Who is Harry Lime? The antihero of “The Third Man” embodies evil – and charisma. Why does the beautiful Anna fall under his spell? Find out in my short story “You will have to watch the movie”.
An Austrian magazine asked me to highlight what made The Third Man one of the best movies on earth.
“The Third Man”: the key question
“Who is Harry Lime?” is the key question of this brilliant movie. The charismatic Harry, played by Orson Welles, is pure evil. So why does the beautiful Anna fall in love with him? And why does she stick with Harry, when he treats her so badly?
These are deep questions.
Ms N and Tatiana on the trail of Harry Lime
To explore the answers, I imagined Ms N and Tatiana, the heroines of my 7 Hotel Stories, visiting Vienna. They visit key scenes from The Third Man and discuss Harry Lime with a mixture of insight and wisdom.
I hope you enjoy You will have to watch the movie.
I have added links to key references; those in bold italics are to other posts on this site.
Who is Harry Lime?
Ms N, the brilliant, unpredictable and occasionally homicidal hotel General Manager from the Hotel Stories, is visiting Vienna with her protégé, the beautiful but naïve Tatiana. Their goal is to find out what the movie The Third Man has to say about the nature of love – and evil. The story begins…
You will have to watch the movie
‘Is this possible, Ms N?’ I ask. ‘To love an evil man?’ Of course, I am saying Ms N’s full name, but I have omitted it here, as Ms N is a modest person who values her privacy.
‘That is what we are here in Vienna to find out,’ Ms N says. ‘The man of whom I speak is Mr Harry Lime, the hero – or, perhaps, the villain – of the film The Third Man, set in the Vienna of 1948. The movie is elegant, yet dark – like the city of Vienna itself, which combines beauty, mystery and shadows.
‘The Sacher Hotel, for example,’ Ms N gestures towards the elegant room in which we are sitting, ‘was a headquarters for British military, and perhaps also intelligence, forces, from 1945 until 1950. In 1948 the author of The Third Man, Graham Greene, stayed here. Greene’s former boss in British intelligence, Kim Philby, had told Greene how a criminal, or a spy, might move from one part of Vienna to another using the sewers which run beneath the city.’
‘I would rather take a taxi,’ I say.
Philby’s first name was Harry…
‘Yet in fact Philby was a Soviet spy, loyal to Stalin. His first name was Harry.’
‘It seems spies are everywhere in Vienna,’ I say. ‘Maybe that makes the city more romantic.’
‘Remember, Tatiana, spies can be good – or bad. In the film, a beautiful actress called Anna loves Harry Lime. Yet Harry is also a child-killing drug-dealer.’
‘How is that possible?’ I ask. ‘For a beautiful woman to fall in love with a child-killer?’
‘Let us go and find out.’
Ms N rises to her feet. As we leave the hotel, she addresses a young, bespectacled man standing at the reception desk. ‘Mr Farkas,’ she says. ‘Am I right in thinking we can walk to the Palais Pallavicini from here?’
‘Certainly, madam,’ the young man says. ‘The Palais is five minutes’ stroll down the Augustinerstrasse. It was used as the location for the home of the criminal Harry Lime in the movie The Third Man.’
The Sacher Hotel: a brilliant receptionist
‘That is what I call a good receptionist,’ Ms N says as we turn right out of the hotel. ‘Smart, concise, and knows the answer to your question before you have even asked it.’
Mr Farkas is correct: exactly five minutes later, we are gazing up at what I learned at school in my small village, far from the historic capital of my beautiful but not yet economically advanced country, are four voluptuous caryatids. They are tall, shapely women in Roman-style clothes which, if I am honest, are rather skimpy for the chilly weather. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because holding up a heavy building with your head for hundreds of years is dull work, these women look bored out of their minds.
‘This is the place where Holly Martins, an American who has come to Vienna to meet his best friend, Harry Lime, discovers that Harry has been killed in a traffic accident, outside his own front door,’ Ms N says. ‘Holly meets and falls in love with Anna, Harry’s ex-girlfriend. But although Harry is dead, Anna is still in love with him. She wears Harry’s pyjamas in bed. She does not even notice that Holly exists. In fact, she drives Holly crazy by calling him Harry.’
‘Is Anna truly beautiful?’ I ask.
Anna, the heroine of “The Third Man”, is beautiful, strong – and tragic…
‘She is more beautiful, and strong-willed, than you can imagine. But she has a tragic face, because she longs to hold Harry in her arms again.’
While Ms N is saying this, she is looking a little bit tragic herself, and I know she is thinking about a man she cares about, who is living in London.
‘I am liking this Anna very much,’ I say. ‘But why does everyone love Harry if he is such a bad man?’
