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Still Dots #75

This is our third glimpse of Harry Lime, aside from his shoes and his shadow, and it is certainly a glimpse and no more. (In case you don’t remember, here is his first appearance and his second.) His figure is the one half-hidden behind a pole from the carousel, the same carousel he will disappear […]

Second #4524, 75:26, Image © Studio Canal

This is our third glimpse of Harry Lime, aside from his shoes and his shadow, and it is certainly a glimpse and no more. (In case you don’t remember, here is his first appearance and his second.) His figure is the one half-hidden behind a pole from the carousel, the same carousel he will disappear behind after this meeting with Holly.

Holly has chosen this abandoned fairground as a meeting place, a curious choice since his intent is to choose somewhere “open” for his own safety. Still, perhaps the vast expanse of unattended children’s rides and grounds might offer at least somewhere to run should trouble strike. But abandoned fairgrounds, circuses and amusement parks have not traditionally fared very well for those not interested in their own safety. To add to Matt’s post last week, which featured such gems as Strangers on a Train and The Living Daylights, we have seen abandoned fairgrounds as sites of horror across media since the twenties. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in which a sideshow somnambulist stalks the streets at night committing horrible murders, may be the first cinematic connection drawn between the wholesome fun of the circus and the horror of death, but this connection by no means stopped there.

The poster for Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932)

Maybe the first example of horror at the fair itself came in 1932 with Tod Browning’s follow up to his much-acclaimed adaptation of Dracula with Bela Lugosi. Riding the popularity wave he achieved with Dracula , Browning turned to something from misspent youth–Browning grew up in a well-to-do family but was so obsessed with the circus life that at the age of sixteen he literally ran away and joined the circus. Touring with Oofty Goofty (AKA the Wild Man of Borneo) and Ringling Bros Circus, Browning lived out that quintessential 1900’s boyhood dream of running away to the circus, and Freaks is the film borne out of that experience. Freaks, notable as a film casting “real” circus freaks, was essentially an early noir film, focusing on a pair of conniving non-freak performers who plan to murder Hans, a trusting midget with a large inheritance to his name. The plot is very reminiscent of Double Indemnity (widely hailed as the first noir film) though Freaks hit the screens 12 years earlier. Cinematic forays into the horrible world of fairgrounds and circuses don’t end there either. For instance, take a look at this scene from The Lady from Shanghai, a film directed, and produced by Orson Welles and starring himself and Rita Hayworth, that came out two years before The Third Man. Welles plays a patsy, who in this climactic (and surreal) scene follows the group that set him up into a house of mirrors:

In the literary world, murder and horror at the circus took its hold in the twenties as well. Freaks itself was based on a 1926 short story, Spurs by Tod Robbins, but the circus as a setting also made it into my favorite Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger published in 1927. The Veiled Lodger is notable as one of the few times that Sherlock Holmes failed to put the story together, but it tells the story (again) of attempted murder at the circus. Plans for murder, as always, seem foolproof but everything goes awry when the conspirators are mauled by a lion killing one and disfiguring the other, who now wears a veil. Even up into the 1940’s, a few years before The Third Man, terrifying things were happening at literary circuses. William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 tale of greed and corruption at the circus, Nightmare Alley tells the tale of–as the back cover describes it–”a young man who bludgeons his way to success by betraying two women who love him, by stealing a fortune from the gullible and weak-minded, by seducing the innocent into degeneracy and corruption.” Not exactly horror, but carousels even make an uncanny appearance in American Gods, the literary breakthrough for upper Midwest literary hero, Neil Gaiman. In Gaiman’s tale of old-world religions in America, a vast pantheon of Gods from cultures spanning the globe meet up at Spring Green Wisconsin’s House on the Rock where they all take a ride on the world’s largest carousel, which becomes a portal into another world.

And all this is to leave out one of the most terrifying characters and moments borne of the carnival, made all too real by this July’s shooting. The Joker has been the prime villain for Batman since Batman #1 in 1940, and whatever his portrayal, in classic comics or contemporary, films, television, or even his appearance on Scooby Doo, the Joker has injected terror into the fairground. Constantly in and out of mental institutions, the Joker is always obtaining abandoned fairgrounds in the Gotham metro area only to use them as traps for Batman, Robin, and other heroic Gothamites. Take for instance, 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke, arguably the best batman comic ever written, in which the Joker kidnaps police commissioner Jim Gordon and tries to drive him insane in an abandoned carnival. Between the Joker, Steven King’s 1986 novel It, and the real-world corollary of John Wayne Gacy Jr., clowns have become something to terrify countless children and adults alike.

