Graham Greene’s The Third Man: An iconic portrait of gloom and corruption in Austria’s postwar capital

Great cities have their architectural icons, the Eiffel Tower presiding over the City of Light, Big Ben brooding beside the Mother of Parliaments, the Empire State Building still dominating Manhattan’s thrusting skyline. Vienna has its own splendid pile, the gothic Stephansdom whose single spire towers over the old city

But for many visitors, it is the Riesenrad (the Giant Wheel) that is the true symbol of Vienna, and beyond that, the magnificent sewers below the streets, the defining visuals in Carol Reed’s 1950 film masterpiece The Third Man. Nowhere else have visitors’ expectations been so pre-set by a movie – the cabins of the Riesenrad swaying over the remnants of a gutted city and the underground maze of Harry Lime’s final desperate moments. Hailed by the British Film Institute as the greatest British film of the 20th century in 1999, The Third Man has become part of the city’s identity; visitors born decades after the movie was made will line up for hours to take the tours.

The Third Man
© AKG images/picturedesk.com

Novelist Graham Greene and filmmaker Carol Reed created the story of pulp fiction writer Holly Martins, searching for his long-lost school friend Harry Lime and getting entangled with penicillin racketeers in the devastation of 1948 Vienna. The gaping holes in the grand imperial facades provided a powerful metaphor for the moral disaster of a defeated nation, occupied by an arrogant allied military and corrupted by an insidious black market. Just as evocative as the images of a gutted city are the unforgettable characters the film portrays, the Mephistophelian “Baron” Kurtz, the mysterious, melancholic Anna Schmidt – and of course the baby-faced Orson Welles as Harry Lime, with a smile that curdles the blood.

The city proved to be the ideal backdrop for a bleak postwar thriller: the espionage biotope of Europe, it sat across the fault line of the Iron Curtain, the grimmest icon of the Cold War. Today’s 1st district was uniquely open in a time of draconian restrictions on movement. Administered and patrolled jointly by the four Allied powers (Four Men in a Jeep), people could move freely, disregarding the usual zones of influence.  Bars were not just for drinking, but equally for looking and listening. The perfect habitat for homo spookus.

Light, dark, and grey

Shot in bleakly inhospitable and often hostile Vienna over six weeks beginning in November 1949, authenticity was not a problem. The crudely piled mounds of rubble that Joseph Cotton and Alida Valli scramble down to escape their pursuers were all too real. The desolation of the magnificent standing columns of the Vermählungsbrunnen (Marriage Fountain) on the Hoher Markt was a set designer’s dream, a gift courtesy of allied bombers.

But reality in the shattered city made the usual difficulties of location shooting even more daunting, especially for the glistening night scenes: Reed’s haunting, shadowy cinematography needed 20 times the lighting of today.  Fortunately the Russians, who had occupied Vienna’s major film studios, provided local technicians who were both highly professional and adept at managing the frequent power failures.

Political voltage was also a consideration. At a time when Allied soldiers regarded Austrians as Nazis and the Viennese saw their occupiers as looters (or worse), suspicion and resentment were barely below the surface. In one of the movie’s indelible scenes, Anna’s landlady, played by the then 83-year-old Viennese legend Hedwig Bleibtreu, takes in the military police storming her house. Her muttering “Die Befreiung habe ich mir anders vorgestellt” (“This is not how I imagined liberation”) was never dubbed or subtitled – perhaps just as well in a time of heavy censorship, for she was voicing what many Viennese felt. Besides that, problems like the British film crew’s distaste for Wienerschnitzel (“meat done over to look like fish ‘n chips”) were minor irritations*.

Desperately seeking Harry

For anyone on Harry Lime’s trail today, the choices are rich. First, see the movie (again), if possible the superb digital version playing several times a week at the Burgkino (usually Friday and Saturday), looking as fresh as the day of the premiere.

The Third Man
© AKG images/picturedesk.com

Another must is the Third Man Museum, a charming surprise. Proprietor Gerhard Strassgeschwandter greets his guests with an ironic smile. So who’s behind the project? The answer comes straight-faced: “The great city of Vienna …” Two beats and his eyes twinkled. Actually, they did bloody nothing.

This is no glitzy “exit-through-the-gift-shop“ sales trap like Vienna’s major museums, but a pleasantly homemade, cut-and-paste curiosity shop. You’ll find a huge quantity of fascinating newspaper documentation from the Austrofascist Dollfuss/Schuschnigg regime leading up to Hitler’s Anschluss, the wartime devastation of the city and the daily drudgery of mere survival. All the way up to May 1955, with Foreign Minister Leopold Figl’s triumphant announcement from the Belvedere Palace balcony: “Austria is free.” The Russians had finally ratified the State Treaty codifying the Allies agreement to withdraw. Austria was independent again, if still an economic basket case. This detailed chronology of Vienna’s catastrophe gives the film historical context, including a four-minute clip running on the original Zeiss Ikon projector that premiered the film in 1950, the raucous clatter of celluloid a rare thrill for modern-day movie buffs.

The other Third Man

So far, so much real history.  But Graham Greene was legendary for weaving facts and autobiography into his fiction and there has been much speculation as to how much insider knowledge he worked into the film. Greene had indeed worked for the British SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) during the war (1941-44) and would have met a certain Kim Philby from Military Intelligence (MI6), probably along with the Vienna-born resistance fighter Peter Smolka.  Meanwhile, MI6 had already been compromised by a ring of Cambridge-educated Englishmen that the Soviets had recruited as double agents in the 1930’s. Although closing in at the time Greene was writing his screenplay, the London spymasters were terrified of exposing of such a crass security failure and the story did not break until the two principals Burgess and McLean fled to France in 1951. The press immediately cried after the other insider who must have tipped them off – The Third Man! Who of course turned out to be Greene’s wartime colleague – Kim Philby (eventually, it turned out there were five moles in all).  The stuff of a spy thriller worthy of the Meister himself.

In truth, Greene and Reed’s great movie has almost every form of skullduggery – racketeering, false witness, murder and more – but nothing to do with spying.  As Brigitte Timmermann points out in her book, that is not the point: “It has the atmosphere of a spy thriller.”  And it is atmosphere that counts.  Welcome to Vienna.


Further Attractions

Dr. Brigitte Timmerman’s tour “The Third Man– in the footsteps of a film classic” runs Mondays and Fridays 16:00-18:30 and costs €17. Private tours are available.
Meeting point:
U4 Station Stadtpark, 
(01) 774 89 01;
viennawalks.com

The Third Man Museum
is open to the public only on Saturdays 14:00-18:00 or Tuesday evening by prior appointment. Museum reopens March 4. €7,50 (01) 586 48 72; 3mpc.net 

The Burgkino regularly shows The Third Man; call (01) 587 48 06 or visit burgkino.at for dates.