A story by Robert Pimm
Ms N, the brilliant, unpredictable and occasionally homicidal hotel General Manager from Seven 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.
‘We are on the trail of a bad man, Tatiana.’ Ms N sips her kleiner Schwarzer and looks at me with her inquisitive expression, with the hint of a smile. ‘But he is also a man of charm. In fact, he is a man a woman loved – to death.’
‘Is it possible to love an evil man, Ms N?’ I ask. Of course, I say Ms N’s full name, but I have omitted it here, as Ms N is a modest person who values her privacy.
‘The man is 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. The screenwriter of the movie, Graham Greene, stayed here in the Sacher Hotel. Some people say it was his friend and former boss in British intelligence, Kim Philby, who told Greene how a criminal might move around Vienna using the sewers beneath the city.’
‘I would rather take a taxi,’ I say.
‘Later, it turned out Philby was a Soviet agent, loyal to Stalin. In The Third Man, a beautiful actress called Anna loves Harry Lime. Yet Harry is a child-killing drug-dealer.’
‘How can a woman love a child-killer?’ I ask.
‘That is what we are in Vienna to find out,’ Ms N says.
Five minutes later, we gaze 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 wearing Roman-style clothes which, if I am honest, are too skimpy for the chilly weather.
‘The Palais Pallavicini is where Holly Martins, an American who has come to Vienna to meet his best friend, Harry Lime, learns that Harry has been killed in an accident outside his own front door,’ Ms N says. ‘Holly meets Anna and falls in love with her. But although Harry is dead, Anna still loves him.’
‘Is Anna truly beautiful?’ I ask.
‘She is beautiful, and strong-willed. But she has a tragic face, because she longs to hold Harry in her arms again.’
‘I like this Anna,’ I say. ‘But why does she love Harry?’
‘Because although Harry is evil, he is fun,’ Ms N says. ‘Many people love charismatic creeps, although personally I cannot see how a man even with unlimited sex appeal could deserve anything but contempt if he treated women badly.’
‘You are right,’ I say. ‘But I would like to meet a creep with an infinite amount of sex appeal, to be sure he deserved my contempt.’
‘You sum up the problem perfectly.’ Ms N smiles. ‘Next, we shall visit the Schreyvogelgasse, where a woman turns on a light and we experience one of the great moments of cinema history.’
‘What is this moment?’ I ask.
‘I cannot say without spoiling the movie,’ Ms N says. ‘But the key role in this scene is played by Anna’s kitten.’
‘Anna has a kitten? I like her more and more,’ I say.
‘Holly Martins tries to play with the kitten,’ Ms N says. ‘But the kitten only wants to play with Harry Lime.’
‘Just like Anna,’ I say.
At the Prater, an amusement park, we ride an old-fashioned Ferris Wheel.
‘Here,’ Ms N says, ‘we learn that Harry never cared about Anna. In fact, Harry sold Anna to the Russians to save his own skin.’
‘Why does she still love him?’
‘Part of the answer,’ Ms N says, ‘is a speech we hear at the Prater: that chaos and terror in Italy under the Borgias created the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci – whereas peace and stability produced only cuckoo clocks.’
‘Cuckoo clocks? Who makes this speech?’
‘Watch the movie and find out,’ Ms N says.
We catch the 71 tram to a great gate.
‘This is the Central Cemetery,’ Ms N says, ‘where my favourite scene in The Third Man takes place. Again, it stars Anna.’
‘Does it involve also Harry Lime?’
‘Yes, but he is dead.’
‘Of course, he is dead,’ I say. ‘He has been killed before Holly arrives in Vienna.’
‘Picture the scene,’ Ms N says. ‘Harry Lime has been buried.’
‘Why are they waiting so long after the accident?’
‘You will have to watch the movie. Holly Martins attends the funeral. But as he departs, he sees Anna, walking down this road. He waits for her. She approaches, slowly, leaves falling around her. Winter is coming. Harry is dead. Anna is alone.’
‘Holly must have a chance, now,’ I say.
‘Holly watches Anna approach. At last, she draws near. Will she stop, and kiss him?’
‘I hope she does,’ I say. ‘That would be romantic.’
‘Anna walks past Holly, towards an uncertain future, without a man. Because she is still in love with Harry Lime.’
‘But Harry Lime is a child-killing drug-dealer. He has sold Anna to the Russians. Also, he is dead.’
‘This may be the most romantic scene in all of cinema,’ Ms N says. ‘Because no-one can understand love.’
‘I need a drink,’ I say.
Later, we sit on a terrace on the 16th floor of a hotel. Vienna lies at our feet.
‘Cheers,’ Ms N says. Below, spotlights illuminate the Belvedere Palace.‘Thank you for showing me the Vienna of The Third Man,’ I say. ‘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?’
‘If I found Harry Lime had checked into a hotel of which I was the General Manager,’ Ms N says, ‘I cannot rule out that he would suffer an accident. It might be safer for such a man, no matter how charming, to stay at a different hotel.’
I nod. I am thinking of other men who have behaved badly in hotels run by Ms N. I think of sharks, and sausages; of thousands of tons of concrete; of a giant cake; of an elevator, full of blood; and of a giant alligator.
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.
Robert Pimm is a Vienna-based author of several books (such as the thriller “Blood Summit”) . Born in England, raised in Africa, he is a graduate of Cambridge University and a former writer for the Financial Times. His blog robertpimm.com includes short stories, reviews, travel journalism and tales of hitch-hiking the USA in 1979. Sign up!