The Cinematic Moment: Exploring Film Images as Moments of Action

Orson Welles, March 1, 1937
BY Carl Van Vechten
Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs Division
Van Vechten Collection
(LOT 12735, no. 1177)

Insisting that the film be photographed on location in war-torn Vienna, Reed shot it in shadowy black and white. The writer’s selective scenes, the director’s pictorial vision, and the city’s decadent atmosphere spurred superior performances from stars Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, and especially Orson Welles. Anton Karas’ zither music lent an ominous aura to the action.

But discovery after shocking discovery drives the story of The Third Man, and the movie’s flow of cinematic moments intensifies. Images of Joseph Cotton (as Martins) experiencing those moments lock viewers into the action.

The Third Man‘s most striking characteristic is the series of surprises that steadily intensify the story’s tension. They also impel viewers to identify not only with Joseph Cotton’s character but also with Orson Welles as Harry Lime. Welles transforms a mass murderer into a wry rogue, making his villainy all the more horrifying because we rather like him. But the film’s ultimate achievement is the creative collaboration of director Reed and writer Greene as they selected and photographed such a meaningful progression of cinematic moments.

A cinematic moment has the power to imprint a related cluster of visual images in a spectator’s brain. An effective movie needs a series of such moments to evoke empathy and pull viewers into the action. Succeeding cinematic moments impel the viewer to experience the vicissitudes of focal characters until the action reaches a climax. Three components determine the nature of a cinematic moment — image, moment, and action. An image is a picture, an instant when the senses respond to external reality. Imagination can also generate an internal image. A cluster of images form a moment. Four types of moments produce character changes that form a pattern of change, thus creating an action. Sound complicated? It isn’t. Here are brief explanations of image, moment, and action to demystify the three.


Every good film begins with visual images — photographs of scenery, objects, and people. Sights are far more compelling than words, and music enhances the images. The most striking sights in our lives stir our emotions. Visual images that surprise or shock us become imprinted on our brains as sensory pictures. We remember situations, people, and events as mental images. Serving artists of all types, images provide the basic materials for poems, paintings, novels, and movies. Albert Camus writes that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images.” For filmmakers their most deeply imprinted images become the stuff of their creative constructs.

A cinematic moment has the power to imprint a related cluster of visual images in a spectator’s brain. An effective movie needs a series of such moments to evoke empathy and pull viewers into the action.

Screenwriters and film directors use remembered images to activate their creative perceptions. Such images help them give reality to stories and characters. Like everyone, creative craftsmen perceive external conditions and events with their sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Most people register sensory stimuli only fleetingly, but film writers and directors utilize their five senses as principle sources of expression.

Images are crucial in filmmaking. Ingmar Bergman declared, “I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images.” His creation of striking images is beyond compare. For example in The Seventh Seal, Death stands on a rocky beach and presents himself to a knight returning from the Crusades. Death’s totally black cloak and hood contrast starkly with his implacable white face. The image of the Knight delaying his own demise by playing chess with Death remains one of the most haunting pictures ever on a movie screen.

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