Vienna, With a Twist of Lime
Sunday, December 12, 2004
The meeting had all of the earmarks of a film noir intrigue. While dingy snow fluttered from the overcast Vienna sky, I sat in the plush lobby cafe of the InterContinental Wien hotel watching the art nouveau Station Stadtpark subway exit across the street. I'd been told only that my contact would wear a red badge.
Due to the unusually cold weather, I doubted that anyone would show up. But at the appointed time, I wrapped my scarf securely, buttoned my leather jacket against the chill and crossed the Johannesgasse.
As it happened, my contact did show. She wasn't wearing a badge but a red Mickey Mouse fleece hat. The thick binder in her hands was the dead giveaway that she was the guide for our walking tour, "Vienna in the Steps of 'The Third Man.' "
It was just the ticket for film junkies like me who want a firsthand look at the strange intersection of post-World War II Vienna, black market enterprise, spy and novelist Graham Greene, Hollywood legend and a visit to the sewer that was the setting of a pivotal scene in one of the all-time noir thrillers, "The Third Man."
Despite the cold and fast-approaching darkness, nine of us assembled on the sidewalk. That was when a man appeared, claiming to be from a government bureau, and demanded that the tour halt. "You are not authorized to go into the sewer."
To understand why anyone would bother to venture into a Viennese sewer, you have to know a little bit about "The Third Man." Now considered a classic, it was named by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest 100 films ever made. The opening theme, played on a zither by Anton Karas, became an instant worldwide hit. Somehow bouncy and sinister at the same time, it influenced the soundtracks of many intrigue films that would follow. The movie stars Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard and, in a milestone performance, Orson Welles.
But in a larger sense it stars Vienna itself. With documentary-like footage that chronicles the destruction Allied bombing left behind, the film is much beloved by locals as a historical document of occupied Vienna as well as a form of entertainment. In fact, the opening montage basically is documentary film footage.
The story was written in 1948 by Greene, who had spied for England's MI6 and who became well known for his moody and moralistic stories of intrigue. As our guide pointed out, Greene worked directly under Kim Philby, the notorious KGB double agent later known as "The Third Man" for warning two other double agents to flee England.
The film starts with Holly Martins (Cotten) arriving broke in Vienna to accept a job from his old friend, Harry Lime (Welles). Martins is minutes too late; Lime has just been buried, killed in a car accident. Martins believes that Lime, who turns out to have been a murderous black marketer, was himself murdered. The key to the puzzle is a mysterious third man spotted at the scene of the accident. Martins's unofficial investigation puts him at odds with military officials running Vienna, the killers who want to stop the investigation and the mysterious third man.
The film's climax takes place in a sewer. A sewer, it appeared, we would be barred from entering, in a bit of real-world intrigue. But our Viennese guide, Barbara Timmerman, challenged the purported official's authority, and after a spirited debate, he backed down. Timmerman later told me he was probably sent by a competing tour group that had its right to visit the sewer revoked. She wasn't even sure he was really an official. Cue the zither music.
We did enter the sewer, which is actually a tall passage for the River Wien. (Due to construction, the company currently takes tour participants only as far as the sewer entrance.) It's only a sewer in the sense that storm-water overflow spills into this tunnel. It doesn't smell, and there were no rats to be seen -- the filmmakers had to bring their own, said Timmerman.
The city is filled with "Third Man" lore, and it's only fitting that much of it is questionable. The version of history Timmerman professes has Welles reluctant to enter the sewer, reportedly complaining to director Carol Reed, "I can't work in a sewer, I come from California! My throat! I'm so cold!" Timmerman told us that Welles required the walls to be perfumed, did his close-up, then hastily returned to street level. A back-lit local butcher performed the chase scenes for Welles. The sewers were re-created at Shepparton Studios in England for additional filming with Welles.