‘Because although Harry is an evil child-killer, he is also witty, and fun,’ Ms N says. ‘Many men are like this, such as Mr Buddy Knox, who had an unfortunate accident with the alligators after we visited the Gents nightclub in Florida. Some people find charismatic creeps attractive. But personally, I cannot see how a man with even an infinite amount of sex appeal could deserve anything but scorn and contempt if he were to treat women badly.’
‘You are right,’ I say. ‘But I would like to meet this creep with infinite sex appeal, just to be sure he deserved my scorn and contempt.’
‘Thank you, Tatiana.’ Ms N smiles. ‘You sum up the problem perfectly. Next, we shall visit the Schreyvogelgasse. In this unassuming street, fifty-seven minutes after the beginning of the film, a woman turns on a light and illuminates one of the greatest moments in cinema history.’
‘What is this moment?’ I ask.
‘Unfortunately, I cannot reveal this without spoiling the movie for anyone who has not yet seen it,’ Ms N says. ‘But I can tell you that the key role in this scene is played by a kitten belonging to the beautiful but tragic Anna.’
Anna has a kitten…
‘Anna has a kitten? I like her more and more,’ I say.
‘Holly Martins tries to play with Anna’s kitten, but it is not interested,’ Ms N says. ‘The kitten only wants to play with Harry Lime.’
‘Just like Anna,’ I say.
‘Just like Anna.’ Ms N looks at me. ‘I think you understand the movie perfectly. We will discuss this over a drink, later.’
If I am honest, the doorway at Schreyvogelgasse 8 which Ms N tells me is so important in the movie The Third Man looks like many other doors in Vienna. Ms N observes me as I scratch my head, and says that once I have seen the movie in the Burgkino cinema at the Opernring this evening, I will understand everything.
‘Will I understand how Anna can be in love with Harry Lime when he is a child-killing drug-dealer?’ I ask.
‘Maybe. Or maybe not,’ Ms N says. ‘In love, unlike in The Third Man, nothing is black and white.’
Our next stop is the Prater, an amusement park, where we take a ride in an old-fashioned Ferris Wheel. From the apex, we look down to the ground, far below, where people are moving around like ants.
The most famous speech in “The Third Man”…
‘This is the scene of a famous speech in The Third Man, Ms N says. ‘An important character attempts, by means of eloquence, bribery and the threat of violence, to persuade Holly Martins to become a child-killing drug-dealer himself. This person asks Holly whether, if he were to receive twenty thousand pounds for each dot on the ground that stopped moving, he might take the money. Holly is not interested; but the character reveals that Harry Lime never cared about Anna, even though Anna loved him. In fact, Harry sold Anna to the Russians to save his own skin.’
‘Harry Lime sold Anna to the Russians? Why does she still love him?’
‘This is a good question,’ Ms N says. ‘Perhaps part of the answer is the famous speech we hear in the Prater. One character says that thirty years of chaos and terror in Italy under the Borgias created the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, whereas five hundred years of peace, democracy and love in Switzerland produced only cuckoo clocks.’
‘Cuckoo clocks? Who is making this speech?’
‘You will have to watch the movie and find out,’ Ms N says.
For the end our tour, Ms N takes me on a ride on the 71 tram. The autumn weather is cool. The people of Vienna walking along the streets wear thick winter coats and hats.
We descend from the tram opposite a great, grey gate, flanked by stone pillars. These pillars are so elegant that I am reminded of the ancient relics strewn across the plains of my own beautiful but not yet economically advanced country.
‘Where are we?’ I ask Ms N.
The Vienna Central Cemetery: a key scene in “The Third Man”
‘This is the Vienna Central Cemetery,’ Ms N says. ‘The place where my favourite scene in The Third Man takes place. Even thinking about this scene makes me angry, tearful and wistful at the same time. Again, it stars the beautiful but tragic Anna.’
‘Does it involve also the evil but charismatic Harry Lime?’ I ask.
‘Yes, but he is dead,’ Ms N says.
‘Of course, he is dead,’ I say, keen to show that I have been listening attentively. ‘He has been killed in a traffic accident outside his own front door before Holly Martins even arrives in Vienna.’
‘You will have to watch the movie.’ Ms N’s brown eyes are sparkling.
I look at her. If I am honest, I am wanting to watch The Third Man right away, or at least as soon as we have had the drink which Ms N is promising. I am not sure I wish to waste time in a place which, although it is called the Central Cemetery, is actually on the edge of town.
But Ms N has something to show me.
‘The Central Cemetery,’ she says, ‘is worth a visit even if for some reason you are not a fan of The Third Man. It has three million dead, a funeral museum, and a herd of deer.’
