Harry And The Ferris Wheel
October 24, 2015Posted by on
Barbers always follow their request that you to tell them how you would like your hair cut with a question intended to draw you into a conversation. At which point I usually answer their facile question with an equally facile reply, anything to end the agonising silence as the barber waits for a response. However, there are times when I can become quite animated, as I did in response to the question put to me by the young woman about to cut my hair. A question I’m sure she regretted asking as I directed our conversation to Carol Reed’s classic film noir The Third Man¹, the actor Orson Welles who played the part of Harry Lime and the fairground of the Prater in Vienna — where Reed shot a now famous film sequence. When I asked her about these things it came as a surprise to be told that she’d never heard of Orson Welles or Harry Lime, nor the Prater fairground in Vienna, nor seen the film or heard of Carol Reed the film’s director. As it must be over fifty years ago when I first saw the film, probably over twice as many years as her age, this should really have been no surprise to me at all.
People of my age mostly live in the past becoming time travellers who, when the opportunity arises, eagerly stop to pick up a passenger for a nostalgic journey, droning-on with historic reminiscences that are invariably histrionic, often self biographical and usually repetitious. Nevertheless the young woman listened to me politely, as barbers are wont to do, while I began to recount my reminiscences of The Third Man with an anthology of anecdotes that I’m sure held little interest to her. Undeterred, I told her of vividly remembered scenes from the film and its theme music, popularly known as The Harry Lime theme, thanks to Orson Welles who portrayed the part of the charismatic character Harry Lime so well he stole the film. An unfair assessment perhaps for a relatively brief on-screen appearance but I doubt that many could name the other characters in the film or the actors who played them, like the lead role played by Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, the central on-screen character.
Seeing The Third Man at the cinema all those yeas ago, etched on my mind permanent images of Der Prater² amusement park in Vienna and the Ferris wheel called Das Wiener Riesenrad³. Informing the young woman — although boring her with a mini dissertation on the origin of the Prater would be more accurate — that over two hundred years ago an Austrian Emperor had donated the Prater to the Viennese as a public leisure park. This had encouraging innkeepers, coffee brewers, gingerbread bakers, seesaws, carousels and freak shows that contained anything considered strange and unusual (especially the grotesque) to set up their attractions there. The leisure park growing around any attraction that might induce its visitors to part with their money, making the Prater the oldest amusement park and fairground in the world. Its most famous entrepreneur being Basilio Calafati who introduced the first steam engine carousel into the Prater and is recognised as the father of the leisure park, remembered by a life size bronze statue of him just inside the Prater entrance. Calafati is also the mascot of the Prater, represented by the sculpture of a Chinese man bearing his name and paying homage to his theatrical role as a magician. Das Wiener Riesenrad, erected over a hundred years ago to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of another Austrian Emperor still exists and is not only the first Ferris wheel in the world but for a long time could claim to be the tallest. The Riesenrad is the Ferris wheel where Carol Reed shot his now famous film sequence for The Third Man, the one where Holly Martins, having been informed of Harry Lime’s nefarious activities, meets his lifelong friend.
I’ve never been a lover of fairgrounds but I gave the young woman an account of one that I visited during my childhood. The war must have ended, as among those vague recollections that I have, is that of brightly lit and painted fairground attractions with excited children gawping at each new wonder. A fairground basking in an oasis of light, forbidden until now by a war and the blackout that had created deserts of darkness after sunset. There is however one enduring memory, not at all vague but as vivid now as when it happened, which is that of wandering behind the side stalls to stand transfixed staring at a giant steam traction engine. Illuminated by the light cascading from fairground, even the shadows cast around it look bright, unlike those dark shadows thrown into the corners of my bedroom by the bedside candle. A gargantuan machine — or so it seemed — with its polished brass and copper fittings, a gleaming black boiler and four enormous metal wheels with spokes painted a bright yellow. Dwarfed by a wheel of the steam traction engine, my awe when standing beside it could be taken as an unconscious homage to Basilio Calafati, yet to be made real by a visit to the Prater in my wish to bring alive a memory of the film The Third Man.
Reflecting on my conversation with the young woman it never occured to me that mentioning candles and black-outs may seem incredulous to her, making my reminiscences seem to her like the ramblings of an old man who now confuses the stories he recounts with those told to him by his grandfather. Having lived as a child during the war, I tend to forget that the war ended seventy tears ago and is now considered history. As is my time served in an occupying military force stationed in a divided Germany during the cold war period that followed the end of the war, which had led me to assume that a post war Vienna divided between the forces of occupation needed no explanation. Only later coming to the realisation that this cold war period and the war itself, had no more significance to the young woman than it did to my own grandchildren. In any event, explaining the location of the Prater leisure park in the Russian zone of a divided post war Vienna, the zone that gave Harry Lime sanctuary and relative freedom of movement, only added complications to my tales. Whether or not she accepted or even cared about the incidents in what had become a monologue of remiscences on my part is moot. A barber and their chair-bound captive are complicit in a tacit agreement, one in which any conversation between them is simply intended as a pacifier, not a conversation that requires any understanding or remembrance, a triviality in time which allows either to drone on at will. In this case it being me.
