Thursday, March 09, 2006

No post, really--just wanted to link to this

Last night was the final meeting for my Intro to Humanities class, and we concluded by watching The Third Man. I had told my students to watch how much a skilled director and photographer can do with good old black & white, and so I watched as well (my second time to see this--thanks, Larry the movie guy, who lent it to me). Of course we oohed and ahhed over the chiaroscuro scenes shot in the streets and sewers of Vienna, the ferris wheel scene with Harry Lime (a despicably brilliant Orson Welles) and Rollo (the always-fine Joseph Cotten), and the crazy shots of staircases. But this time around the final shot really had an emotional wallop for me: in this film of lots of back-and-forth cutting among its characters, the final shot, filmed with a static camera and no zither music or dialogue, runs about a minute and a half as Anna (Alida Valli), Harry's former lover, approaches and then walks right past Rollo without either speaking to or even acknowledging the other (in the image I've linked to, which comes about 5-10 seconds before the scene ends, Anna is just beginning to walk around the camera). Of course, that impact is due in large measure to the context of the film's plot, which I'd rather not go into here, but I think that it would work even if you knew nothing else of the film.

It struck me, as I was watching last night, that its power is ultimately visual: it tells no story beyond the "narrative" of Anna's walking and the very last thing we see, Rollo's tossing a match after he's lit a cigarette. But in its symmetry of composition and its near-static quality, it attains the mood of a tableau--yes, a painting. In my (admittedly limited) experience of thinking about films with the intent of trying to say something substantive about them, this sort of quality is rare in film. That could have something to do with the fact that they are called "motion pictures."

A nice review of the Criterion DVD, including a lengthy discussion of the final scene, is here.

And now back to grading, which is what I should be doing instead of posting inane commentary on great films.

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7 comments:

Ariel said...

I love this film. And I agree with your assessment of the last scene. When Lindsay and I watched it, having no inkling of how the film ended, we transitioned from puzzlement to astonishment to admiration.

That scene is brilliant.

Raminagrobis said...

'Inane commentary'? Not a bit of it.

I watched The Third Man again for the umpteenth time the other week when it was on TV. That scene really does pack an emotional wallop; it must be because it's held just that little bit too long, it lasts just a bit longer than you expect it to. That is a very rare thing in Hollywood films, as you say.

Didn't I read/hear somewhere that this scene was improvised, or that it wasn't planned in advance, or that it was only added late in production? Memory fails me now. Anyway, it's brilliant.

But the much vaunted zither music is a teensy bit silly, no?

poco said...

I love the composition on the image you chose to post.

R. Sherman said...

Just so you know, I'm channeling Moses Austin at the moment.

Cheers.

John B. said...

Nice comments, y'all.
Ariel, yours and Lindsay's reaction was much the same as my class's: it's completely comprehensible as a scene, but because it's not filmed in the usual way and doesn't end as expected--indeed, it doesn't really SEEM to end--it ended up just sort of stopping them in their tracks.
Grobie, in the review I linked to, the account is that Graham Greene had written the scene so that Anna would walk past Rollo and then turn back and go to him and then the credits would roll. The end we see was Carol Reed's idea. Greene didn't like it at first but came to see, on aesthetic grounds, why Reed decided on the different ending.
Jojo and JMB, do see the whole film, if you haven't before.
Mr. Sherman, you might perhaps appreciate the bit of trash-talking I sent Ariel's way in this little comment.

John B. said...

Grobie, I forgot to mention that I agree with you in part about the zither music. I like it for the most part, but there are a couple of moments when Rollo hears some sort of startling revelation and the music suddenly comes up in the mix and sounds a bit startled itself. I nearly laughed at one point, which I'm pretty sure was not the intended effect.

Tom said...

It is indeed a terrific film. My enjoyment and appreciation of this was enhanced by listening to the BBC 3's Night Waves programme. It is archived here.