Directed by Carol Reed
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 104 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
Release Date: May 22, 2007
Review Date: May 11, 2007
Carol Reed’s tale of love and loss in ravaged postwar Vienna is justly celebrated as one of the greatest movies ever made. It certainly is in my estimation. The Third Man has just about everything one could wish for in a European film noir: picturesque locale, fascinating characters far more complex than their outward appearances, a touch of mystery, and shadowy chases through wet streets and underground passageways that ratchet tension to the maximum. A sure sign of the film’s greatness is that new layers of meaning await the viewer with each fresh screening.
Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) lands in Vienna penniless but hopeful for a job promised by old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). On arrival, however, he’s dismayed to learn that Harry is dead, killed in a street accident. Wishing to gather more details about his friend’s death, he learns far more than he bargained for and in his dogged persistence in questioning those close to Harry becomes the target for Harry’s business associates who are fearful Holly is getting a little too near the truth for their comfort. And then there is Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s girl. What does she know? Is she to be trusted? Yes, even in a European noir, a femme fatale is a requisite part of the mix.
Superbly photographed on location to take full advantage of the rubble and destruction (all the better to symbolize Holly’s deteriorating friendship with Harry as he gains knowledge of his true nature), The Third Man keeps us constantly off balance with tilted camera angles, deep shadows, and that hypnotic Anton Karas zither music which sets the film apart now even more than half a century after its debut. Even more than Odd Man Out or The Fallen Idol, The Third Man is unquestionably Carol Reed’s masterpiece.
Joseph Cotten never bettered his performance here, not even with his celebrated work in Citizen Kane and Shadow of a Doubt. His stubborn insistence on his friend’s goodness and innocence only to be heartbroken later when he learns the truth reaches a poignancy he never achieved on screen again, and that frustration continues as he likewise falls under the spell of Anna in a no-win situation which ends with one of the most famous final shots in film history.
Reed directs the other actors to career high points, too. Alida Valli made a lackluster impression in the US with a cold, stiff performance in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, but Reed uses her rigidity to perfection in this movie as she keeps us guessing throughout as to her part in the entire sordid affair. Enough can’t be said of Orson Welles’ memorable turn as Harry Lime, all ironic smiles and quips masking a cold-blooded nature that’s chilling to experience. Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfred Hyde-White: all act to superb effect in their various roles adding color, depth, and even humor to what is a very serious but nevertheless exciting drama.
The film’s original black and white 1.33:1 aspect ratio is presented in a slightly windowboxed format typical of Criterion’s Academy ratio presentations. Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography has been captured in a grayscale that is superb with excellent shadow detail, rich, solid blacks, whites that are never overblown, and a very sharp image. There is medium grain to be found in quite a few shots, and there are occasional spots and a scratch or two on the DVD transfer. A light gray stripe also runs through a few minutes of the film in the middle right portion of the frame which I only noticed the second time through. In comparison to the 1999 Criterion release of this film (which featured a restoration comparison that boasted 22,000 instances of cleaning and repair work), this new transfer seems somewhat cleaner with fewer speckles but with a tad more grain. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track has been recorded at an accelerated level that required the volume knob on my receiver to be turned down significantly. There was some hiss on the track as well, but it was never obtrusive. Otherwise, the audio was clear and precise while lacking a solid bottom end, typical of many older soundtracks.
Several bonus features from the 1999 Criterion release have been ported over to this release. Two of those items are on disc one: an introduction to the film by director-writer Peter Bogdanovich and screenwriter Graham Greene’s original screen treatment of his story as read by the late actor Richard Clarke. The latter is recorded as an alternate track to the film so one can watch the movie and see how scenes were originally planned by the author.
Also included on disc one are two running commentaries. The first and lesser of the two is a conversation between Oscar-winning director Stephen Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Though both men have impressive film credentials, their commentary is not especially interesting merely giving obvious judgments on scenes or shots that please them and offering little in the way of critical commentary or pertinent facts about the production. In fact, at several points, Gilroy asks questions about the making of the film which Soderbergh who had read a book on the film’s production can’t answer with any assurance.
The second commentary track is by film professor Dana Polan, and it’s a definite step up from the other track. Here we get the astute commentary and critique worthy of inclusion on a Criterion disc, and while some may find the analysis overly wordy, Mr. Polan's enthusiastic delivery includes facts throughout his critique that make it highly informative.
The majority of the special features reside on the second disc. Perhaps its most notable content is the 93-minute 2005 documentary Shadowing “The Third Man” directed by Frederick Baker and presented in anamorphic video. Though the feature contains fascinating behind-the-scenes information from, among others, assistant director Guy Hamilton and relatives of producers Alexander Korda and David Selznick, the film’s running time is extended due to the director’s overuse of lengthy clips from the film, often artily (even pretentiously) projected on walls, snow banks, and Venetian blinds. A masterpiece of the caliber of The Third Man needs no overtly flashy methods of presenting its goods for display. The magic is right there in (no pun intended) black and white.
A 1968 black and white episode of the British arts series Omnibus centered on author Graham Greene who agreed to be recorded but not photographed. So for 56 minutes, we’re treated to some scintillating voiceover conversation with the great writer with all manner of visuals. Scenes from several of his books including The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, and Brighton Rock were dramatically staged for the program. The Third Man is not mentioned at all.
A 29-minute featurette entitled Who Was the Third Man? is a documentary prepared for Austrian television to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. The 4:3 program features color and black and white footage with archival film clips tracing the making of the film in Vienna. The German language feature has white English subtitles occasionally difficult to read against white backgrounds.
A neat little documentary called Insider Information on the making of the film also uses behind-the-scenes stills but this time with a voiceover narration. This runs not quite nine minutes.
There is also a brief section on the disc where scenes in the film which involved German dialogue not translated into English are presented with subtitles for the curious to know exactly what the actors are saying.
The second disc concludes with several items which were included on Criterion’s 1999 DVD presentation of this film. An archives section on the disc includes three short features: a three minute glimpse at musician Anton Karas playing his zither at London’s Empress Club, two minutes with the legendary underground police in the Vienna sewers, and a stills and text presentation entitled The Third Man’s Vienna. Also carried over from the previous release is the U.S. theatrical trailer, Joseph Cotten’s voiceover narration for the beginning of the film used in its US engagements, Orson Welles on the radio as Harry Lime in “A Ticket to Tangiers,” and the 1951 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the movie.
As with all of Criterion’s recent releases, an enclosed 26-page booklet holds other riches. There are stills and production photos from the film, college professor Luc Sante’s appreciation of the movie, an all-too-brief summary of Charles Brazin’s book on the making of the picture by the author himself, and author Philip Kerr on Graham Greene’s palpable presence within the frames of the film.
The Third Man needs no endorsement from me to retain its place firmly among the great masterworks of world cinema. In its bold storytelling and absolute mastery of cinematic technique, it is truly a film for the ages. Thus it comes with the highest possible recommendation.