City of Light

I am sitting in the sunshine of the Place des Vosges, sheltered by the precise square of its 17th Century terraces, when I notice I am a little too warm, and that it is the first day of Spring. I had not planned my flying visit to Paris for this reason, but it seems to have worked out just right.

Yesterday I was at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. As I climbed the streets of Montmartre towards it, a worker clad from head to foot in white overalls was lowering himself through a manhole. At Mass, a Benedictine nun who is providing musical accompaniment plays a zither. (The congregation of nuns attached to the Basilica was conceived of by Adèle Garnier at a time in 1872 when the building was still at the planning stage and she was not yet ordained.)

Too late: this European city is obliging me to think of “The Third Man”.

In February 1948, Graham Greene, author of the screenplay, flew to Vienna at the invitation of producer Alexander Korda. Greene had written just an opening paragraph, and it was Korda who believed that the war-damaged capital would make an excellent film setting. Greene lunched with a British intelligence officer who told him that he had tried to abolish the “Underground Police”, only to discover that they were not secret police, but rather police who worked along the sewers. “I had my film”, Greene later recalled.

Surprisingly, the section of dialogue improvised in the film by Orson Welles – the one comparing the devious Italian Renaissance culture that spawned Michelangelo and Leonardo with the peace-loving Swiss temperament, which had produced the cuckoo clock – is believed not to be original. Students of the film have guessed the source to be the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Yip Harburg, Broadway and Hollywood lyricist, wrote “April in Paris” after a producer had ordered a set representing a Parisian scene and told Mr Harburg to write a lyric suitable for it. When he was asked how he had evoked the city so warmly despite never having been there, he responded, “After all, I was never over the rainbow either.”

On the night of April 21st, 1944, thirteen bombs dropped on Sacré-Cœur and shattered all the stained-glass windows. Its stated vocation, perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, went on.

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