The Third Man (Blu-ray)
Directed by Carol Reed
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 104 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: December 18, 2008
Review Date: November 29, 2008
Carol Reed’s tale of love and loss in ravaged postwar Vienna is justly celebrated as one of the greatest movies ever made, a reputation on which I heartily concur. 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, and The Third Man delivers that in spades.
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. The film is undoubtedly suspenseful but often Reed doesn’t get enough credit for the deftly dry comic touches he has added to the film, one more reason why The Third Man stands so tall among the greatest achievements in world cinema.
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 had 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 theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Using the same high definition master as the standard DVD released in 2007, the grayscale is pleasing without possessing the deepest possible blacks. However, excellent contrast aids in bringing out an impressive amount of fine object detail while sharpness is excellent. The same few white and black scratches and a thin gray stripe that momentarily appears on the right side of a frame plus a few water spots continue to keep the image from achieving perfection, but this is undoubtedly the best the movie has ever looked on home video. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.5 Mbps) audio track is burdened by the same low level hiss as the previous standard definition release, and there is some momentary flutter, too, but otherwise, the dialogue and the haunting zither music come properly through the center channel in a solid mix as good as this almost sixty year old film can sound.
Several bonus features from the 1999 Criterion DVD release have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. Two of those items are on the Blu-ray disc: 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 the disc 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 video supplements on the disc are presented in standard definition 480p.
Perhaps the 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 9 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.
An archives section 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.
The enclosed 13-page booklet is half the size of the booklet contained in the DVD release of the film. There are fewer stills and production photos from the film, and college professor Luc Sante’s appreciation of the movie is the only essay carried over from the standard definition set’s booklet.
The Criterion Blu-rays are now including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
A cinema classic of the highest order, Carol Reed’s The Third Man has never looked better than in this Criterion Blu-ray release. All of the bonus features have been ported over (with the exception of the thinner booklet) from the previous DVD release, and fans of the movie will undoubtedly want to own this version.