Orson Welles in The Third Man

(Publisher’s Note: Originally published in December of 2013)

“You know what the fellow said? In Italy, for 30 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! They had 500 years of democracy and peace! And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Immortal words uttered by Orson Welles (as black market enthusiast Harry Lime) in the 1949 noir classic The Third Man. Yet Welles stated many times during his career that people assured him, “They never made any cuckoo clocks. They were native to Germany and the Black Forest.” Nonetheless, critics and fans alike can all probably agree that this is the only flaw in the movie.

Being a hardcore classic movie enthusiast, I’m ashamed I had never heard of this masterpiece until my recent trip to Vienna. Just weeks ago, I took a vacation across Europe, visiting many delightful and beautiful countries along the way. By far, Vienna was my favorite. The classic architecture, the food, the music, and the famous landmarks made it absolutely unforgettable. But as I explored the city more and more, the words “The Third Man” kept popping up.

I knew very little about Austrian cinema, and I was only aware of two movies filmed and set in the area. The first was the musical classic The Sound of Music, which follows Julie Andrews singing through the streets of Salzburg with the Von Trapp children and her guitar. This film has become a staple on television around Christmas time, and was able to nab a few Oscars in 1966 — including Best Picture. The other was Amadeus. Milos Forman’s biopic about musical legend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (and his friendship/rivalry with Antonio Salieri) is set partly in Vienna. It also nabbed the Best Picture Oscar in 1985. But apart from these two classics, I was clueless about other films from the area.

Yet everywhere I went, The Third Man was mentioned in posters and advertisements. There was a museum you could visit that displayed all the props. There was a walking tour you could take that took you to all of the landmarks and locations that were featured in The Third Man. Then of course, there were movie theaters that still played it daily, 64 years after its release. You can imagine my embarrassment when I asked the locals what the movie “The Thin Man” was about. The Thin Man and The Third Man are two very different movies, with just a one “R” difference in the title. I’d like to think it’s a common mistake — and the Viennese were certainly not shy about correcting me.

It turns out that The Third Man is one of Vienna’s favorite achievements. I have never seen another city so proud of a film, besides maybe New York and any Woody Allen movie. But this one seemed to be a must-see for anyone visiting the city. I wouldn’t be surprised if every resident is forced to watch it as they grow up. I was glad to be aware of the film, and made it my goal to see it in a theater. Unfortunately, none of the local viewings turned out, since I was busy sightseeing and doing other things. But the minute I got home, I sat down and rented Vienna’s favorite film, The Third Man.

Pulp writer Holly Martins arrives in Vienna to visit and work for an old childhood friend, Harry Lime. But upon arrival, Martins discovers Lime has been hit by a car and killed, and nobody seems to know much about it. He now finds himself overcome by curiosity and questions about the incident. He initially discovers that two people took Lime’s body off the road and to the curb. But the witness swears she saw three. Martins tries to track down this third man, and find out why Lime was hit — and why all the mystery surrounding it? Along the way, he finds himself attracted to Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt and uncovers a startling secret about the whole case. In the great words of the late Roger Ebert, “Of all the movies that I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”

I immediately fell in love. The dark city streets, the haunting black and white, the unmatched score played on the zither — everything about this movie works. The twists and turns, and the brilliant performances. Just being in Vienna the day before enhanced my viewing experience even more. I recognized the famous ferris wheel that Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles rode during the “cuckoo clock” scene. I had ridden in it twice while I was there, because of the high-up view it provides of the city. I recognized Café Mozart, the delicious coffee bar I had visited during my stay. A scene was shot just outside the café, and it’s where writer Graham Green put The Third Man down on paper. And the unmistakable skyline throughout the picture, with St. Stephen’s Cathedral towering high, made me think I was still there. The Third Man was easily one of the best movies I had ever scene. The last shot is certainly what sealed the deal.

After some research, I learned it had taken the 57th spot on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of 100 best American movies, and the #1 spot on the British Film Institute’s 1999 list of 100 best British films. Director Carol Reed was English, and the film was co-produced and financed by London Films and American producer David O. Selznick. But I had to laugh when I realized that The Third Man was basically a British film, set in Austria, starring Americans. So it could really belong to any of those three countries. Yes, it’s generally labeled as British, but Vienna’s pride and celebratory attitude towards it makes me see it as a quintessential Austrian film. The city is simply captured so beautifully, even amongst a story of murder and betrayal. If there is another place more in love with film, let alone a single movie, I would like to hear it.

So in the end, I have a few tips of advice for any of you globetrotting movie buffs out there. Go to Vienna, because you will surely fall in love like I did. See The Third Man first though, so you can recognize all of the sights and sounds that make up the cityscape of this classic mystery masterpiece. Or better yet, see it at the famous Burg Kino theater in Vienna. And be sure to visit the Vienna International Film Center while you’re there. The building houses thousands of films that are screened daily, as well as certain focuses and specials that are highlighted each month.

Finally, if you are traveling anywhere, consider taking note of any films that may have been shot or produced at your destination. These films can give an indispensable look at the local history, as well as culture. I traveled to Vienna and discovered one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I went there for so many reasons, and The Third Man is certainly one of them. So keep an open mind, and see what you discover. I discovered Vienna’s glamor and easy charm… and the origin of cuckoo clocks.