“The Third Man” – a 1949 Movie about Vienna that Hits Home for So Many of Us

Orson Welles, March 1, 1937

Orson Welles, March 1, 1937 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I posted previously that the movie The Help, and especially the character of “Minny” as the maid whose employer pushes her way too far, hits a universal chord in so many of us.  If you can find so much as one person who never, in their career, had an employer treat them disrespectfully or took them for granted, then that’s a miracle.

Another movie that I think strikes a powerful note that almost everyone gets at once is The Third Man.

Set in the black market days of Vienna right after World War II, this movie has so much going for it, especially (well, to me) with handsome Joseph Cotten in the male lead.  Cotten plays “Holly Martins,” who travels to Vienna to meet his old school chum, “Harry Lime,” played to evil brilliant perfection by the incomparable Orson Welles.  They may have been the best of friends as children, but if they were ever even remotely alike, they’re not any longer.  Martins has a conscience, and Lime, whose “death,” which allegedly happened minutes before Martins’ arrival, is revealed to have been a criminal – and something of a psychopath.  Children are dying because Lime had sold defective black-market penicillin to hospitals.

It’s bad and shocking news for Martins to learn about his old friend.  Martins also becomes increasingly aware that the facts he’s being told about Lime’s death don’t add up.

Then he sees the “dead” Lime alive, well, and walking the streets of Vienna…and Lime suddenly disappears into thin air, or so it seems.  Nothing about Lime is what it seems, which is the point of the movie.  He didn’t vanish into the mist.

He took refuge in the sewers.

I won’t go into the plot line any further or add spoilers that might ruin this great movie for anyone who has yet to see it.  What’s fascinating about it this: who hasn’t known a friend, somewhere along the line, who turns out to be horrifically unlike the image that they present to the world?  And then, once you realize there’s a real creep that’s lurking under the surface of their affable facade, what do you do?

I’ve been extremely lucky with almost all of my friends.  There are many friends that I’ve had since the day I was born and newer ones that I know I want to keep until the day I die.  Over the years I rarely have had to write off any of my friends.

But there was one terrifying exception.

And it was an old school chum…who was also, it turned out, a denizen of the sewers.  Once I wrote the fool off, I was stalked.  At least Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins didn’t have to put up with that from Orson Welles as Harry Lime!

When I was about the age I’d been when I first met that school friend, I had wanted to grow up and be just like a character I’d seen in the movies: Auntie Mame.  Well, I did get to be like a movie character, all right.  It just wasn’t the one I expected!

But I’m not complaining.  It’s infinitely better to have written off a friend who belongs in the sewers than to be down there in the muck alongside one!

If you get a chance to see this film noir, or better yet, buy the DVD, take it.  I think it’s the best of the whole film noir genre.  It might even hit home for you, too: The Third Man.


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