Carol Reed’s The Third Man is one of my favorite movies. My introduction to the idea of the movie came early because in the late ’50s my parents watched a weekly TV drama called The Third Man, starring Michael Rennie. I remember almost nothing about the show except for the character’s name, Harry Lime. The show drew upon commonplace detective themes, and if I am right in my few memories, Harry Lime was a kind of freelance detective, solving problems in the shadowy world of post WWII Europe. I don’t even remember if the TV show used the haunting zither music that figures so prominently in the movie
I was surprised, therefore, when I first saw Reed’s movie since the original Harry Lime is no hero. Played by Orsen Wells, he is a sinister, self-serving, amoral, duplicitious, and charming gangster making his way as a black marketeer in post war Vienna. I am confident that a mass-market TV show from the ’50s would not have made such a character into a lead. Reed, however, allows Wells to take control of the movie with his twisted justifications of corrupt behavior. Several scenes stand out: when he first appears, perhaps a third of the way into the movie, a slash of light from a second story window onto a dark street corner reveals Harry Lime smiling like a Cheshire cat before he quickly disappears. At the end of the movie, now desperate to escape from the police, Lime runs and stumbles through the sewers below the Viennese streets. Reed is being none too subtle.
My favorite scene occurs when Lime meets his friend Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) who has been led to believe that Lime is dead. Having realized by now that Lime is simply a vicious criminal, Martins struggles to understand Lime’s behavior. Lime leads Martins onto a ferris wheel that takes them up over the roof tops of Vienna. As their gondola pauses at the top, Harry embarks on a history lesson, one that justifies his actions (selling adulterated black marker penicillin to hospitals). The forces of oppression and corruption in 15th century Florence produced some of the glories of the Renaissance. Four hundred years of democracy in Switzerland produced, Lime observes, the cuckoo clock. Lime has taken his side.
I was surprised to learn that the Ferris Wheel still goes around in a small amusement park, Sansouci, on the edge of central Vienna. And The Third Man plays weekly at a cinema in Vienna. We passed by the park late this afternoon on our way back to our hotel from an afternoon wandering around the exhibit rooms at the Belevdere museum. The gondolas in which Lime posits his historical analysis have been given another role in the park. In the evenings, one can reserve a gondola for a candle lit dinner as the wheel slowly soars above Vienna. Harry Lime would, I suspect, snicker.
I took a picture of the ferris wheel and passed on, foregoing the ride and dinner, preferring to remember Lime’s cynical grin to Martins.
But not to end on a down note, let me take you to the Belvedere Museum, once the home of Prince Eugen, one of the most successful military commanders of the Hapsburg dynasty. Completed in the early 18th century and admired as one of the wonders of its age. Now it is two museums separated by a park that is nearly a third of a mile long. Today was the first rainy day we’ve had, with gray and lowering skies, so the colors were subdued. Inside, the Gustav Klimt exhibit supplied all the gold and color one needed.
At the Louve, crowds gather in front of the Mona Lisa and people jostle to take selfies, often with phones on extended sticks. At the Belvedere, management has derailed that practice–no photographing–but has accommodated the urge to record one’s presence in the presence of a cultural icon. Just off the gallery with the major Klimt portraits, esp. The Kiss, is a selfie station, a large reproduction of the painting for selfie close ups.