‘I should like to see these deer,’ I say.
‘Stand still, in the overgrown Jewish section of the cemetery, and you will see them.’ Ms N gazes around, as if she is looking for some deer, and then takes my arm. ‘But we are not here for cute quadrupeds. We are here for pure, tragic romance.’
How is romance possible, if Harry Lime is dead?
‘How is romance possible, if Harry Lime is dead?’ I say.
We are standing in a long, straight road. Yellow, red and gold leaves are falling from the trees. I can smell the damp earth.
‘Picture the scene,’ Ms N says. ‘They have buried Harry Lime in the cemetery.’
‘Why are they waiting so long to bury him after the traffic accident?’ I say.
‘You will have to watch the movie,’ Ms N says. ‘After Harry’s body is safely in the ground, Holly Martins is due to fly out of Vienna. But as the car taking Holly to the airport is moving off, it passes Anna, walking down this road. Holly climbs out of the car, and waits for her. She approaches, slowly, the leaves falling all around. Winter is coming. Harry is dead. Anna is alone.’
‘Holly Martins must think he has a good chance, now,’ I say.
‘Holly watches Anna as she walks down the road towards him. At last, she draws near. Will she stop, and embrace Holly?’
‘I hope she does,’ I say. ‘That would be romantic.’
‘Anna does not stop.’ Ms N’s eyes are glistening. ‘She walks straight past him, towards an uncertain future, without a man. She walks straight past Holly, because she is still in love with Harry Lime.’
Harry Lime is a child-killing drug-dealer
‘She is still in love with Harry Lime? But why? Harry Lime is a child-killing drug-dealer. He has sold Anna to the Russians. Also, he is dead.’
‘I cannot answer this question,’ Ms N says. ‘When the film was made, Graham Greene said the ending should be different. He said Anna and Holly should live happily ever after. But the director, Carol Reed, insisted that Anna could never be with Holly. Some people call this the most powerful final scene in the history of cinema. I think it may be the most romantic scene. It makes clear that no-one can understand love.’
Ms N takes out a handkerchief and blows her nose.
‘It is time for a drink,’ I say.
Half an hour later, we are sat on a terrace on the 16th floor of the Andaz Hotel. The city of Vienna lies at our feet. To the west, the sun is sinking over the wooded hills on the edge of the city.
Ms N has ordered two glasses of the Dom Perignon drink.
‘Cheers,’ Ms N says. Below us, spotlights are illuminating the Belvedere Palace.
‘Thank you for showing me the Vienna of The Third Man,’ I say, licking my lips. ‘I like this Anna very much. Harry Lime, I am not so sure. What would you do, if you were in love with such a man as this?’
Who is Harry Lime? Visit The Third Man Museum in Vienna…
‘To understand the movie fully, you should visit the Third Man Museum in Vienna,’ Ms N says. ‘They can explain this masterpiece better than anyone.’ She lifts her Champagne to her lips.
‘As for Mr Harry Lime,’ Ms N says, ‘you described at the Central Cemetery why most women with any self-respect would not give the time of day to such a man, particularly if he was already dead.’ Ms N’s glass is half empty. ‘On the other hand, there is a reason why the poet Byron, who was described by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” was so attractive to women.’
‘And men too, I have heard,’ I say.
‘If I discovered that Lord Byron, or Harry Lime, had checked into a hotel of which I was the General Manager,’ Ms N says, ‘and behaved badly, I cannot rule out that they would suffer an accident. In fact, it might be safer for such a man, no matter how charismatic, to check into a different hotel.’
I nod, and sip the Dom Perignon drink. Other men have behaved badly in hotels run by Ms N. I am thinking of sharks and sausages; of thousands of tons of concrete; of a giant cake; of an elevator, full of blood; and of Mr Burke, the guest who refused to leave the hotel, but whose room became free in a way he cannot have expected.
‘We should go to the Burgkino,’ Ms N says. ‘But before we see The Third Man, let us have another glass of Champagne.’
I raise my glass, and try to imagine how Ms N would solve the problem of Mr Harry Lime checking into her hotel.
Ms N is good at solving problems. One day, I would like to be like her.
What to do next: part 1
I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of “Who is Harry Lime?” If you are interested in the hotels mentioned in this story, here are the websites of the Sacher Hotel and the Andaz Vienna am Belvedere. Full disclosure: my partner was from 2019-2021 the general manager of the Andaz. Nikola Farkas of the Sacher, who features in the story, won an award in 2020 as the best hotel receptionist in the world.
What to do next: part 2
Ms N and Tatiana star in my book Seven Hotel Stories. Read more by clicking on the cover below.