Vienna’s Third Man link remains strong

Sachertorte. Magnificent palaces. Splendid museums. When Phillip Kalantirsky had his fill of Vienna the Opulent, he stayed on for a taste of Vienna Noir — in a walking tour built around the cult film The Third Man.

A visitor strolls through the Vienna sewer during a guided tour. Six decades after The Third Man was premiered in London in September of 1949

VIENNA, Austria — Sachertorte. Magnificent palaces. Splendid museums. When Phillip Kalantirsky had his fill of Vienna the Opulent, he stayed on for a taste of Vienna Noir — in a walking tour built around the cult film The Third Man.

“I’m obsessed with the movie,” the 37-year-old lawyer from New York said on a recent afternoon as he and his wife waited for the tour to start. “Most old films are very dated, you don’t buy into them. ’The Third Man’ is different.”

Kalantirsky’s fascination with the film — set and partly shot in postwar Vienna — is shared by many. Six decades after The Third Man premiered in London in September 1949, tourists from around the world pound the Austrian capital’s pavements — and even slip into its sewers — to see where the much-acclaimed motion picture was set. Fans can choose from the walking tour or the underground tour, visit a museum devoted to the movie or even watch it in a theatre.

Starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, the film tells the story of Holly Martins, a naive and broke American writer who investigates what appears to be the mysterious death of his old friend, Harry Lime, in a Vienna replete with rubble and racketeers, divided into zones run by the Western allies and the Soviet Union.

Before long, he discovers that Lime is not dead but rather wrapped up in the trafficking of stolen, diluted penicillin, a scheme that has crippled and killed children.

Based on a screenplay by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, the film is set to haunting Viennese zither music that’s instantly familiar yet also unsettling — the perfect accompaniment for a noir film.

While The Third Man won an Oscar and grand prize of the Cannes Film Festival, it was less of a hit in Vienna, with locals unappreciative of the portrayal of the city’s residents as grasping and cowardly. But with The Third Man wildly popular elsewhere, the Austrian capital now offers an array of attractions based on the movie.

Aside from the aboveground walking tour, film fans can delve into the city’s underworld by descending into its extensive sewer system to see where Lime met his dramatic demise, shot to death by Martins.

Those with an aversion for damp and dingy surroundings can spend hours in a private museum crammed with photos, posters and other paraphernalia that grew out of a collector’s love for all things related to The Third Man.

The collection includes a tribute to the soundtrack’s composer and performer, Anton Karas, who became a star in his own right. An audio terminal lets visitors sample more than 400 covers of the movie’s theme music, including a version by The Beatles.

And for film neophytes or connoisseurs in need of a refresher or quick fix, the city’s Burg cinema holds screenings three to four times a week.

Even on a recent balmy Sunday, while others enjoyed the weather, about two dozen people filed into the theatre.

“It’s a masterpiece,” said Brian Davis, a 28-year-old tourist from Los Angeles, on his way in.

Cinema owner Kurt Schramek says the screenings are well-attended.

“The film is interesting for visitors because it was shot on location,” Schramek said. “For some, it has become a bit of a tradition to go see it.”

For others, such as Herbert Halbik, the movie evokes childhood memories.

The humble 64-year-old played Hansl in the film, the mischievous and chubby-cheeked boy who accuses Holly Martins of murdering Harry Lime’s porter.

“I think the film is great, it’s definitely one of the best,” said Halbik, who played the part as a three-year-old and now runs a tobacco shop. While he doesn’t recall much of the shooting of the film, a trip to London to tape studio scenes sparked his lifelong love for orange marmalade.

“It was so unusual, you couldn’t get it in Austria for years,” he said with a chuckle during a recent interview, evoking postwar shortages that led to the kind of smuggling the film touches on.

Experts say the movie is more than just entertainment.

Brigitte Timmermann, an Austrian historian who spent a decade researching the production, describes it as an educational tool about life in the Austrian capital at the cusp of the Cold War.

“Graham Greene, as a former spy, was a very accurate observer, which makes the film an excellent documentation of the time,” said the author of an extensive book titled The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic.

Timmermann, who has given walking tours for 20 years and often hosts student groups, said the movie continues to appeal to people from around the world because it is “tangible.”

“There aren’t too many films in which a city takes centre stage,” Timmermann said, adding that people from as far afield as the United States, Australia and Japan take her guided walks. Even former servicemen have shown up for her 2.5-hour trek through town.

“These people want to take the tour so badly they don’t care if it’s raining or if it’s 17 below freezing,” she said.

Peter Brunette, an expert on European film and a professor of film studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, enjoyed taking a “Third Man” tour while in Vienna for its annual film festival, the Viennale. He says the movie remains compelling thanks to superb acting, rich black-and-white cinematography, and the contrast it offers between “our idea of Old Europe” and Vienna’s “dark underbelly.”

“The world is corrupt and in fact people are evil,” Brunette said, summing up the film’s world-weary, existentialist tone. “There’s a deliciousness to that.”

If You Go:

The Third Man walking tour: http://www.viennawalks.com or 011-43-1-774-8901. Offered Monday and Friday, 4 p.m., 17 euros (about C$26), departing from U4 Station Stadtpark, Exit Johannesgasse.

The Third Man sewer tour: http://www.thirdmantour.at or 011-43-1-4000-3033. Ticket office and sewer entrance at Esperantopark on Karlsplatz. Reservations recommended; tickets 7 euros (about $11). No tours Nov. 2-April 30.

The Third Man museum: Located at Pressgasse 25, 1040 Vienna; http://www.3mpc.net. Open Saturday 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Admission 7.50 euros (about $11.60).

The Third Man screenings: At the Burg Kino theatre, Opernring 19, 1010 Vienna; http://www.burgkino.at or 011-43-1-587-8406. Showtimes vary. Current screenings on Fridays, 10:45 p.m.; Sundays, 4:15 p.m.; Tuesdays, 6:30 p.m. Tickets 7.50 euros.

On the Web: Film clips and samples of the music available on YouTube and elsewhere online.

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