The Third Man - classic film noir set in Vienna

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The Third Man - classic film noir set in Vienna
The Third Man. Photo: Wikimedia

Vienna in black and white - a tour around locations of The Third Man.


It was the contradictions of post-war Vienna that fascinated novelist Graham Greene, a city where the gestures and ornaments of civilization had been stripped away to expose the full range of human need and desire. So when producer Alexander Korda invited him to write a screenplay for a film set in the war-scarred Austrian capital, he could only say yes. Directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man, starring Orson Welles, Josef Cotton, Trevor Howard and Alida Valli was to become one of the most successful films of all time, on the “100 Best” listings, and in 1999, was voted the greatest British film of the 20th century.  

But to historian Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man is a lot more: A fine film, yes; in the hands of Graham Green, even literature; but it is also a document of a time and place, a window into a transitional moment in European history, capturing the devastating losses, the relentless fears, grinding poverty, hunger and moral ambiguity, the dramatic and evocative contrasts between past magnificence and the rubble of what remained. All this fascinates Timmermann and she has collected in her book, expanded and reissued in English, The Third Man's Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic.

This very special portrait of Vienna is also the material for her Third Man Tours, where a visitor is treated to a seemingly inexhaustible well of fascinating tales of the making of a remarkable film. We joined Timmermann down the winding streets, underground passages, and dark recesses of Vienna, to visit the locations for this unforgettable story of love and betrayal, corruption and decency in a world of shadows.

We pull up at the entrance to the Stadt Park and with a sweep of the hand, Dr. Timmerman ushers us back to 1948 when the four Allied Powers shared the military administration of Vienna. It is late afternoon as we follow through the archway, across the baroque park terraces and down a few steps to the first shooting location, where Carol Reed filmed his noir classic; we walk along the balustrade, and as the cloud cover thickens, the afternoon light begins to fade, and the color bleeds away. As our guide sets the scene, we enter once again a world of sharp edges and deep shadows, a world of black and white and the universe of imagination.

A cold wind blows as we approach the railing lining the Wienfluss, the main run-off canal of the city water system that flows through Stadtpark; we lean over and peer into the dark tunnel made famous as the cover photo for the Third Man.  It is here that Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, flees into the shadows of the tunnel, then turning back becomes a silhouette in the glare of the search lights as he captures a fleeting glimpse of the military police hot on his tail.

“But Orson Wells refused to do this scene,” Timmerman tells us, to our astonishment.  In one of the most dramatic moments of the film, the part of the notorious racketeer wanted by the British for stealing penicillin from military hospitals, diluting and selling it on the black market, was in fact played by a double, as the fastidious Welles refused to get his feet wet in the Viennese sewer. But that’s just the beginning of the surprising things we are to learn.

Everyone knew Wells was a bit of a prima donna – “an understatement, you could say,” Timmermann commented wryly. A director himself, he passed up few opportunities to remind Reed what he ought to do to direct a great film. His character, Harry Lime, shares this self-assured egotism, an amoral detachment about the consequences of his dealing.

“Look down there. Would you really feel pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” he quips from high over Vienna in a cabin of the Prater Ferris Wheel. “If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you cold afford to spend? Free of income tax old man.”

Graham Greene’s bungling easy-going hero Holly Martin, steps off the train in Vienna to meet up with his old school mate Harry Lime, who sent him a ticket and the promise of a job. Holly is a writer, or as Major Calloway says, a scribbler (with too much drink in him).

But while Martins writes fiction, Major Calloway deals in facts, investigating Lime’s penicillin racket. Holly’s bumbling hero personifies the natural naïveté of Americans, who the British feel have a talent for “winning a war after we did the fighting.” Holly arrives in Vienna ten minutes too late to meet his friend, as Harry Lime was run over by a truck. Quite on time for the funeral, it is there he meets Major Calloway, Harry Lime’s girlfriend Anne Schmidt, and a line up of the usual suspects paying last respects to poor Harry Lime.

The movie begins and ends with a funeral: for the same man, the Third Man. We gingerly follow Timmerman through the graveyard, carefully avoiding stepping on a grave until we come to the location easily marked by a gravestone claiming residence to a family called Grün. Timmerman thinks this is no coincidence and was probably consciously chosen by Graham Greene. Here, Trevor Howard as Major Calloway offers his famous line: “We should have dug deeper than a grave”, which could have been his famous last line, Timmerman tells us, as he was so drunk as they shot the scene he nearly fell in.

Next stop, the Palace Pallavicini, home to Harry Lime on the Augustinerstrasse across from the equestrian statue of Emperor Franz-Josef, the façade of the Spanish Riding School, and the National Library. “This location looks much the same today as it did when the scene was shot”, says Timmermann.  Brilliant performances are given here by actors such as Paul Hörbiger, playing the hall porter, and Ernst Deutsch as Baron Kurtz, a man steering by a failed moral compass.

