frozen ambivalence brings to mind the disharmony in a variety of portrait popular in the Victorian era: the post-mortem portrait. When photographs were such an unusual (and expensive) novelty–not like today’s image-saturated world–families would often take their portraits immediately after the death of a loved one to capitalize on their unrotten lifelike visage. What came from a warm and loving place, making a photograph to remember someone as they lived, produced some unsettling images of families hanging out with corpses.
In the image above, the clarity and sharpness of the deceased girl is a direct result of the photography process, which lasted several minutes. While this girl had no problem staying still, her slightly blurred parents couldn’t help but move and breathe, making her stand out, almost as if her presence in the photograph is more real. How does this parallel our frame today? Not with Anna, since her uncanny visage is not an actual sign of her death, only reminiscent of it, but within the whole structure of the film itself. Our frame finds us with would-be lovers Anna and Holly embroiled in a discussion of a man who is dead–Harry Lime. Harry has lain at the center of this story since the beginning, and like our deceased girl above, he stands out as a more carefully etched–and a more important one–than any other in the film. As Holly, Calloway, Anna et. al. circle the streets of post-War, post-Lime Vienna, they are in a sense memorializing Harry just after his death. This film is his post-mortem photograph, and like our girl above, he smiles unmoving in its center while the characters around him and viewers puzzle over what lies within his deceased mind.
Like Harry Lime’s life, this post will be cut short too soon. But I’ll leave you today with a section from Poe’s The Telltale Heart, which digs demonstrates the power of the dead to effect the living. Remember Anna, for today, as she hears the beating of Harry’s lifeless heart, not from her guilt but from his.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: –It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness –until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears. No doubt I now grew very pale; –but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased –and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed –I raved –I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder –louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! –no, no! They heard! –they suspected! –they knew! –they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
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.