In search of The Third Man
CITY BREAK:An atmospheric tour retraces the steps of one of cinema’s most intriguing anti-heroes, offering fascinating trivia on the film and an insight into the seedy world of post-war Vienna, writes MARY RUSSELL
THE GREY COBBLESTONES gleam silver after a recent rainfall. The dark, unlit street gives out an uneasy feel. Something’s not right. A cat sidles round a corner and disappears into a doorway. A man leans on a nearby bridge and shouts and as he does so a woman opens an upstairs window to remonstrate, the light from the window illuminating the cat rubbing against the trouserleg of . . . No, stop! That’s the spoiler because yes, I’m in Vienna on a guided tour which takes us on the trail of you know who. Okay, the zither tune is a clue: we’re looking for Harry Lime.
The film The Third Man, made in 1948, only three years after WWll ended, shows the underbelly of this elegant city almost totally destroyed by Allied bombs, divided like Berlin and patrolled by the same Allied Forces, its postwar shortages making it a haven for black marketeers. Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, is an American racketeer living in the Russian quarter where, our guide tells us, most of the criminals lived. Why? Because the Russians were easily bribed. Harry’s friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) turns up to look for him and finally locates him, Harry’s hiding place betrayed by his loving cat.
The two-hour tour takes us to all the hotspots of the film — the street where the balloon man wanders, the building where Harry’s girlfriend lived, the sewer kiosk down which Harry disappeared. And here we learn a bit of insider knowledge. There are two kinds of kiosks – round and octagonal – but only the latter leads to the sewers. The round ones are for sticking posters on. We gather round the octagonal kiosk but it’s locked. No sewer tours till May, partly because the rivers and canals can rise at an alarming rate creating a flash flood. Instead, we peer through the mesh and see the metal steps descending and the walls covered in graffiti.
When the film crew were down in the sewers, they wanted authenticity, with rats playing their part. But the rats, like the human population of Vienna were so starved that they ran towards, not away from, the cameramen, hoping for food. Instead, the crew had to commandeer laboratory rats who did the business.
Our guide feeds us a few jokes about rats: with people starving, the butchers of Vienna used to go into the sewers to kill rats and serve them as river trout. Had enough? No? Well, cooked cats were known as roof rats. Okay, that’s definitely enough.
What’s great about this tour is that you get so much information, some of it will surely come in handy later in a pub quiz. For instance, why were the streets always gleaming wet? Because Carol Reed, the director, got the local firemen to hose them each day.
And the cat? In fact, three were used, encouraged to stick close to Harry Lime’s shoes by having them smeared with fish paste. And look out for the popular Austrian actor Paul Hörfbiger, who didn’t know a word of English but delivered his lines as the professional he was – apart from pointing downwards for heaven then upwards for hell, to where we assume Harry has gone.
The city of Vienna, its glory restored, is a monument to the wealth of the Hapsburg family. At the time though, it was a city in ruins and in the film you can see men clearing huge piles of war damage with their bare hands. It wasn’t until the Americans brought in their bulldozers that the real clear-up began. It was 10 years before the magnificent medieval cathedral, Stephansdom, was cleared.
We’re taken to look at the majestic Bristol Hotel where the US top brass was based and then on to the sumptuous Sacher Hotel which was the HQ for MI6. It was in the Sacher that Graham Greene, among friends since he himself had worked for MI6, learned about the lucrative black market in fuel, cigarettes, nylon stockings and, Harry Lime’s speciality, diluted penicillin. A few years previously, Greene had met fellow MI6-agent-turned-spy, Kim Philby, who recounted how he had used the sewers to guide Austrian civil war socialist sympathisers to safety.
Putting it all together, Greene got his story but spent many nights walking the streets of Vienna, dropping into its bars and strip-clubs, chatting to the city’s lowlife to get the details right. It’s generally accepted that he portrays Harry Lime as the perfidious Philby while seeing himself as the morally challenged Holly Martins.
At the end of the tour, drop into the 200-year-old Mozart Cafe in nearby Albertinaplatz and try one of their wicked chocolate sachertorte. Oh and by the way, the Mozart is where Graham Greene used to go to write.
But while Harry Lime met his death down a sewer, this is not the end of the story. The Third Man has taken on a life of its own: next day I visited Gerhard Strassgschwandtner’s marvellous Third Man Museum, the Dritte Mann Museum. The museum is his passion and that of his wife, Karen Höfler, who is also a translator from Japanese.
Items on display include the original zither on which Anton Karas composed the famous theme tune, the cap worn by little Hansel who unwittingly endangers Holly Martins and the enormous projector used to show Nazi propaganda films. One room is devoted to life in Vienna at the time, with the contents of the food parcels sent to Vienna by the US and letters from Jewish citizens sent to concentration camps never to return.
Then it’s back to the film. One whole wall is covered with translations of Greene’s book, while another shows 400 cover versions of the zither theme, ranging from the Beatles to Glenn Miller. And how about this: in Tokyo, there’s a train station where a blast of the Harry Lime tune is played every time a train arrives.
Of the sewer tour, we were told the smell resembles beer or chocolate. I’m not taken in by that, but I’m still going back and down that octagonal kiosk. If you’re thinking of doing the same thing, be warned: despite being paid $100,000 for his two weeks’ work, Orson Welles refused to enter a sewer.
Aer Lingus has daily flights to Vienna, from £154.98. When you arrive at the airport or station, invest in a Vienna card (€18.50 for 72 hours) which allows you free travel on buses, trams and the metro. It also guarantees a discount on many purchases and activities. Remember to validate it the first time you use it. Air bus fare return from the airport to Westbanhof is €12 with the Vienna card, €14 without.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Aldstadt, near the Museum Quarter, charges €195.00 per double per night. See altstadt.at, or call +43-1-5226666. Another good choice is Motel One, near Westbahnhof, which has doubles for €85pp. See motel-one.com. A cheaper option, and central, is Wombats City Hostel, at the Naschmarkt. Dormitory accommodation costs from €20pp; private rooms, from €35. See wombats-hostels.com, or call +43-1-8972336.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
The Third Man Museum is in Pressgasse, near the excellent outdoor naschmarkt. There are guided tours on Saturdays, 2pm-6pm; groups by arrangement. See 3mpc.net, or call +43-1-5864872. The Third Man walking tour is on Mondays and Fridays at 4pm and costs €17. For more information, see viennawalks.com.