Sixty years after Graham Greene's classic was first screened in the UK, Paul Gogarty finds that the film's elusive anti-hero still haunts Vienna

The acrid stench of the sewer grew stronger with every downward step I took on the endlessly twisting staircase. Yet my companion, Dr Brigitte Timmermann, was still chatting away as if she were out on a stroll in the park instead of descending to the river Styx. "Orson Welles, who plays Harry Lime in the film, apparently hated the place and only stayed for close-ups before leaving a local butcher to fill in the dramatic chase scenes."

Like Harry perhaps, most visitors to Vienna come for the balls and the equestrian perfection of the Spanish Riding School, but I was in town to pay homage to my all-time favourite film and Harry's equally dainty, though very different footwork.

When Graham Greene first arrived in war-ravaged Vienna in 1948 in search of a script, he found a city in ruins. All he had by way of an initial plot was the idea of a dead man walking. Soon, however, through his network of secret intelligence contacts, Greene had two more essential ingredients: a lethal racket in watered-down penicillin, and a network of underground sewers the racketeers used to evade arrest.

Greene's subsequent tale of post-war profiteering from drug tampering became a film noir classic in which the central, chimerical character, Harry Lime, attempts to throw the police off his trail by faking his own death. Ironically, his downfall is brought about by an old friend, Holly Martins, who arrives in town only to hear Harry – "the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city" – had died in a traffic accident. Holly attends the funeral before setting out to clear his friend's name but instead succeeds only in becoming his executioner.

The sewers I was now descending with Brigitte provide the unforgettable backdrop to the film's climax when Harry vainly attempts to cheat death for a second time by disappearing into the labyrinth. Today, Vienna's Sewer Department, seeing a rare revenue opportunity, encourage Harry Lime fans to descend at the less exorbitant price of €€17 (£14.80). As I continued following Brigitte, who's been running her Third Man Tours for 21 years, she filled me in on the espionage background to Greene's screenplay.

"Kim Philby was the third to defect after Burgess and McLean and so was often referred to as the Third Man. He was a good friend of Greene's as well as his boss at the Secret Intelligence Service, and prior to that he'd spent 1933 and 1934 in Vienna assisting fascist resisters to escape through the sewers." Brigitte raised her voice as the sound of rushing water grew ever closer. "It's a little-known fact that Philby's first name was actually Harold or Harry; and lime of course is another shade of green. As a spy himself, Greene loved to pepper his stories with such allusions." Clearly Brigitte liked to do exactly the same with hers, and as the author of the definitive book on The Third Man, she had plenty of them.

Soon we arrived at the overflow wall that the Sewer Police abseil down in pursuit of Harry. The stench still clearly wasn't bothering Brigitte as much as it had Orson. "Welles was terrified he'd get an infection or have an accident, God knows why!" Brigitte laughed. As her laughter bounced its way down the tunnel, somewhat chillingly it was replaced by the opening bars of Anton Karas's "The Third Man Theme". Clearly my obsession was getting out of hand. The appropriate reel started rolling through my memory: Harry splashing, the police chasing. Gunfire. Harry falling and his fingers groping through the manhole grill.

Rounding a corner, suddenly and surreally I discovered my mind wasn't playing tricks after all. A woman was seated serenely playing a zither as if she were sitting in a concert hall instead of a dank tunnel. Barbara Laister-Ebner taught music at a local conservatory and earned a little extra cash by providing a musical accompaniment to Brigitte's tour. Usually she played above ground, but for private tours sometimes she could be persuaded to put on a performance down in the sewer itself.

The original zither on which composer Anton Karas played the theme tune is the prized exhibit at the Third Man Private Collection museum on Pressgasse. Inside, rifling through a box of records, I found Gerhardt Strassgschwandtner, a collector who has scoured the world for everything from wine racks that play the "The Third Man Theme" to Third Man board games and first editions of the Graham Greene novella. He has also assembled 420 different versions of the theme tune including the most unlikeliest of dirges by the Beatles.

