Last December, I was in Vienna for the first time and it was for a project related to the historic Hotel Bristol. We had a soirée in the hotel’s Prince of Wales Suite – yup, it’s named after the prince himself and he stayed there with Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom he abdicated the throne.

Journalist A: Have you watched “The Third Man”?
Me: No. What is it about?
Journalist B: It’s a film noir about espionage in Vienna when it was occupied by the Allies after World War II ended.
Journalist A: The plot is full of suspense, especially the climatic scene in the tunnels!
Me: What tunnels?
Journalist B: Underground tunnels. There is a network of underground tunnels in Vienna…

During a tour of the 120-year-old hotel, we learned that Hotel Bristol was the headquarters of the American Allies during the occupation. The hotel’s general manager pointed out some tiny reminders of those days, including indentions in the brass stair railings left behind by soldiers with their rifles as they energetically exited the hotel.

Ein Festabend im Speisesaal 1910 (Hans Stalzer)02a25bw
Hotel Bristol: You can see one of these dents on the railing in the bottom right corner. In the background is a 1910 Hans Stalzer painting of the nightly suppers at the hotel. Famous personalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire depicted in here includes the archduke Salvator.

The next day, we went to Hotel Imperial, which is diagonally across from Hotel Bristol on the Ringstrasse (Ring Boulevard).

Originally built in 1867 as the residence of the Prince of Württemberg, this is the grande dame of Viennese hotels. Klaus, the hotel’s general manager, hosted us for lunch in the splendid Imperial Suite, which was awe-inspiring with its high ceiling, fresco of smiling cherubs and enormous sparkling chandelier.

Somewhere in between the delicious three-way beets and arctic char main course and the decadent trio of Imperial Torte dessert, someone brought up the occupation.

Journalist C: Hotel Bristol was the HQ of the Americans. What about this hotel?
Klaus: During the occupation, Hotel Imperial was taken over by the Russian Allies. There was a lot of tension between the Russians and the other allies in the city.
Journalist C: And espionage, surely.
Me: Are there any tunnels connected to the hotel?
Klaus: As a matter of fact, yes. There was one that connected Hotel Bristol and Hotel Imperial, so that the Russians or Americans could move between the two hotels via the tunnel if there was any emergency. It is also possible that there were spies or double agents who used the tunnel too.
Me: Oh wow. Is it still open?
General Manager: No, the city closed the tunnel after the occupation.

It’s fascinating to learn about the stories that lie within the walls of these century-old buildings and how they have played a part in the city’s history and culture.

Diptych made at Hotel Bristol: On the left is the hotel’s lift, the first electric lift to be installed in Vienna and has been in operation since 1898. The interior design includes two seats as apparently the lifts were ‘quite slow’ and ladies in their heavy dresses appreciated the opportunity to rest their feet. How extravagant! On the right is a selfie made on the main stairway.

I tucked “The Third Man” into the back of my mind after I left Vienna.

However, his slippery shadow emerged during a chance encounter at Nijinski, my favourite second-hand bookshop in Brussels.

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I left Nijinski with The Third Man & The Fallen Idol, as well as with The Man Who Was Thursday. It was quite an unusual company!

I stopped at a new Italian cafe and ordered a barraquito. Served in a small glass, this drink is made with an espresso shot, some condensed milk and frothed milk, with a dash of cinnamon and twist of lemon. I was told that this is the typical way that coffee is enjoyed in Tenerife. Good to know that it is not only in southeast Asia where coffee is commonly mixed with condensed milk!

Out on the cafe’s terrace, The Third Man beckoned.

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The 1987 edition that I bought contains a preface from Graham Greene for each of the two stories. It was interesting to note that The Third Man was never meant to be read but only to be seen as a film. I love how Greene described the creation of The Third Man: “Like many love affairs it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places: Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.” 