I continued my anecdotes with an account of the Ferris wheel sequence where Holly Martins and Harry Lime meet each other on a bright sunny day at the Prater. This film sequence becoming possibly one of the most famous in cinema history, beginning with Holly Martins waiting for Harry Lime at the Prater with the Ferris wheel in the background. On meeting Harry Lime at the Ferris wheel they are both ushered into a cabin with the scene changing to a view of the cabin interior and as it ascends to its highest point Holly Martins challenges Harry Lime over his criminal racket involving the sale of diluted penicillin. In response to Holly Martins challenge, Harry Lime slides open the cabin door and nods to the people now seen below as mere dots on the ground, menacingly throwing the challenge back at him. Having to face up to the true character of his friend, Holly Martins realises at last how one sided and tenuous his friendship is with Harry Lime. When the scene shifts to them leaving the ride Harry Lime speaks about Switzerland, democracy and a cuckoo clock, lines that Orson Welles had added to the film script and which enhanced his aura of genius. The egocentric Welles living off this endowed aura of genius, now swelled by the film mostly being remembered for his portrayal of Harry Lime, his cuckoo clock line and The Third Man’s musical theme becoming known as The Harry Lime theme.
The lines from the film usually recalled and which I told her can be seen on You Tube, are those spoken by Harry Lime to Holly Martins during the the Ferris wheel sequence: Firstly when the ethically inept Holly Martins naively asks Harry Lime if he had ever seen any victims of his criminal activity and getting the reply, ‘Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped—would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?’. Then on leaving Holly Martins at the Ferris wheel when Harry Lime says, ‘You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock’.
My story took a gloomy turn when I told the young woman of my visit to the Prater a few years ago. That whether or not the city basked in sunlight as it did for Harry Lime and Holly Martins, the Prater that I entered had the appearance of a dispirited place. A dowdy disintegrating disappointment, not the Prater of The Third Man, this Prater had non of the elements of a funfair. I hold no memories of crowds happily wandering between the fairground attractions or people gleefully filling the cabins at the Riesenrad. Nor do I recall seeing any sideshows, at least not those with bright lights and vivid paintings that might entice you to them. Those I do recall had rather dull grimy facades displaying seedy attractions, offering vicarious pleasures, mostly voyeuristic and overtly sexual, with much the same intent as the freak shows on offer in the heyday of the Prater.
As I said to her, I expected a ride on the Riesenrad to brighten my visit, when I could share that film moment with Harry Lime and Holly Martins at the Riesenrad and recall their conversation. Unaware at the time of the Riesenrad being a replica built to replace the original destroyed during the war, seen in the distance it looked as magnificent as it must have done a hundred years ago. On approaching it I found that this restoration only had half of the original cabins and those having the appearance of dirty railway coaches, very much like those railway coaches I travelling in as a child where soot and grime from the steam engine marred their appearance. Now unsure that the Riesenrad could safely carry passengers I became apprehensive about taking a ride on it when a rather bored looking attendant, either not noticing my concern or choosing to ignore it, ushering me into an empty cabin. Alone in my cabin and as far as I can recall alone on the Riesenrad, the attendant then set the Ferris wheel into motion. A juddering start only increased my anxiety at finding myself trapped inside a cabin and with a growing sense of fatalism as the ground began disappearing beneath me, my tarnished visit to the Prater ending with a ride on the Riesenrad and a lost magical moment.
A rather gilded embellishment on my conversation with the young woman cutting my hair, nevertheless, how I would like to remember it. I’m content with recollections being anecdotal and which, embellished or not, when relived in my moments of quietude can be embroidered on. Like the addition of that moment in the film when Harry Lime dies in those dark dank underground Viennese sewers and which I never had time to mention in my monologue. The counterpoint to Holly Martins meeting Harry Lime on a bright sunny day at the Prater and an allusion to the sinister nature of Harry Lime. Holly pursued Harry through sewers that were unfamiliar to him but well-known to the ever elusive Harry, as they allowed him to move freely around a city divided between four occupying forces. I regret Harry’s death when his friend Holly — possibly his only friend — killed him. The mercy killing of a friend that brought Holly no solace, certainly not an act of contrition on Holly’s part, nor an act of retribution for Harry’s victims.
The young woman’s question had rekindled unforgettable memories, especially those of Harry Lime, his Shavian cynicism and my encounter with him in a fairground riding on a Ferris wheel. Memories that led me to think of our lives spent in fairgrounds of our own making, drawn to them by the charismatic characters of our own nemesis. The world in which the young woman and my grandchildren live is, I’m sure, quite alien to me but I strongly believe in the sense that I have of the fairground to which their generation are drawn. That bewitched by their nemesis Lampwick, whose overtures make the hedonistic distractions of Pleasure Island attractive, the cautions of Jiminy Cricket are ignored. In my quixotic fairground, the carousel of the Prater has become a quintain at which I constantly tilt, always receiving the counterblow when I strike it squarely. Knocked from my mount I’m left stunned and bemused staring at Rocinante who, oblivious to my ignominy, looks at me reproachfully for my not ducking fast enough. Yet again having been made a jackass by my nemesis Harry Lime who makes the Renaissance Borgias appear as saints, mocks democracy as quaint and says, ‘Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we?’.
If the film reflects a bête noire that I may have, it’s that of expecting a Harry Lime to do the decent and honourable thing when I meet him, of living as an ethically inept Holly Martins who constantly vacillates over what the decent thing is, ensuring my disappointment whatever the outcome. A Holly Martins endowing myself with the assumptions of noble motivations in my battles with moral turpitude. Not so the charismatic Harry Lime for whom morality is never in conflict with his self-interest, his dark designs pragmatically accepted whether they succeed or fail. Either way he moves on, always optimistic about the future, always confounding my compassion as we ride on the Ferris wheel and he says to me, ‘Look down there. Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?’.