Later that afternoon, Brigitte took me to the Central Cemetery on the outskirts of town where we found that Harry Lime's funeral plot was now the final resting place of a family called Grün. Graham Greene would have loved the fact his German namesakes (grü*is German for green) had replaced his fictional gangster. The cemetery features in both Harry's funerals and I instantly recognised the monumental gravestones from the final scene when Harry's girlfriend Anna says her last goodbye and takes the long walk down the tree-lined avenue past Holly and into her uncertain future.

Back in the town centre, I found Greene's favourite watering hole, Café Mozart, considerably busier than the cemetery. In 1948 the café snootily rejected director Carol Reed's request to film here and the place had to be mocked up in another part of town. Despite this, the Café Mozart has been happily stealing the glory ever since. As a mark of solidarity with the film-maker I decided to sit on the terrace in the late sunshine and order a beer instead of secreting myself inside and ordering a very late Third Man Breakfast (consisting of all the healthy products that locals wouldn't have been able to get when the film was being made).

Round the corner, the Café Sacher was doing a roaring trade in the chocolate cake it invented in 1832. A crocodile of Japanese tourists and Jehovah's Witnesses (in town for a 14,000-strong conference) parted to allow me into the adjacent Hotel Sacher lobby. The Sacher is where both Greene and his fictional hero Holly Martins holed up, and naturally it now has its own Third Man Suite whose walls are festooned with monochrome stills from the film alongside a framed photo of Orson Welles given to the hotel barman and signed "For the creator of the best Bloody Mary in the world."

That evening I slipped into the Burgkino cinema, not to escape like Holly and Anna but instead to watch Carol Reed's masterpiece for the sixth or seventh time. The Burgkino still shows The Third Man several times a week and there is nothing like seeing the scenes and then stepping straight out into them. Fresh with Brigitte's insights, the city of subterfuge and deception came alive like never before.

As darkness fell across Vienna, I made my way to Praterson where the same giant Ferris wheel which features so memorably in the film continues to soar above the city. Oh so gently, I rode alone inside one of the 19th-century carriages which just might have been the one that Holly finally meets his supposedly dead friend Harry Lime. In that meeting, what ensues is one of the most damning indictments of any nation and one of the most repeated quotes from any movie. It was spoken (and indeed composed) by Orson Welles as he contemptuously derides Holly Martins over his concern for the "ants" below them before going on to justify his murderous trade in the new wonder drug, penicillin. "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

Vienna has been responsible for considerably more. I left the funfair and crossed the Ringstrasse, the ceremonial avenue with its prancing equestrian statuary, chariots, and military heroes dreaming longingly of the Habsburg Empire. Vienna has conjured up sumptuous imperial palaces, chocolate cake and waltzes but in its shadowy underworld Freud also discovered the unconscious and Graham Greene the perfect cloak for The Third Man.

Compact facts

How to get there

During September and October, Kirker Holidays (020-7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) is offering four nights' B&B for the price of three at the five-star Hotel Sacher. The break costs from £956 per person (based on two sharing) and includes flights and transfers. Three nights at the four-star Altstadt hotel cost from £598 per person.

Further information

Dr Brigitte Timmerman's tour, "The Third Man – in the footsteps of a film classic" (00 43 1 7748901; vienna walks.com), runs Mondays and Fridays 4pm-6.30pm and costs €17 (£14.80). Private tours are available.

The Third Man Private Collection Museum (00 43 1 5864872; 3mpc.net; adults €7.50), Pressgasse 25, 1040 Vienna, is open to the public only on Saturday 2pm–6pm or Tuesday evening by prior appointment.

The Burgkino cinema, Openring 19, 1010 Vienna, regularly shows The Third Man movie (call 00 43 1 5874806 or visit burgkino.at for dates).

The Austrian National Tourist Office (0845 1011818; austria.info/uk); Vienna Tourist Board (00 43 1 24555; wien.info)

Comments