The Cinematic Moment: Exploring Film Images as Moments of Action

The Third Man

The Third Man
BY Graham Greene
(Penguin, 1999)

The Third Man (1949) is one of that handful of motion pictures … that have become archetypes — not merely a movie that would go on to influence myriad other movies but a construct that would lodge itself deep in the unconscious of an enormous number of people, including people who’ve never even seen the picture.”

FROMThe Third Man: The One and Only”
BY Luc Sante
AT Criterion Collection

In 1950, Holly Martins flies into war-torn Vienna, blissfully anticipating meeting his old friend, Harry Lime. He tells a passport official he’s expecting to meet Lime, who sent him the airline ticket and promised him a job.

Martins (Joseph Cotton) goes to Lime’s apartment building where Vienna’s shadows grow larger, and a colorful Austrian porter says he’s too late. That very morning on the street outside, a truck smashed into Lime, and two men, Baron Kurtz and Popescu, carried him to the sidewalk where he died. That shocking news is the story’s first compelling moment and makes Martins want to know more.

So Martins hurries to a decorative Austrian cemetery, where British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) stands observing Lime’s funeral. With dismay Martins hears a priest praying and sees his friend’s coffin buried. He also notices three others attending the funeral, including an attractive young woman.

Major Calloway offers Martins a ride into the city, takes him to a café, and with a few drinks gets him to talk freely about his pre-war association with Lime. Calloway delivers a second shocker, saying how Lime died “was the best thing that ever happened to him… He was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city.”

Martins rejects Calloway’s revelation and grows even more determined to find out what happened. He learns that the young woman at the funeral was Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), an actress and Lime’s girlfriend. Intrigued, Martins goes to the theatre that night and visits her dressing room. Considering the odd coincidences surrounding Lime’s death, they begin to suspect that he was murdered. They meet with Lime’s porter again, and the old man unintentionally reveals that after the accident three men, not two, carried Lime to the sidewalk. Martins asks who was the third man?

The film’s three major turning points also occur as cinematic moments. A cat reveals to Martins that someone in a shadowed doorway is stalking him, and a neighbor’s sudden light reveals Lime’s (Orson Welles) face to Martins. Then a climactic moment occurs at the top of a huge Ferris wheel when Lime hints that if Martins gets too nosy he could die. But in a suspenseful moment Lime decides not to murder his trustworthy friend. Finally, at the end of a police chase through the sewers of the city, the ultimate cinematic moment occurs when Lime… well, in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending.

Graham Greene wrote the masterful screenplay, and Carol Reed directed the movie. Reed claims one sentence of Greene’s expressed the image that evoked this clever mystery: “I saw a man walking down the strand, whose funeral I had only recently attended.”

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.

Purposeful images enrich many scenes of Elia Kazan’s films, especially his masterpiece On the Waterfront. When Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint comfort Marlon Brando after waterfront thugs have beaten him almost to death, Kazan arranges the actors in a memorable tableaux. It’s a cinematic moment that stimulates a viewer to feel Brando’s spinning mind and physical pain. That memorable image illustrates Kazan’s frequent practice of echoing classical paintings in his shot compositions. The after-a-beating image with Brando being comforted emulates classical paintings of Christ’s descent from the Cross.

When you recall an incident in your life, you likely envision a visual image or a quick series of them. It’s a moment visually stamped into your memory. The same is true when you recall a movie. You don’t remember the whole but only a few scattered images, likely cinematic moments. For better or worse, every film you watch implants images in your psyche where they become part of your life’s mental treasures.

Marlon Brando, December 27, 1948
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
BY Carl Van Vechten
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Van Vechten Collection
(LOT 12735, no. 145)

I retain many visual images of my life. I remember when I was a little boy crossing my grandfather’s barnyard and fearfully watching a huge yellow rooster attack me. I can see my wife kneeling at her dying mother’s bedside and holding her hand. I easily re-envision playing the Bailiff in the courtroom scene of The Untouchables and exchanging a look with Robert De Niro as Al Capone. I can see my first son’s tiny face when a nurse passed him into my arms. Such real moments are so visually embedded in my mind that I’ll never forget them.