A panel from Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” (1988) in which The Joker tries to turn Gotham’s sanest man insane. The comic was drawn by the great Brian Bolland of Judge Dredd fame.

With all this said, it seems a curious choice for Holly to pick an abandoned fairground as a safe haven. Nonetheless, that is where we find our stalwart hero today. Perhaps this seemingly unanticipated decision has something to do with Holly’s mental state. Holly is, remember, meeting with a friend he thought long dead, a ghost returning from his childhood to haunt Vienna’s own haunted amusement park. Though Holly has seen Harry alive and well once since his funeral, it was in a drunken, otherworldly state, and though he knows intellectually that his friend is alive and that another corpse was buried in his place, he seems to be in a bemused state of disbelief. While the notion that Harry is still alive knocked Anna off her mental feet, Holly seems to have just lost his wits, wandering into this dangerous fairground with a known killer, why? Because emotionally, Holly doesn’t believe, yet, that Harry is alive. That is, until today’s frame, when he comes sauntering up plain as day only to greet him with an annoyingly comfortable “Hello old man, how are you?”

I’ve been trying to imagine other moments in other stories in which some character exhibits the crippling mind state Holly must be in entering into this frame, and the best example I can think of comes from James Thurber’s poetic fantastic story, The Thirteen Clocks. Truth be told, I have probably heard/read The Thirteen Clocks more than any other book. Growing up my family had a cassette of the story being read out loud, which we listened to on every drive more than about thirty minutes, and its myriad charms have stayed with me to this day. This particular moment comes when the cruel, wicked, yet surprisingly foppish Duke and his chief spy, Hark, a straight man, the Abbott to his Costello, sit waiting for our unlikely heroes (the Golux and the Prince) to arrive. If you haven’t read this story, you really should.

A purple ball with gold stars on it came slowly bouncing down the iron stairs and winked and twinkled, like a naked child saluting priests.

“What insolence is this?” the Duke demanded. “What is that thing?”

“A ball,” said Hark.

“I know that!” screamed the Duke. “But why? What does its ghastly presence signify?”

“It looks to me,” said Hark, “very like a ball the Golux and those children used to play with.”

“They’re on his side!” The Duke was apoplectic. “Their ghosts are on his side.”

“He has a lot of friends,” said Hark.

“Silence!” roared the Duke. “He knows not what is dead from what is dying, or where he’s
been from where he’s going, or striking clocks from clocks that never strike.”

“What makes me think he does?” The spy stopped chewing. Something very much like nothing
anyone had seen before came trotting down the stairs and crossed the room.

“What is that?” the Duke asked, palely.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Hark, “but it’s the only one there ever was. (James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks, Simon and Schuster, 1950, pgs. 95-97).

Marc Simont’s illustration that accompanies this passage in the original publication of The Thirteen Clocks. Thurber was almost completely blind by the time the book went to press, but he approved of the illustrations when Simont was unable to describe some of his drawings in words.

The Duke and Hark return to their plotting after this moment, but despite my hundreds of times reading this story I’ve never really been able to understand this moment. What is that thing, that “something very much like nothing anyone had ever seen before?” Neil Gaiman, who we talked about above, called this story “a miracle. I think you could learn everything you need to know about telling stories from this book.” But despite enough re-readings that I can recite most of this book by heart, this moment, which is, to borrow a term from screenplays, a “beat” in the otherwise leapfrogging narrative, is still too unknowable to have any real significance. This thing that passes before the Duke and Hark is the uncanny, it is that thing which cannot be. It’s trot through the room leaves Holly feeling the way the Duke does, though his straight man is the stiff and proper Calloway, and his “something” is the fact that Harry is alive. Unlike the Duke, though, Holly doesn’t carry on with his business, he goes after that unknowable something, and today’s frame finds that something walking around a carousel straight toward him.

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 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

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