Second #4526, 75:26, Image © Studio Canal
Holly has turned up at Baron Kurtz’s apartment, only to find that the shady Baron (slash-violinist at the Casanova Club) is joined by Dr. Winkel, the man whose name Holly could never pronounce. (After all, Holly’s only finally stopped calling Calloway “Callahan”; we shouldn’t expect him to start saying Vink-el any time soon.) Actually, Holly’s not looking for Kurtz or Winkel: he’s calling out Harry Lime, the elusive Third Man, wisely opting to remain outside rather than accept Kurtz’s suspicious invitation upstairs. “Tell him I’ll wait by that big wheel there,” Holly says, full of petulant bluster, gesturing towards the immense Ferris Wheel behind him.
The “big wheel” behind Holly is actually the Wiener Riesenrad, a 212-foot tall Ferris Wheel at the entrance of the Prater amusement park in Leopoldstadt, a district of Vienna. The Riesenrad has become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, thanks partially to The Third Man itself. Originally built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I, the Riesenrad was scarred by the violence of World War II like much of Vienna around it: the ride was rebuilt after undergoing severe damage during the war, and its second incarnation had only half of the gondolas that the original creation did. After demarcating European exoticism in The Third Man as well as Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, made a year earlier in 1948, the Riesenrad would reappear as a signpost for Vienna in later films such as Scorpio (1973), Before Sunset (1995), and The Living Daylights (1987), one of two Bond movies featuring Timothy Dalton. Dalton and Maryam d’Abo’s scenes aboard the Riesenrad in that movie, though, are about as far as possible from the Welles-Cotten scenes aboard the Ferris Wheel in The Third Man, as we’ll see next week. A towering structure driven by an endless cycle of revolution and repetition, the Riesenrad as a machine offers a succinct visual symbol for The Third Man‘s themes of inverted moral codes and an ongoing cycle of violence and symptomatic apathy. It’s cliched to say that a movie or a character arc resembles a roller coaster, but the metaphor is apt for Holly, whose last several days in Vienna have surely turned his world upside-down.
It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that the view of Vienna offered to us in this scene is a bleak, desolate one. Of course there’s the background of Still Dots 74 itself, what with the skeletal, bare trees clawing their way towards the sky throughout the frame and the surreal absence of any kind of structure (residential or commercial) in the distance. Maybe more importantly, though, there’s also a preceding shot as Holly approaches Kurtz’s pockmarked apartment building in which a number of construction workers can be seen toiling away on a vast pile of rubble. An image that must have been depressingly familiar in postwar Vienna, this scene’s location shooting makes brilliant use of Vienna’s real-world traumas: the visible injuries undergone by the city act as outward manifestations of the psychological turmoil currently raging in both Harry Lime and Holly Martins.
We might say that Still Dots 74 exists on a fulcrum: we’re teetering on a turning point in The Third Man, a movie which might be bisected into “pre-Harry Lime” and “post-Harry Lime.” A less sophisticated modern movie might put its big twist at the end, drumming up anticipation by letting viewers guess what the climactic surprise might be, but that plot structure would allow no time for rumination about what it means that Harry Lime is still alive. The Third Man, however, resurrects Lime with a dense half hour left in the movie; rather than a mere marketable plot twist, this grand reveal also complicates and subverts the emotional connections and thematic concepts the movie has conveyed thus far. While Anna is discombobulated by the news that her lover is still alive – all other news (including the fact that Joseph Harbin’s corpse was in Harry’s coffin) dwarfs in comparison, meaning nothing to her – Holly has become outraged by his former friend’s subterfuge. After Holly tells Kurtz that he wants to speak with Harry, the Baron responds with faux incredulity: “Are you mad?” “Alright, I’m mad,” Holly responds. “I’ve seen a ghost. You tell Harry I want to see him!” Holly’s wording is more apt than he might realize: now able to play the spurned best friend betrayed by the man he thought he knew best, Holly’s solo investigation has taken on even greater emotional heft. As we’ll see over the next couple of weeks, Harry will drive an ideological as well as an emotional wedge into Holly’s preconceptions: if Martins’ moral code is still (temporarily) rigid despite the revelations he’s been faced with, that moral code will soon be endangered by Harry’s existentialism-infused explanations for his own behavior.
Ferris wheels, like any amusement park ride, are usually associated with leisure and youthful innocence, yet we can tell from today’s still that the Riesenrad serves a different purpose here. Just as the Ferris wheel in Still Dots 74 is foregrounded against a blanket of gray, depressingly vacant except for Holly and the frail trees that surround it, this tourist attraction will also become the site for tense, unsettling debates regarding morality, corruption, war, and human cruelty. Perhaps the cataclysmic fallout of World War II has been so pervasive that it even infects amusement parks and playgrounds – former sites of innocence and joy. But The Third Man is hardly the only movie to juxtapose the carefree allure of amusement park rides with a jarring depiction of violence and moral weakness. Two years later, for example, the Master of Suspense himself would utilize a breakneck carousel during the climax of Strangers on a Train (1951). Whether or not he was directly influenced by the towering Riesenrad in The Third Man, Hitchcock’s use of the carousel (itself echoed in the opening of John Woo’s Face/Off) similarly takes a symbol of youthful vitality and subverts it to demonstrate human corruptibility run amok. Even more disheartening: the cyclical nature of both carousels and Ferris wheels suggest that, even after the crimes of Harry Lime and Strangers on a Train‘s Bruno Anthony have been persecuted, the machine-like pattern of violence, greed, and corruption will repeat itself, albeit in updated forms. Marx’s dialectical materialism teaches us the same thing: despite the cause-and-effect patterns that humans may set in motion, history will repeat itself as general patterns of human behavior predominate. It’s history as a Ferris wheel, in other words, and as we’ll discover next week, from the vantage point of one of the Riesenrad’s gondolas, human behavior takes on a decidedly skewed and discomforting appearance.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.