Hannes Richter

A very cultivated film: The Third Man

Hannes Richter
A very cultivated film: The Third Man

Top photo: The sewers are an integral part of The Third Man Tour in Vienna

By Michael Burri

Guest author Michael Burriholds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, with a specialization in Central Europe and recently contributed an essay and seven film capsules to World Film Locations: Vienna.

Umberto Eco once defined a cult film as one whose parts can be remembered and quoted detached from their context in the original film story. These parts, or iconic fragments, ensure new and repeat viewers for the original cult film, while every reuse, or citation - in literature, music, film or elsewhere – adds to the cult film’s growing prestige. For the fan, fragments of a cult film (favorite lines, character poses, songs) can become a kind of private world whose values and reference points are shared with the cult film.  The cult film disciple celebrates their expertise in this private world by playing trivia games and designing quizzes for other disciples. Question: What song was covered by easygoing bandleader Guy Lombardo, who hit #1 in the U.S. charts with it, and briefly, by the psychedelic-era Beatles? Answer: “The Harry Lime Theme” from The Third Man.

Directed by Carol Reed, from a story by Graham Greene, and released in 1949, The Third Man has been cited, recalled, and remembered more than any other Vienna film before or since.  Two outstanding books, one by the Vienna-based historian Brigitte Timmermann, the other by the British film scholar Charles Drazin, record the circumstances of the film’s origin and making, its distribution and afterlife. Of course, The Third Man has also received its share of critical glory. Judges at the second Cannes Film Festival in 1949 awarded it the Grand Prix du Festival. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the best British film of all time. Virtually from the day of its premier, The Third Man has never entirely gone out of fashion. But cult films generally don’t. Embedded in popular culture and consciousness, their fragments are ready-made for reuse, re-appropriation, and reinvention by each new generation. In its review capsule for the long-standing repertory Third Man screening at the Ringstraße Burg Kino, the Vienna weekly Falter describes the film using the same words it did two decades ago.  

“Vienna of the postwar years… incredibly suspenseful… A film one can watch afresh at every repeat screening.” For non-cultists, the story of The Third Man is easily retold An American, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), is invited by Harry Lime, an old school friend, to a divided, postwar Vienna. Upon arrival, Martins learns that his friend has just been struck by a truck and killed. At Lime’s funeral, Martins encounters Major Calloway, a British officer, who bluntly tells Martins that his friend was a black market racketeer and advises him to return home.  But Martins is intrigued by Lime’s friends -- and even more by Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and he stays. Martins subsequently discovers that Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is alive and has only staged his death.  Troubled but loyal, Martins refuses to betray Lime to Calloway, and instead confronts Lime with his wrongdoing in a celebrated sequence on the Prater Ferris wheel.  Lime admits to black market trafficking, but denies any guilt, arguing that the war years have taught a new morality. The two separate. With Anna threatened with repatriation, Martins offers to help capture Lime in exchange for Anna’s safety - a deal she rejects.

Briefly deterred, Martins again consents to double-cross Lime. In the climactic sewer chase, Calloway, Martins, and a colorful local cast pursue the fleeing Harry Lime. In the ensuing shootout, Martins kills the man he once called the “best friend he ever had.” A new funeral is arranged, and afterwards Martins reaches out to Anna in a gesture that is left unreciprocated. The film ends.

The cult film is the ideal sustainable object in a world pushed to panic by the frenzied consumption of its scarce resources.

The cult film is a boomerang that, once released, slowly finds way back to the popular culture that launched it.  In Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), a film based on a sensational 1950s murder case in New Zealand, the two teenage girls at the center of the story watch a local screening of The Third Man.  Frightened and fascinated, they conjure a fantasy Harry Lime lurking outside the movie theater and, in a reversal of the film they have just seen, imagine Lime as their pursuer.

A true story, real as life?  Partly. It seems that the girls never saw The Third Man. But they knew Welles’s Harry Lime character, who figured prominently in their private fantasy world, from the British radio series “The Adventures of Harry Lime,” a Third Man “prequel” that capitalized on the success of the film and featured Welles as Harry Lime. To recap:  The Third Man begins as a 1949 film set in Vienna and is reinvented as a 1951 British radio program. From there, it inspires two troubled teenage girls in Christchurch, New Zealand. Circling back to the present, it is seized upon by a future Academy-Award winning director whose striking reuse of the 1949 film ensures its continued flourishing in popular culture and consciousness. The boomerang returns, only to be quickly returned to flight.

Every generation rediscovers the cult film for itself, encountering the film both as an object from the past and as something to be remade for the present.

