Wrong Geometries in The Third Man
- Publisher: Rouge
Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is simultaneously a visual document of the bombed-out fabric of late 1940s Vienna and a stylised dream space built on the aesthetic foundations of German Expressionism. In this, it exemplifies the way in which film abstracts physical location while remaining indexically linked to it. This paper uses The Third Man to interrogate the relationship between spatial denotation and connotation. It explores how the film exploits the visual contradictions that result from transforming (three-dimensional) physical place into (two-dimensional) cinematic space. Through the use of Dutch angles, high contrast lighting, wide angle photography, and disjunctive montage sequences, the film plays place and space off against each other to create an aesthetic of disorientation. Its oneiric spaces repeatedly confound attempts by Holly Martens (Joseph Cotton) to orientate himself geographically, narratively, and socially. By contrast, urbane racketeer Harry Lime (Orson Welles) moves through the city as if he were in a film, appearing and disappearing at will. Holly is stuck in the denoted city, while Harry traverses the connoted city. However, the distorted perspectives created by Robert Krasker’s camerawork result in a spatial disorientation so extreme that the film sometimes approaches graphic abstraction. In the end, even Harry finds himself unable to make sense of the film’s spaces and dies ensnared in the chiaroscuro patterns of a spiral staircase.