The most highly charged images I’ve seen in movies are stamped just as vividly in my brain as memories from my own experience. I see Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, yelling “Stella!”Judy Garland appears to me as she leads the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow up the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard of Oz. Richard Widmark still gives me a chill as I see him as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, grinning as he pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down steep stairs.

Think of your favorite movies. Every title is likely to arouse one or more images in your mind. Now think of a favorite movie and recall a scene. Your brain instantly produces a picture or two that stand for the whole film. A cinematic moment no doubt stimulated your brain to record it. A writer conceived such a moment, and a director photographed it. The more often you remember the visual image, the more easily you recall the experience of seeing the film.

An image that often bursts into my mind is a cinematic moment when a sudden light reveals Orson Welles hiding in a shadowy doorway in The Third Man. Supposedly in his grave, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) smiles ruefully at his friend, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton). The surprising revelation compels me to identify with Martins. The moment is one of the most iconic character entrances in film history.

Other movie moments readily leap into my mind’s eye. I can see Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen driving a horse-driven hearse toward a graveyard in The Magnificent Seven. I can envision Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia dressed in flowing white robes leading a horde of Arab horsemen down a sand dune. Remembering When Harry Met Sally, I assume Billy Crystal’s POV across from Meg Ryan as she enacts an astounding lunchtime orgasm. Whew!

As a working screenwriter, I analyze memorable sensory images to find out if and how they become cinematic moments.

Images also show up in movie dialogue. In Some Like It Hot, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) says about Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), “Look at that! Look how she moves! That’s just like Jello on springs.” Or, one of Forrest Gump’s (Tom Hanks) most memorable lines: “My momma always used to say that life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” As a working screenwriter, I analyze memorable sensory images to find out if and how they become cinematic moments.

The poet Ezra Pound writes that “an ‘image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” [1] Such a complex provides us with “that sense of sudden liberation from limits of time and space, that sense of sudden growth which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” In the art of filmmaking, significant images become cinematic moments that serve as every film’s foundation.


A moment is a short, undetermined period when something is happening. In medieval times a moment meant a unit of time amounting to 1/40th of an hour or 1.5 minutes. That still makes sense. But Einstein’s definition of moment is perhaps best: “A moment is long or short. It depends on whether your are sitting on a hot stove or on a park bench with a beautiful girl.” Compared to visual images and considered as a structural unit in a film, a moment lasts longer than an image. It’s more imaginatively suggestive and often carries more meaning. For the screenwriter, a series of images leads up to a significant moment, a moment of climax. Such moments provide insight or change. As in life, every film contains moments of all sorts, short and long, inconsequential or momentous, practical or ethical.

In films as in life there are four types of moments of change — accidents, discoveries, decisions, and deeds. All four types of moments fulfill Aristotle’s axiom that identifies the materials of drama as suffering, discovery, and reversal. An accident is an unexpected event that changes one or more lives. It most affects a focal character, and the driving force of the incident is beyond that person’s control. For example, in the midst of a war, a woman hurries down a crowded street and runs into a lover she thought dead. Or, two older women on a hike discover a young Mexican immigrant lying comatose beside an Arizona railroad track. Such accidents have moments that begin or complicate stories. In Woody Allen’s movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two young American women happen to meet a Spanish painter, and the entire plot spins out of that accident.

A discovery is a passage from ignorance to knowledge. It causes a change that arouses a person’s feelings and stimulates a change in attitude. It motivates a person to make a decision. In Guillermo del Toro’s film, El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), dreamy ten-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves to Navarra with her delicate, pregnant mother to become acquainted with her new stepfather. Enchanted with fairy tales, Ofelia discovers an overgrown labyrinth behind the mill, and there she discovers an ancient faun who claims to know her true identity and her secret destiny. So, Ofelia’s key discovery sets the story into motion.