In Heavenly Creatures, Harry Lime resembles the singer-star Mario Lanza, an even higher order saint for the girls, who is largely forgotten today. The cult film is thus, also, an artifact that registers the history, hopes, and dreams of those who watch it. And indeed, it seems every era finds The Third Man that it needs. The film’s voiceover opening line – “I never knew the old Vienna” – already speaks to the necessities of the English-speaking audience in Britain and the United States. They say, in effect, “you won’t need to know anything about Vienna and its past for the story about to unfold.” By contrast, David O. Selznick, the American co-producer envisioned a more focused purpose for the film. In a preproduction memo he wrote to Carol Reed, he emphasized that The Third Man offered a chance to present Vienna as a microcosm of the East-West conflict and, against this background, to agitate for the West. Decades later, particularly in the aftermath of the Waldheim affair and the subsequent public reassessment of Austria’s role in the Second World War, scholars saw The Third Man differently. Both the film’s opening line and Selznick’s exhortations, they argued, served the same ends -- namely, to downplay Austria’s recent past. The Third Man now needed to be seen as part of a Cold War history that turned a blind eye to the war record of a Kurt Waldheim, and perhaps an entire country, as long as that country served as a pro-Western bulwark within the Cold War geopolitical order.

As a cult film, The Third Man has lived, died, and returned to life more times than Harry Lime. At the time of its release, Viennese critics saw the film, among other things, as legitimating local grievances.  The Weltpresse, for example, praised it for drawing the world’s attention to the everyday complications created for Vienna by the presence of four occupying powers. The communist daily Der Abend lamented that by reducing Vienna to a spooky Cold War backdrop the film sold short the honorable labor of more than a million Viennese workers. In 2013, with construction around the city’s core proceeding at a pace perhaps faster than at any time since the building of the Ringstraße, The Third Man serves as a visual archive of a disappearing Vienna and is a rare reminder of the devastation brought to the city by war.  Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, an Ivy League university considered a few years ago a proposal to substitute The Third Man for the book that all incoming students are traditionally asked to read before their first fall semester.

Advocates for the film option argued that The Third Man provided a forum to discuss questions about American involvement abroad, and the transferability of American values, that were highly pertinent in the context of the ongoing Iraq war.

Today, as Cold War memories fade and its urgencies slowly give way to a retrospective curiosity that asks “what it was really all about,” The Third Man is increasingly seen to be trading in the postwar currencies of ideology and espionage, loyalty and betrayal.  Alexander Korda, the British co-producer of the film, is now known to have worked for the British Intelligence Service (SIS) from the early 1930s and to have lent his services to the Z Network, a secret intelligence organization operating parallel to SIS, run by Claude Dansey. Austrian scholar Siegfried Beer argues that the Hungarian-born Korda likely used his earlier contacts in the Austrian film industry and allowed his production company London Films to provide cover in Austria for various operations of the SIS before, during, and after the war.  Is The Third Man the name both for one of the greatest cult films of all time and also an undercover intelligence operation? Perhaps. But who was watching whom?  Brigitte Timmermann says that most of the sound and lighting technicians working on the Vienna locations were not film industry regulars and disappeared after the shooting. The principal film crew assumed they were spies.

Even more mysterious, perhaps, is the case of Graham Greene.

For more than a year, in 1943-44, Greene had worked for the Iberian department of SIS led by Kim Philby who later described their association as “wholly delightful.”  Something of a kindred soul to Greene, Philby knew Vienna well, having worked for a socialist relief organization there in 1933-34. Philby also witnessed the climactic and bloody clash in February 1934 between the socialist Schutzbund and the paramilitary Heimwehr and government forces, an experience that fully radicalized him. Shortly thereafter, in June 1934, Philby was secretly recruited by a Soviet agent.  Years later, in 1963, fearing imminent exposure, Philby defected to the Soviet Union, following fellow Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean into Russian exile. Period newspapers dubbed Philby “The Third Man,” an irony that was not lost on his old friend Graham Greene. But as Charles Drazin, following Greene’s biographer Michael Shelden, observes, the coincidence suggests a real connection, and the fictional Harry Lime is a mask for the real Kim Philby. The film provides the evidence. Lime works for the International Refugee Office, much as Philby had worked for the Committee for Aiding Refugees from Fascism; Lime gives information to the Russians; Philby helped socialists fleeing Vienna escape via the city’s sewers. And the resemblances don’t end there. Is The Third Man, then, Greene’s private vindication of Kim Philby? Did Greene already suspect or know something in 1943? “A person doesn’t change because you find out more,” says Anna Schmidt, Lime’s girlfriend and most loyal advocate.

The cult film is a siren song that calls its fans to keep it alive by reliving it. Today, more than a few travelers to Vienna hope to retrace the steps of The Third Man.  And Vienna does not disappoint. A Third Man walking tour led by Brigitte Timmermann, weekly screenings at the Burg Kino, and a dedicated Third Man museum, all meet the popular demand to experience the city through the film and its hero Harry Lime.  And Vienna needs Harry Lime.  For if Mozart is the classic face of an older and bewitching Viennese high culture, Harry Lime is his iconic modern twin, a figure around whom Vienna, bewitching as ever, is repackaged as a site of popular film culture. Not even Orson Welles could resist the cult film’s song. In 1968, he sailed through Vienna, directing and starring in a film that never became more than a 9-minute fragment.  A director who was always sensitive to his rivals, including the postwar Vienna idol Harry Lime, Welles pays the ultimate tribute to the cult film. Namely, that its greatest star has become irrelevant to it. “‘The Third Man,’” he laments. Well, I didn’t sing it, or dance to it, or whistle. They just played it on the soundtrack while I lurked about in the Viennese sewers. No success was more richly undeserved.”