70 Years of “the third man debris, unscrupulousness and greed

Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, the founder and operator of the "Third Man Museum" in Vienna, and Karin Hofler, responsible for design and conception, stand in front of movie posters in their museum. Photo: dpa

A chase in the sewers of a war-torn city and a familiar zither tune – the classic film "The Third Man" has a cult following among cineastes. Orson Welles made a mistake as a leading actor that shaped his subsequent professional life.

Vienna – A movie star in the dirt and stench of a sewer system? The then 33-year-old Orson Welles, adored by audiences and critics since "Citizen Kane," was reluctant to venture into the musty, slippery underworld of war-torn Vienna. "He panicked that his baritone voice might suffer because of the bacteria," says Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, operator of the private "Third Man Museum" in Vienna. After all, Welles spent at least a few hours down there as gangster Harry Lime during the filming of the later film classic "The Third Man" in the fall of 1948 – and with the help of a double, the legendary chase scenes were filmed.

The black market determines life

70 years ago, on 2. September 1949, the black-and-white film written by espionage specialist Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed had-A film about friendship, morality, greed and corruption receives an acclaimed world premiere in London. It is still considered one of the best films, thanks in part to the brilliant camerawork, for which it won an Oscar. And it is a document that shows Vienna from a forgotten side.

Tourists who today experience the spruced-up city in its old imperial splendor will almost not recognize it in the film. After 53 air raids in the Second World War, the mountains of rubble piled up, tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, the population starved and froze. "It’s a time the Viennese don’t like to remember," notes Strassgschwandtner. As in Germany, the black market determined life and survival. That’s exactly the kind of setting producer Alexander Korda had in mind when he commissioned Greene to research a thriller in the city, which, like Berlin, was occupied by the four Allies.

Adulterated penicillin

Greene had an important idea in mind. A man’s mock funeral was to play a central role. And so it came to pass: After a traffic accident, American Harry Lime is buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. His childhood friend Holly Martins – specially brought to Vienna by Lime – witnesses the seemingly sad scene immediately after arriving in the city. He learns that the British occupation authorities persecuted Lime because of very bad black market business with adulterated and still extremely rare penicillin. And he is informed that, in addition to two people known by name, a third man has also carried his stricken friend off the street. It is becoming increasingly clear that Lime only staged his death.

Orson Welles improvised another sentence beyond the script to justify Lime’s ruthlessness. "In Italy, during the 30 years under the Borgias, there was war, terror, murder and bloodshed – and there was Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, brotherly harmony, 500 years of democracy and peace reigned – and what came out?? The Cuckoo Clock."

Exotic tones

Anton Karas played a major role in the film’s fame. The completely unknown zither player in a Viennese Heurigen pub was discovered by the film crew and asked for a screen test. When director Reed heard the exotic sounds, he decided that should be the film music, says Strassgschwandtner. The unmistakable "Harry Lime Theme" and other zither pieces were recorded for seven weeks by Karas in London. The title melody was number 1 in the US charts for weeks in 1950. Karas became a world star and a rich man – who treated himself to his own Heurigen pub.

Financially Welles, who in his professional life always had to put a lot of ambition and effort into the financing of his countless projects, had speculated himself with "The Third Man. He resorted to the dream fee of 100,000 dollars instead of the offer to secure a share in the film rights. "He would never have had to beg for money for his projects again," Strassgschwandtner is certain.

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