VIENNA – Sachertorte. Magnificent palaces. Splendid museums. When Phillip Kalantirsky had his fill of Vienna the Opulent, he stayed on for a taste of Vienna Noir – in a walking tour built around the cult film “The Third Man.”
“I’m obsessed with the movie,” the 37-year-old lawyer from New York said on a recent afternoon as he and his wife waited for the tour to start. “Most old films are very dated, you don’t buy into them. ‘The Third Man’ is different.”
Kalantirsky’s fascination with the film – set and partly shot in postwar Vienna – is shared by many. Six decades after “The Third Man” premiered in London in September 1949, tourists from around the world pound the Austrian capital’s pavements – and even slip into its sewers – to see where the much-acclaimed motion picture was set. Fans can choose from the walking tour or the underground tour, visit a museum devoted to the movie, or even watch it in a theater.
Starring Orson Welles, the film tells the story of Holly Martins, a naive and broke American writer who investigates what appears to be the mysterious death of his old friend, Harry Lime, in a Vienna replete with rubble and racketeers, divided into zones run by the Western allies and the Soviet Union.
Based on a screenplay by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, the film is set to haunting Viennese zither music that’s instantly familiar yet also unsettling – the perfect accompaniment for a noir film.
While “The Third Man” won an Oscar and grand prize of the Cannes Film Festival, it was less of a hit in Vienna, with locals unappreciative of the portrayal of the city’s residents as grasping and cowardly. But with “The Third Man” wildly popular elsewhere, the Austrian capital now offers an array of attractions based on the movie.
Aside from the aboveground walking tour, film fans can delve into the city’s underworld by descending into its extensive sewer system. Those with an aversion for damp and dingy surroundings can spend hours in a private museum crammed with photos, posters and other paraphernalia that grew out of a collector’s love for all things related to the film.
The collection includes a tribute to the sound track’s composer and performer, Anton Karas, who became a star in his own right. An audio terminal lets visitors sample more than 400 covers of the movie’s theme music, including a version by the Beatles. And for film neophytes or connoisseurs in need of a refresher or quick fix, the city’s Burg cinema holds screenings three to four times a week.
Cinema owner Kurt Schramek said that the screenings are well-attended.
“The film is interesting for visitors because it was shot on location,” Schramek said. “For some, it has become a bit of a tradition to go see it.”
Experts say that the movie is more than just entertainment.
Brigitte Timmermann, an Austrian historian who spent a decade researching the production and has given walking tours for 20 years, describes it as an educational tool about life in the Austrian capital at the cusp of the Cold War.
“Graham Greene, as a former spy, was a very accurate observer, which makes the film an excellent documentation of the time,” said the author of an extensive book titled “The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic.”
Peter Brunette, an expert on European film and a professor of film studies at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina, enjoyed taking a “Third Man” tour while in Vienna for its annual film festival, the Viennale. He said that the movie remains compelling thanks to superb acting, rich black-and-white cinematography and the contrast it offers between “our idea of Old Europe” and Vienna’s “dark underbelly.”
“The world is corrupt and, in fact, people are evil,” Brunette said, summing up the film’s world-weary, existentialist tone. “There’s a deliciousness to that.”