The protagonist is Rollo Martins – he appears as Holly Martins in the movie. The story starts with Rollo arriving in Vienna during the occupation upon the invitation of an old friend, Harry Lime. The latter’s name immediately gives me the impression that he’s a slimy character (is that why his family name rhymes with “slime”??)

I’m not going to say more about the story except that there are plenty of twists and turns with the plot getting thicker and darker.

The Third Man is a short and engaging story. I finished it on the same day. Enthused, I suggested to AB that we watch the movie. Having read the book, including the preface which mentioned the differences between the film and the story, I was curious to see how the movie is like.

It was fun to watch the story come to life, especially with the comic touches in some scenes which didn’t come across as prominently in the book. I particularly enjoyed the cinematography of the climatic chase scene in the tunnels.

What about The Fallen Idol?

Contrary to the latter, The Fallen Idol was not written for the films. It was first published in 1935 as “The Basement Room”, which is where Baines the butler lives in the house where he’s employed. No espionage here, though there’s plenty of intrigue and deceit surrounding little Philip who idolises Baines. And perhaps a murder too?

While The Fallen Idol is a shorter story, by about 75%, compared to The Third Man, the two films are about the same length and directed by Carol Reed.

Initially, I felt that the pace of the movie was rather slow. This quickly picked up as secrets are unwittingly revealed, resulting in charged and conflicted emotions.

We enjoyed the film version of The Fallen Idol tremendously. At one point during the movie, AB said, “I don’t like it… as in, I don’t like what (dreadful thing I know) is going to happen next!”

I give a big thumbs-up to The Fallen Idol film. Make it two. AB and I agree that its plot is more intriguing and exciting than that of The Third Man. The acting is brilliant too, especially the performance from Robert Henrey who played the little boy.

15 replies on “Graham Greene: The Third Man + The Fallen Idol

  1. Great post, I’ve just finished, ‘I Was Jack Mortimer’, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, (Pushkin Press), some of it located in a room of the Hotel Bristol, a novel well recommended!.

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog! How did you find ‘I was Jack Mortimer’? I still have several Pushkin Press books that I’ve not read yet but have noticed this because of its unusual name.

      The Third Man has some scenes at Hotel Sacher, which is just round the corner from the Bristol 🙂

      1. Once started I was hooked with it, I’ve yet to read ‘The Third Man’ but may pick it up soon. The Pushkin Press seem to go from strength to strength in resuscitating overlooked classics eh?, like you I’ve a few more from them on my shelf to read… It was great to read your post giving a historical background to the building, thank you.

        1. If you like Pushkin Press, check out Twisted Spoon Press ( It is based in Prague and focuses on publishing English translation of East and Central Europe literature. My first book from TSP was “I Burn Paris”, which I enjoyed tremendously.

          1. I read ‘Severin’s Journey Into the Dark’, by Paul Leppin sometime ago and have been meaning to read another title from Twisted Spoon ever since, so maybe I’ll give “I Burn Paris” a read soon, another imprint of interest maybe –, I think “The Little Auto” will definitely be on my summer reading list.

          2. I have “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” waiting for me in the bookshelf 🙂 Thanks for the CB Editions recommendation – shall poke around their website. I’ve only read one poem by Apollinaire “Il pleut”/”It’s raining” which was featured in Deborah Levy’s “Swimming Home” (

            Meanwhile am still deliberating between what to bring for summer holidays! Think it’s down to Stephan Zweig’s “World of Yesterday” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée”…

  2. Totally fascinating about the tunnels! I live only an hour away from Vienna (in Bratislava) and go there often. Just as I think I’m beginning to know the city, I learn something new. The books/films sound interesting, too. Thanks! –Julie

    1. You’re most welcome! They are in fact sewers that were used by certain people to travel across the city (or for AWOL soldiers to hide from the army).

    1. I watched this movie recently too and I loved it! Very refreshing to see some of the things that have spun off from this film – eg a l’air de panache cologne was made by a perfumerie in Paris

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