Third Man revisited

At the end of last year I wrote a entry about The Third Man. I really didn’t get it. I was still in passive view and unable to get beyond the dialogue.

Having watched it again, examined parts of it for my narrative research and read Misek’s Wrong Geometries (Misek, 2007). I have clearly missed lot.

He draws attention to many elements ranging from the camera’s immobility that he says ” invites the eye to explore their many vertices. Even in chase sequences, the dominant camera set-up remains that of the tripod shot, emphasising the complex urban topography that the characters must negotiate” .

 He of course comments on the high contrast lighting how they pick out existing lines (Fig 1)  but also how they create shadows (Fig 2.) and even that the light beams “hang the mid-air” Fig.3.

Fig 1. High contrast light


Fig 2. Existing lines walls and tramlines



Fig 3 Lights hanging in mid air


Missal notes that the world is created in three dimensions with x, y and z axes which are emphasised by their “Wellesian use of wide-angle lenses, which allow lines to maintain their sharpness from foreground to background .” It gives it a film noir look.

Ultra-wide angle view 

He draws attention to the film’s “cinematography approximates (sic) the organising principles of early Renaissance perspectival painting”.
Masik explains “In the quattrocento, perspective was the means by which spatial unity was reconciled with artifice. Its discovery allowed painting to become simultaneously more verisimilar and more complex”. Artists using this style included Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Tommasi Masaccio’s “The Tribute Money’

Tommasi Masaccio’s “The Tribute Money’

He quotes  Leonardo (Arnheim, 1992, p. 295) [That the] “imagined cone of light within the painting is mirrored in front of the painting, as light rays converge on the retina of the spectator “
But he went  on to say about perspective and semiotic implications for the protagonist that the” Renaissance perspective is not quite sufficient to describe the effect of the film’s multiplicity of lines either on Holly or on the spectator. The perspectival look is usually thought to be one of visual mastery, involving the orientation of all the components of the image towards the spectator: when looking at a Renaissance painting, the spectator sees everything.
By contrast, Holly’s  vision is partial and aspects of his world-view – for example, that Harry is not a criminal – often need to be corrected by those who see the full picture. Holly has no perspective on what is happening. In addition, again unlike the spectator of a painting, he is looked at as much as looking: everywhere he goes, Viennese eyes follow him.”
Fascinatingly Mask also draws  attention to the multiple vanishing points outside of the frame  “The orthogonals converge off-screen, decentring the composition: they exert a centrifugal force on the eye, drawing it to visually inaccessible off-screen spaces”. These vanishing points are semiotic as they compete he’s says  “compete to draw our attention in divergent off-screen directions. Renaissance spatial unity is exploded, leaving a void in the centre of the frame. Like Holly, we too are not sure where to look”.
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 18.55.30

 Figs 4 & 5 Multiple vanishing points an confusing building lines at the discomfiture.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 18.55.21
This is particularly evident he goes on in Schreyvogelgasse (Figs 4 & 5), “the street in which this shot was filmed[ Holly sees Harry for the first time], is built on a steep gradient. On one side, a row of houses resists the incline of the hill and clings to horizontality; on the other side, there is a sheer drop to another street with a different gradient. Krasker’s cinematography transforms this improbable place into a seemingly impossible space. Mise en scène and lighting combine to emphasise multiple orthogonals, directing the eye to multiple vanishing points simultaneously, as if the image were a collage of irreconcilable perspectival environments”.
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 18.55.08

