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Brian Major | February 11, 2016 1:00 PM ET
An Encounter with ‘The Third Man’
Among the many blessings bestowed by travel are rare, unmatched opportunities for personal enlightenment. So it was for me in 2012 when I was presented with a marvelous opportunity to connect with my personal love of a cinema classic.
It that year, during a voyage from Vienna, Austria to Vilshofen, Germany aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaCerto, that I was able to experience scenes and settings from "The Third Man," a masterpiece of the film noir genre made in 1949, and to this day considered among the finest films ever made.
If you’ve never seen it, "The Third Man" is a suspense thriller set in Vienna just after the end of World War II. The film revolves around a simple sequence of events: Holly Martins is an out-of-work writer of cheap western novels. Martins' boyhood best friend, Harry Lime, who knows Martins is broke, invites him to the city with the promise of a job.
At this time Vienna is occupied by Allied forces from the U.S., Britain and Russia. Martins reaches Lime’s apartment just in time to learn his friend was killed the previous day in an automobile accident. He attends the funeral and is noticed by a British army officer, who takes the shaken writer to a tavern for a drink.
There Major Calloway informs Martins that his friend was “just about the worst racketeer ever to make a dirty living” in Vienna and advises him to leave the city. Martins decides to clear his friend’s name and soon begins to suspect Lime was murdered. Therein lies the basis of the story, as Martins determines to uncover the truth.
While the story is a relatively simple one, the film itself is memorable on a multitude of levels. Filmed on location in Vienna, the movie features numerous streets and landmarks across the architecturally magnificent city, many of which remain to this day. The film even incorporates authentic footage of Allied troops drilling in public spaces.
While I am a true aficionado of classic films, "The Third Man" is a personal favorite in part because the action focuses on an out-of-work writer now reliant on the kindness of friends, for me not an unfamiliar experience. Another joy is the film’s haunting score, composed and played on the zither by one musician, Anton Karas. Finally any film that stars Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten and is based on a Graham Greene story should be expected to rank among the cinema’s best ever.
Thus when I arrived in Vienna on a morning flight one day prior to AmaCerto’s departure, I was able to immediately absorb some of the film’s flavor. My guide and I explored the city’s Romanesque Ruprechtskirche and Baroque Karlskirche architecture as scenes from the film flashed across my memory.
Near the end of our tour I finally mentioned I was a fan of the film. Delighted, the guide offered to take me to Wiener Riesenrad, a 212-foot high Ferris wheel at the entrance of the Prater amusement park in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district.
PHOTO: Outside Wiener Riesenrad. (Photo by Brian Major).
Within minutes we were aboard one of the spacious cars of the giant Ferris wheel, part of one of the film’s key scenes. In it, Martins has learned that Lime is not only alive, having faked his death to avoid the police, but Major Calloway’s assertions are true. Lime is the head of a scheme that provides tainted medicine to hospital patients at great profit but with deadly results.
As they ride the Wiener Riesenrad, Martins confronts his cheerful but unrepentant friend. Ultimately Martins decides that while he abhors Lime’s deeds he cannot turn him over to the police. Although it has been refurbished since 1949, the wheel is the same one in that appears in the film. As in the movie, the huge wheel provides a magnificent view of the city.
The guide and I circled slowly as I wondered if I was sitting in the very car whose door Orson Welles (Lime) opened to show Cotten (Martins) the tiny people (“dots”) hundreds of feet below. Lime asks Martins if he would turn down thousands of dollars for each dot he was able to “stop from moving” forever.
At the end of the ride Welles, as Lime, delivers what is the film’s signature line: “You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Although wracked with guilt, Martins eventually agrees to help Calloway capture Lime. The latter escapes Calloway’s initial trap and dashes off into Vienna’s sewer system. That’s right – Lime runs into the sewer, which in Vienna’s case is a sprawling underground network of cavernous vaults, walkways and tunnels that feed into the Danube River.
The sewer chase, during which the city’s police force and a special sewer-combing unit pursue Lime through the maze of passageways, is another of the film’s iconic elements, and another I was fortunate to experience.
PHOTO: Inside the Vienna sewer. (Photo by Brian Major).
One day after my city tour I was aboard AmaCerto as it was docked in Vienna prior to departure. There I noticed there was a Third Man sewer tour available that day in the city (thank you Internet!).
After checking with our ship’s purser to make sure I could make it to the tour and back before the ship departed, I took a 10-minute taxi ride into town, stopping at the small park where the tour was about to begin.
Our group passed through the very same grate that Lime frantically pulled open to descend down the steps and into the sewer. The guide pointed out that a tall tree next to the grate is the same one shown in the film.
Now underground, we strolled some of the same corridors though which Lime attempted to flee in the film. The tour organizers have arranged for short sequences from the film to be shown on the sewer walls. There I watched snippets of this film I enjoy so much in one of the very locations in which it was shot. It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that travel made possible.
If you’ve never seen the film I won’t spoil the ending, as my greatest wish is that anyone who reads this and has not seen "The Third Man" simply takes a couple of hours to watch it.
I will say however that during the film it emerges that Major Calloway’s assistant, Sergeant Paine, is familiar with Martins’ writing and is likely his greatest fan. In the film’s final scene Paine is killed, leading Martins to take decisive action. Thus this tremendous movie offers one more important truth among many: never mess with a writer’s public.
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