Did a class on editing — with the general purpose of getting students excited about the possibilities. And in the interests of making economical, environmentally-friendly use of my brain, I’ll recycle some of the thoughts here.
THE THIRD MAN offered an opportunity to examine a classic moment — Harry Lime’s first appearance — for defects and merits and weirdnesses — we noted the lack of sync on much of what Joseph Cotten says, including an extreme longshot where his arm movements as he yells to the figure in the doorway are noticeably unrelated to the words he utters. Remarkably, one can spot a sync problem even from a great distance when the lips themselves are not perceptible. A recent screening of THE SMALL BACK ROOM caused me to notice how often this kind of thing crops up in old movies. Even though the films were made for screening ONLY on big cinema screens, they were edited on little moviolas and sync wasn’t always looked after except in close shots. I’m all in favour of bodging things to get the best dramatic effect, but most of the sloppiness here didn’t seem essential to the scene, and would no doubt have been tidied away in a modern film. Unless the film is DIE HARD 4, which has the most appalling shooting and cutting of dialogue I’ve ever seen in a studio release.
But of more interest is what Orson Welles called “hanky panky and sidearm snookery” — magic trickster illusionism and time/space abuse, carried out for clear dramatic effect and narrative clarity. Apart from the fact that THE THIR MAN constructs its own dream Vienna out of ecstatic fragments, folding streets together like the architects of INCEPTION, and retouching geography by transplanting fake statuary to decorate bare foregrounds (a truck full of plaster fountains and cherubs shadowed the unit assiduously), there’s the vigorous bending of the laws of physics in this scene —
Cotten shouts at the figure in the doorway (played by assistant director Guy Hamilton, later of GOLDFINGER fame) —
An awakened neighbour starts yelling. Their window lights up —
Well, light is quite slow, isn’t it? 299,792,458 m/s. Takes a good while to get from one place to another. If a window lit up, it would take a moment before the rays hit the face of a man standing in the street…
Not really, of course. A forgivable, indeed commendable, distortion of the laws of the universe allows us to clearly recognize both the source of the light and its effect. If we’d missed the few frames before the light struck Orson’s beamish countenance, or the moment where he lit up like a luminous balloon, we’d miss the magic.
Arguably naughtier still is the next trick. Cotten expresses appropriate surprise at his friend’s resurrection, a modest tracking shot enlarges Orson’s smirk, then Cotten starts across the street towards his friend. A vehicle, passing from out of nowhere, interrupts his progress, and by the time he reaches the doorway, which proves to be bricked up, Welles has vanished into the night, satchelfoot reverberations of slapping feet and an elongated shadow pointing to the direction of his flight.
The passing truck is intended to allow time for Welles to make a realistic getaway, and Carol Reed cuts in a deliberately confusing manner to another lopsided angle as it cuts across our path. So we believe that OW had the chance to slip away. But studying the sequence, it’s clear that the doorway where our quarry is lurking is never out of sight, so there is absolutely NO WAY he could slip away without being clocked. A less nervy director might have cut to a close shot favouring Cotten as he reels back from the oncoming truck, allowing a second or so for the doorway to be offscreen, which would make Welles’s getaway accountable. But Reed’s version is preferable, I think, since it TRICKS us into thinking we’ve seen something just about possible, while preserving the FEEL of a ghostly manifestation, incorporating, disincorporating, teleporting. Phantasmal and fantastic.