From its iconic theme music to the legendary chase scene through post-war Vienna’s sewers, spy classic The Third Man still draws legions of fans to the Austrian capital 70 years after its premiere – but has never found a place in locals’ hearts.
“Austria is the only country where the movie flopped” following its release in September 1949, said Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, who runs a museum in Vienna entirely dedicated to the knife-edge thriller scripted by British writer Graham Greene.
“The Viennese were irritated by the not very flattering portrayal of their city” as a seedy hotbed of plots, murders and betrayal, he said.
Most of English director Carol Reed’s film noir was shot in Vienna’s bombed-out streets after World War II when the Allied-occupied city turned into a Cold War hub for eastern and western secret agents.
Against this backdrop of ruins and political intrigue, Hollywood great Orson Welles stars as drug dealer Harry Lime who is killed under mysterious circumstances in Vienna.
A visiting childhood friend, played by Joseph Cotten, drags the viewers through dark alleys and misty tunnels on a labyrinthine hunt for the murderous truth behind Lime’s death.
“There was a lot of excitement among locals during shooting . . . but the final result showed them as people sifting through rubbish, trading in the black market and refusing to cooperate with the police. They didn’t like that,” Strassgschwandtner said.
‘Moral decay’ fascination
Internationally, however, the black-and-white film proved a huge box office success, reaping a Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Oscar.
The British Film Institute has crowned The Third Man the greatest British movie of all time, while the earworm theme tune composed by Viennese musician Anton Karas and played on a zither has sold millions of copies around the world.
With its distorted camera angles, lighting effects and nightmarish close-ups of anguished faces, the thriller has become a global “pop culture artwork”, according to Norbert Kettner, the director of Vienna’s tourism office.
“It continues to fascinate people with its atmosphere of social, economic and moral decay,” Kettner said.
Every year, thousands of tourists join guided tours in Vienna to retrace the movie’s mythical locations, including of the underground canals where Lime meets his untimely end.
Among the fans is Briton Maggie Regan, who saw the film in Vienna for the first time more than 15 years ago and decided to return this month for its 70th anniversary.
“I wanted to be back here to watch it again,” she said. “The cinema was packed . . . It is so well shot and well acted, and captures a fascinating atmosphere with such amazing archetypical characters.”
A hit with spies
While the majority of visitors to the Third Man Museum come from abroad, the owner said that the aim had initially been to attract an Austrian clientele because the movie offered a rare filmic glimpse of war-torn Vienna.
But “99 per cent of our guests are foreigners, particularly Americans and Britons,” said Strassgschwandtner, who opened the museum in 2005 with his partner, Karin Hoefler.
“An elderly woman in our neighbourhood told us she had no desire to be reminded of that time.”
People ambling through the museum’s rooms filled with original film posters, scripts and letters written by Greene are The Third Man aficionados.
“Some throw random lines from the movie at us to see if we know the reply,” said Hoefler, grinning.
Visitors are also treated to entertaining anecdotes about the movie.
Strassgschwandtner revealed that unlike today’s crowds happily cramming into Vienna’s damp sewers, Welles refused to spend more than an afternoon down there and forced the production company to shoot the remaining scenes in a London studio instead.
For fans like Briton George Hilton, the capital’s reputation as a spy hub continues to enthral.
“Vienna has retained that atmosphere for me . . . whether it’s day or night. It was the perfect place [for the movie]”, said the 41-year-old from the English city of Leeds.
In a testimony to its timeless appeal, the film has even garnered a cult following among real-life spies, including former CIA chief Leon Panetta, who referenced the film in his memoirs.
Recalling a historic spy swap between the US and Russia at Vienna airport in 2010, he wrote:
“The Cold War was over, but the scene in Vienna was proof that the old games were alive and well. All that was missing was the sound of the zither playing the theme from the movie The Third Man.”