Harry Mount celebrates the 60th anniversary of Carol Reed’s masterly film The Third Man with a tour of Harry Lime’s postwar Vienna — the true star of the movie
Six times a week, the Burg Kino cinema in Vienna shows The Third Man in its small Studio Theatre. ‘It’s best that you book,’ said the polite young man behind the counter in perfect English, when I came along in the morning to see if there were any tickets for the 10.45 p.m. show on Friday night. ‘We sometimes get tour parties and the place is packed out.’
I needn’t have booked after all. Though I was there in honour of The Third Man’s birthday — it’s been 60 years since Carol Reed built his masterly vision out of Graham Greene’s screenplay — the only people in the audience were me, two teenage girls — one in a lilac puffer jacket, another with lurid ginger hair — and two male loners who showed every sign of being regulars. Armed with popcorn, each marched purposefully to a favourite seat (one on either side of the auditorium) just as the film opened to Reed’s voiceover — ‘I never knew the old Vienna, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm…’.
It’s not hard to see how you could become an obsessive Burg Kino pilgrim. I’ve seen the film half a dozen times in London, but I’ve only now realised that its real star is Vienna — the Prater Wheel and its elegant Victorian carriages, the cobbled streets sprayed with water by Reed to give greater reflected light on celluloid.
I began humming Anton Karas’s zither music to myself as I tramped around the city; heard the ringing gunshots in Vienna’s sewers. The shadow of Harry Lime danced across Michaelerplatz.
Vienna is so much the star that at a dinner in the city’s MAK modern art museum the night before, a young doctor said to me, ‘We never watch The Sound of Music, but we love the Third Man.’
Four years after the end of the war, when filming began, the city was on its knees. The country, and greater Vienna, were divided into Russian, American, British and French zones — a situation which continued until 1955 when Austria regained independence. The centre of Vienna was an international zone, policed by all the powers in the ‘four men in a jeep’ period, when a representative of each country was allocated to every administrative task.
Vienna’s Opera House, its cathedral and Burgtheater were all badly damaged in air-raids between September 1944 and the end of the war, and they are visible, still unrepaired, in the backdrop to the film. At one point, Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, visits a rococo palace next to a pile of bricks on Morzinplatz — all that remained of the Hotel Metropol, the Gestapo’s old HQ.
I visited all these places on a Third Man walking tour — one trip above ground, another underground in the sewers. Orson Welles, who only appears three times in the film, refused to work in the sewers after one day’s filming, so many of those famous scenes were filmed in Shepperton Studios, or underground but with Welles’s doubles.
The principal sewer you see in the film is in fact the tunnel of the Vienna River. I retraced Welles’s footsteps to where the river, enclosed in the 19th century, is open to the skies in the city’s Stadtpark. Looking down into the gloom, you see the contrast of light and shade that excited Carol Reed, but in reverse. Orson Welles was filmed running out of the darkness towards the light of the Stadtpark; I looked the other way, into the darkness and half expected Welles to come splashing towards me through the gushing water, squirrel cheeks puffed out further by exhaustion, golfball eyes swelling with terror. ‘Harry,’ I shouted into the darkness, but apart from a faint echo over the sound of the river lapping at the tunnel edges, there was no answer.
I moved on to the spot where Harry Lime entered the sewer in Am Hof square. The kiosk with the hidden entrance to the sewers was only ever a prop and is no longer there — a rare bit of subterfuge on Reed’s part. Otherwise the film’s Vienna was faithful to the real thing. I squeezed myself against the doorway on Mölker Steig where you first get a shot of cold, clear moonlight shining on Harry Lime’s gleaming brogues. I had a moist slice of Sachertorte in a café opposite the spot where Orson Welles scrambles down a pyramid of bombed-out rubble in the Hoher Markt, now a shopping parade.
What made The Third Man such genius? Apart from the wartime destruction of Vienna, a unique series of events conspired to create the perfect conditions for a masterpiece. In 1949, the once-mighty British film industry, falling behind Hollywood, was desperate to take America on with an international blockbuster, and so it was agreed to produce the first British film made almost entirely in a foreign country. Carol Reed was so determined to make full use of his six weeks’ location shooting in Vienna that he fought hard to be allowed to film in the bureaucracy-bound Russian sector.
Alexander Korda, the film’s producer, was another lucky strike. Born in Hungary, Korda had worked in Vienna’s Laaeerberg film studios in the 1920s and knew how to exploit the city’s visual qualities. He also realised that American involvement was crucial to the enterprise. He cut a deal with David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind, to get the stars Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli — Harry Lime’s old girlfriend in the film — and in return he gave Selznick the American distribution rights.
Many of the elderly Austrian and German character actors in the film had seen distinguished careers destroyed by the war. The old landlady was played by Hedwig Bleibtreu, who dominated Austrian theatre before the war. Erich Ponto, the creepy Dr Winkel in the film, had been reduced to working in Nazi propaganda films. The Third Man gave them the perfect opportunity to salvage those careers.
In 1949, the Austrian film industry, absorbed into the German one in 1938, was still trying to shake off the Hitler years. No surprise — 60 years later, on the eve of Hitler’s birthday (Austria’s least favourite son would have been 120 on 20 April) the country still hasn’t rid itself entirely of his legacy. Elections last September left the country under a coalition of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, with a strong showing from the Alliance for the Future of Austria, the far-right party set up by the late Jörg Haider.
But Hitler’s home town of Linz was dominating the papers in Vienna, just as it must have done in ’49. Not because of the Führer, but because of a Catholic priest called Father Gerhard Wagner. Father Wagner was on the verge of becoming an auxiliary bishop of Linz before he was forced to stand down for his unorthodox views — he has said Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami were the result of spiritual pollution, that homosexuality is comparable to alcoholism or a gambling addiction. What may have really done for him is his suggestion that the Harry Potter books were satanic.
This is all big news in a country where three quarters of the eight million-strong population are Catholic, and where every baptised Catholic must pay a church tax under a law introduced by the Nazis after the Anschluss to destabilise the Church.
Still, Austrian life is less and less defined by the war. The brilliance of The Third Man was created by two conflicts — the second world war and the Cold one — and both have now receded into history.
How right Orson Welles was, then, in his improvised speech on the Prater Wheel.
‘In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michela
ngelo, 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.’
Welles later said, ‘When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks.’
His original point still stands though — those dreadful times made for great art.
Harry Mount’s A Lust for Window Sills: a Lover’s Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble-Dash is published by Little, Brown (£12.99).