At First Glance: A Second To Reflect On The Third Man

It bares all the significant hallmarks of a cinematic classic…

A moody noir with a riveting mystery plot. A bonafide teaming of significant cast and crew with proven track records. An unforgettable film score and stylish on-location cinematography.

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But what exactly is it about The Third Man that has warranted it’s ongoing appeal with an ever-changing audience?    

In the words of Sight & Sound’s Andrew Sinclair:

‘it set a particular style for British films, a combination of realism of background and penetration of character, based on the two main qualities of the British wartime cinema, a feeling for documentary detail and social purpose.’

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But perhaps for the answer we need not look any further than the film’s setting.

In many ways the backdrop of a postwar Vienna; with it’s labyrinth of dilapidated walls, levelled buildings, uprooted cobblestone streets and entangled masses of corrugated iron obscured by sharp shadows of ambiguity are in essence as foreign to today’s audience as they were to the film’s protagonists Harry Lime and Holly Martins. Each of the players seem to wander about the devastated city as if in a state of purgatory; all ambition seems to have shifted to a minimalist means of survival.

Perhaps it’s that sobering psychology of one being trapped in an environment where the only option is failure, that, like those melodious strings on the Zither by Alexander Korda, strike a chord within us all.

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Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949)

This Summer, Privilege Of Legends got reacquainted and inspired by the wonderful sights, sounds and history of the memorabilia housed in the 13 rooms of The Third Man museum in Vienna.

A treasure trove for cinema enthusiasts and those with an avid interest in wartime history; we sat down with museum director and collector Gerhard Strassgschwandtner to chat about an impressive exhibition and a monumental film.

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What do you think it is about The Third Man that has stood the test of time? Why do you think it’s still relevant to today’s modern audience?

Quite simply put it’s a good story, great director, great acting, great music score, brilliant cinematography, and superb editing.

As you most probably know, the film was recently voted as the best British film of all time in a recent poll. How culturally significant would you say the film is to the city of Vienna?

Following the aftermath of the 2nd World War, the people of Vienna did not want to hear anything regarding the destruction and loss that was involved in such tragedy. So the movie was never really significant to the people of Vienna at all. The film score on the other hand is well loved, however most Viennese tend to associate The Third Man with it’s sewers and nothing more.

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How did the idea for The Third Man museum come about?

Being first and foremost a tour guide for the city of Vienna I was often quizzed about the film from British and American tourists. They always seemed to be disappointed when I explained the film was rather unknown to most of the local people.

It wasn’t actually until 1996 that I watched the original British version of The Third Man for the first time and I was immediately hooked on it’s cinematography.

Being a collector by interest I began to gather various memorabilia around this film. Over time I began to realise that I was inadvertently constructing a gateway into this rather unknown and inglorious past of my hometown. This in turn is what has driven me to create a permanent exhibition which is alive and growing from year to year.

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Please could you tell us about some of your personal favourite acquisitions that you have on display in the museum?

I have a special relationship with many of the items on display. Often it was not an easy task to obtain these. I would have to mention actor Trevor Howard’s original script with it’s hundreds of notes and annotations, and the film’s famous Zither.

Most gratifying for me is meeting so many people that share a connection with the film or with occupied postwar Vienna in some way. 

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Do you have any interesting stories to share with regards to the museum?

For me the most interesting story is that I am running this museum independently with my wife. We do not receive any subsidies or funding from government or private institutions, so we have set the museum up as we see fit.

This is important to us as we firmly believe that being totally independent in the field of culture and the arts means more of our heart and soul is prevalent in our exhibition.

Dritte Mann Museum: Pressgasse 25, 1040 Wien, Austria

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