A decision is a commitment to take action. Jean Paul Sartre says we are the sum of our decisions, our choices. Decisions are of two sorts, expedient or ethical. Expedient decisions deal with how to do something; ethical decisions concern whether or not to do something. In the long history of narrative writing, Dante and many great authors considered moral choice as the most significant indicator of a person’s deep character. At the climax of Francois Girard’s film Le violon rouge (The Red Violin), Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) has the assignment to verify that the violin to be auctioned is genuine. After meticulous evaluation, he muses to himself, “What do you do when the thing you most wanted, so perfect, just comes?” His internal reply is the decision to steal the red violin.

A genuinely useful cinematic moment always drives the action forward, increases the tension, or penetrates characters more deeply.

A deed means actually doing something. A character carries out a decision by taking action. In Casablanca, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) confronts Rick (Humphrey Bogart), demanding travel papers crucial for her husband’s escape from the Nazis. Rick decides to help him, and leads her to think she will stay behind when her husband leaves. At the last moment, Rick’s deed is making Ilsa get on the plane to Lisbon with her husband. So moments of change — accidents, discoveries, decisions, and deeds — are the materials of a film’s through-line of action. Any one of the four types of moments, or a combination of them, can function as a cinematic moment, a plot point. A genuinely useful cinematic moment always drives the action forward, increases the tension, or penetrates characters more deeply. Inevitably, by witnessing and psychologically joining in cinematic moments, the empathic intensity of viewers’ involvement surges. Functional cinematic moments contain character change and so enliven the structure of action.


In a film an action is the stream of energy that gives it life. During every moment of a movie, the action is “what’s going on.” If viewers ever lose track of what is happening, or if nothing is happening, their attention immediately wanders, and they get bored. The focal action is the structural element that holds all the images, moments, and scenes together.

A dramatic action is a pattern of human change based on a succession of visual images creating moment clusters and scenes. Such action consists of a series of emotionally charged moments arranged to arouse, extend, and fulfill expectation. Francis Ford Coppola defines cinematic action by explaining, “A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually.” More films fail for lack of a genuinely functional action than for any other reason.

A cinematic moment functions as a turning point, a climax when everything changes or settles. These moments enable profound empathy that stimulates viewer involvement.

Carefully selected images, moments, and scenes enable filmmakers to build a functional and compelling action. In Brian de Palma’s film The Untouchables, the action is the effort to convict and imprison gangster Al Capone. Detective Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his lawmen exert all their efforts to put Capone behind bars, and of course Capone (Robert De Niro) and his henchmen resist that effort. Ness represents the positive force driving the action, and Capone exerts an opposing negative force.

A cinematic moment functions scenically like this: In a static situation a character experiences an accident or makes a shocking discovery; as a result, the character makes a decision and takes action. In Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, two sympathetic outlaws try to rob a train but discover it’s full of mounted horsemen. So they take off in a hurry. As they try to evade the horsemen, they realize that their pursuers are implacable lawmen; to escape, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) must make a death-defying leap off a cliff. And because the filmmakers used cinematic moments so effectively, most viewers identify sympathetically with the two lovable desperados.

Not all movies need such story driven cinematic moments as those in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Well conceived cinematic moments are also essential in more subtle, character driven films, such as Shakespeare in Love, Citizen Kane, or The Reader. For example in The Reader, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) commits suicide. But her will asks her estranged lover, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), to give her life’s savings to the family of a prisoner at Auschwitz where she had been an SS guard. Michael visits the woman’s daughter (Lena Olin) and for the first time confesses his affair with Hanna.

The most effective scenes in any type of film contain one or more cinematic moments, points of character change with strong empathic appeal that energize the action. Such a moment occurs when a character makes a significant discovery or decision and a reversal results. A cinematic moment functions as a turning point, a climax when everything changes or settles. These moments enable profound empathy that stimulates viewer involvement. It’s such moments that make everyone love films. By understanding the nature of cinematic moments, filmmakers and viewers alike are better enabled to create or simply enjoy movies.

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  1. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”, Poetry, Volume 1, March 1913, page 200

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