Fig. 6 Internal example 

The effect of exterior wide shots he alerts us to “are so consistently Dutch angled that ultimately they turn the entire city into a vertiginous space. They not only reflect the point of view of a character who cannot see straight, but also form an integral element of the film’s architectonic structure. The entire film is predicated on the absence of a visible horizontal axis”.
Masik  goes on “Holly embodies linearity, he is the main thread running through the film, an almost continuous presence from scene to scene, himself following the trail of the elusive ‘third man’ in a causal, linear narrative. Holly’s progress through the city is that of an outsider, unsure of his step, placing one foot in front of the other. In his movements from location to location, he follows the cartographic lines of the city streets, and in his movements from shot to shot, he follows the ‘axis’ of classical continuity editing: the position of the camera ensures that we know which direction Holly has just come from and in which direction he is going. Harry, by contrast, embodies non-linearity. He is an insider, a central figure in Vienna’s underground network of black marketeers. He has a detailed knowledge of the city’s urban spaces, moving freely from one occupied zone to another through a network of intersecting sewers. He follows oblique paths that contradict the mapped urban geometry of the city streets, and surfaces in seemingly unconnected locations across the city: a bridge, a square, an amusement park”.
He then observes very acutely the famous chase scene but semiotic nuance to it which highlights the brilliance of the film’s  creators.
“In their final encounter, Harry once again appears as if out of nowhere, but this time his appearance is followed by a startling inversion. Realising he has been set up, Harry again makes a quick escape, but this time does not disappear. Rather, Holly disappears, and the camera stays with Harry. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Harry becomes the film’s protagonist, so that what previously held for Holly now holds for Harry. As he flees from the police, he remains present in every shot, no longer able to slip between the cuts of the film and create his own virtual trajectory through imagined city spaces. Thus Harry crosses over into, and becomes a prisoner of, the denoted city.
Harry’s first instinct is to do what he always does and go underground, crossing back over from the denoted city into the imagined city. But alas, now when he enters the sewers, the camera continues to follow him, and so the sewers also become denoted. Accordingly, the disorientation previously experienced by Holly when he chased Harry, a result of the mismatch between denoted place and the visual construct of cinematic space, is now experienced by Harry. In fact, the disorientation becomes even more acute for Harry than it was for Holly. Holly may not have been able to catch up with Harry when he chased after him, but at least there were recognisable landmarks by which he could later reorientate himself, returning with Major Calloway to the precise location at which he lost Harry. In the sewers, however, there are no landmarks and no street names. The spatial coherence of the city, previously distorted, is now shattered into pieces. Each piece is a shot. Each shot exists in isolation, its only connection with previous and subsequent shots being the fleeing figure of Harry himself.
The cutting begins to follow more graphic principles, with shots placed next to each other based on their compositional properties rather than narrative logic: left-leaning Dutch angled shots are placed next to right-leaning Dutch angled shots, perspectival long shots are placed next to medium close-ups, and so on. In fact, the shots of Harry running through the sewers could have been edited together in any number of different combinations and they would have made just as much or as little spatial sense”.
In a final observation he identifies that ” Harry dies, but the film continues for a few minutes more, with a scene at his funeral in which the narrative resolution of his death is transformed into a graphic resolution. The funeral ceremony finishes, and Holly waits at the side of the road as Anna approaches. After over a hundred minutes of wrong geometries, The Third Man concludes with a shot in which the horizon is horizontal, the composition is symmetrical and at last there is a vanishing point exactly where it should be – in the centre of the screen . But though the film at last achieves a stable Renaissance perspective, the human geometry is wrong.Holly and Anna, the film’s romantic leads, ought to follow classical Hollywood convention and walk together away from the camera, hand in hand towards the vanishing point of their shared future. Instead, Anna walks towards the camera Fig 7. She does so at such a steady pace that visually as well as narratively it is no surprise when she keeps walking right past Holly. As Anna exits screen right, Holly lights a cigarette.

Fig. 7 Finally a horizon and the perspective inside the frame. Relationship wise  the perspective is awry. She walks past him.

The film ends, but it is possible to imagine the shot extending for a few more moments. Holly finishes his cigarette, stubs it out, and then also walks towards the camera, exiting screen left as a visual counterbalance to Anna’s exit screen right. In cartographic terms, Anna and Holly walk along the same vector, taking the main road out of the cemetery. Perspectivally, however, they follow divergent paths away from the vanishing point, like two spokes radiating out from the centre of the Ferris wheel at Prater Park. The lines of their lives move not towards but away from each other”.
Arnheim, R. (1992) Art and visual perception: A psychology of the creative eye. 2nd edn. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, [1974].
Misek, R. (2007) Wrong Geometries in the Third man. Available at: (Accessed: 15 May 2016).

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