Ode to a masterpiece

Sixty years after its release, a film-noir classic is remembered in a private Vienna museum, writes Sue Wallace.

The haunting zither music of Anton Karas plays as I step through the front door of Vienna's Third Man Museum, triggering memories of this film-noir thriller.

It has been 60 years since British director Carol Reed turned Graham Greene's novel into a classic movie, shot in postwar Vienna in 1949.

It focuses on the life and death of black marketeer Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, in Vienna, which was divided into five zones including an international sector controlled by the victorious Allied powers.

It was a time when trading on the black market was rife, refugees were displaced and no one really knew who to trust.

Accused of watering down penicillin, Lime fakes his own death, is then discovered alive and embarks on a cat-and-mouse chase through the city's rat-infested sewers.

Joseph Cotten stars as author Holly Martins, Lime's childhood friend, Alida Valli as Lime's actress girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway.

The Third Man also shows some of Vienna's trademarks, such as the Giant Ferris Wheel and its cobblestone streets.

Over the years, the movie has developed a cult following and soon after Gerhard Strassgschwandtner saw it, he became hooked.


So much so that the ceramic artist and part-time city guide established a private museum four years ago as a tribute to the film, which he believes records an important era in Vienna's history one that is often overlooked.

After he began collecting posters from the movie, Strassgschwandtner says his passion continued to grow.

As his collection expanded, he ran out of spare room so he established the museum, located near Vienna's Naschmarkt.

It features 10 rooms that showcase the movie's international success and highlight daily life in postwar Vienna, with amazing photographs and memorabilia.

An array of movie posters, stills, programs and invitations have been collected from more than 20 countries.

"The Third Man is a masterpiece created by a unique collaboration of a group of genius artists. Scriptwriter Greene sensitively portrays postwar Vienna, director Carol Reed lends realism to the movie; he spontaneously creates the part of little Hansel and succeeds with the zither [a stringed musical instrument] as the only music," Strassgschwandtner says.

"It has the best cast of all time and as well as being a great thriller, it provides important documentation of the time after the war when Vienna was a broken city."

A large section of the museum is devoted to Karas's music, including the original zither on which he composed the movie score in London.

The Third Man made Karas an international star. The Harry Lime theme was No. 1 on the US charts for many weeks and has become known worldwide. At the museum you can hear some of the 400 or so cover versions of the Harry Lime theme by artists as varied as The Beatles and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

After the movie's release, there was a boom in zither playing.

While in Vienna, save some time to take a seat and watch a screening of the movie's key sequence using the historic Ernemann 7b projector, which was made in 1936 and was used to show The Third Man in the city in 1950.

If you book ahead, you can also visit the sewer underworld featured in the film. We are told Orson Welles refused to go underground and was replaced by a double.

The museum also documents a darker side of history, with moving images of bombed buildings, faces of hunger and terror, the Nazis, the black market and demarcation lines.

Film devotees will also be comforted to know that little Hansel's cap still exists.

Herbert Halbik donated the cap he wore on set as a three-year-old remembered for shouting "murderer, murderer". It's enough to send shivers down your back.

The writer travelled courtesy of Vienna Tourism.



Emirates flies from Sydney to Vienna via Dubai daily, phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au.


Vienna Marriott Hotel, Parkring 12A, Vienna, 1010, is a five-star hotel with 287 rooms and a pool, see viennamarriott.com.

The Third Man Museum is open Saturdays from 2pm to 6pm, or by appointment. Pressgasse 25, 1040 Vienna, phone +43 1 5864872, see 3mpc.net. Adults €7.50 ($13.20), Children 10-16 years €4. Groups welcome by appointment.