Three locations comprise the scenes relating to Anna Schmidt’s residence. Her entrance is shabby with the firehouse in Am Hof clearly visible in the distance, while the Federal Building (Bundesamt Gebaude) decorated with a Baroque façade hides a magnificent staircase rising to Anna Schmidt’s room, though the room itself was created and the scenes shot at Shepperton Studios in London. In the film, police entrances to Anna’s apartment are punctuated with the protests of the bedraggled landlady, played unforgettably by Burgtheater legend Herwig Bleibtrau, great aunt of Moritz Bleibtrau, chiding the four Allied soldiers for their disrespect – complaints equally lost on them, as none understand much German. As we walk up “This is a respectable house,” she insists, shaking with anger, “where even such as Metternich used to come to call.” Her flood of complaints, liberally showered at each arrival of the police leave a poignant view of Austrian sentiments largely unheard and clearly ignored. Shaking her fist, she says, “This is not how I pictured the Liberation!”

Harry Lime’s watered down bootleg penicillin was sold as hope to children with meningitis. The lucky ones died, the rest went quite out of their minds. Timmermann takes us to the Palais Auersberg that provided a location for the military police headquarters. Grimier then, but still staffed by bossy police types exercising their power to bar our entrance farther than the landing, it was here Major Calloway reveals Harry Lime’s crimes to his friends and they are relieved he is dead so that they don’t have to deal with the uneasiness of calling him friend.

We are relieved of walking all three hours of Timmeramn’s tour on this cold bleak day and gratefully pack into the car. Timmermann’s trail to the next film site is where director Reed chose to reveal that Harry Lime is not dead after all. The Schreyvogelgasse and Mölke Stiege with its Baroque architecture and cobbled streets is a visual wealth of camera angles. Anna’s cat purrs affection at Harry Lime’s feet as he attempts to hide in the dark recesses of a doorway made deeper for the scene, points out Timmerman.

There is not a parking spot in sight for Timmermann’s car, so we park illegally in the shadows and I can almost hear one of the usual suspects, Mr. Popescu, played by Siegfried Breuer, say, “She is a nice girl, but she ought to go careful in Vienna. Everyone ought to go careful in a city like this”.

The façade of lovely balconies that used to decorate the side of the building at Marc-Aurel-strasse are gone and so is the clear view from this vantage point to the famous Ferris wheel in the Prater. Here is where Holly Martins learns how expendable he is to his old friend. Stepping out of the car, Lime wears a smirk defending his deeds: “Don’t be so gloomy. It is not that awful. In Italy, 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 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly”.

Timmermann’s tour is not just about Viennese locations made famous by the film. Graham Greene’s plot thickens as Timmermann reveals to us the story within the story that created this film noir treasure. Fiction and non-fiction weave in and out of both the story and the filming of the Third Man.  Timmerman tells how Graham Greene had connections to the British secret service and was recruited by American intelligence in Bern. He worked with Kim Philby, the British spy made famous when he defected to the Soviets. Following Philby’s disappearance, the British government admitted that Philby was the third man mentioned by a Soviet defector in 1945. Timmerman connects this reference to the third man to Greene’s choice of the title.

Philby had helped socialists escape through the sewers in Vienna, and one can surmise this is how Greene came upon the idea for his character Harry Lime.  “The line between fact and fiction was always very blurred with Greene”, says Timmermann, as we approach the entrance to the underground sewer catacomb-ing the first district of Vienna.

Perhaps it was Philby who introduced Greene to a journalist named Smolka doing a story about the penicillin racket. Smolka and Philby were friends and Smolka too worked for British intelligence. He was the son of a wealthy family making Tiroler skis. In the Third Man, the taxi driver is named Smolka in his honor. In 1993, records were finally made available to Austrian historians, where it was revealed that Smolka was a double agent working for the British and Russians as well. Timmermann further adds that most of the sound and lighting technicians working at the Viennese locations were unknown to the film industry and vanished when shooting was finished. Coworkers assumed they were spies.

Many Austrians dismiss The Third Man as too “Hollywood,” (even though Korda’s ‘London Films’ was British to the core), and seem unaware that it is as much, if not more, their story than it is British or American, as Viennese as Sachertorte and the Staatsoper, as ornate as the Ringstrasse facades that long veiled the intrigues of an Imperial court.  The film The Third Man reminds us of how material deprivations can quickly lead to moral decay, and how personal loyalties are not always a sure guide to trust or kindness, much less our sacred honour.

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