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The Third Man
Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Stars: Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway), Bernard Lee (Sergeant Paine), Paul Hoerbiger (Harry’s Porter), Ernst Deutsch (“Baron” Kurtz), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1949
Country: U.K. / U.S.
The Third Man: Criterion Collection DVD
You really think I’d be run over by a truck? Before discussing The Third Man, there is one thing I need to get off my chest: Although it is considered inseparable from the film and a classic in its own right, I feel that Anton Karas’s much-celebrated zither score is not only the weakest thing in the film, but very nearly undermines what is otherwise a virtually perfect postwar mystery thriller. On its own, Karas’s score is fine: complex and zesty, it rings in your ears for hours after you hear it. But, playing over smoky black-and-white images of postwar black-market intrigue and the investigation of a mysterious death in war-ravaged Vienna, the music is not only inappropriate, but at times downright silly. I may be in the minority here, but one of my dreams is to see The Third Man rescored with music that works for the film, not against it.

Now that I’ve aired that complaint, I can move into otherwise unbridled praise for Carol Reed’s near masterpiece. Written by novelist Graham Greene with his typically keen sense of dialogue and character, The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martine (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp novelist (his specialty is Westerns)--a “scribbler who drinks too much.” At the behest of his longtime friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), Holly travels to Vienna in the immediate aftermath of World War II, where he finds the partially destroyed city divided into four quadrants, each of which is controlled by one of the Allied forces: Americans, British, French, and Russians.

No sooner has Holly made his way to Lime’s apartment then he learns of his friend’s recent demise. Apparently, Lime was run over in the street just outside his building, although the various eyewitnesses all tell slightly different stories; some say he was killed instantly, others say he was still alive when he was carried to the side of the street, and there is the suggestion that there was an unknown “third man” who helped after the accident and has since disappeared.

Holly begins to suspect that Lime’s death was not an accident, but a calculated murder, and his subsequent investigation takes him deep into the murky back alleys of Vienna and its shady black-market dealings. Early on he runs afoul of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British military police investigator who believes that Lime was a dirty black marketer who deserved his untimely death for dealing in watered-down penicillin. Holly also becomes involved with Harry’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czech actress pretending to be Austrian to avoid being repatriated by the Soviet Union.

Reed had been directing films in England since the 1930s, and had made several well-regarded thrillers, including the Hitchcockian Night Train to Munich (1940) and The Fallen Idol (1948), the first of his three collaborations with Greene (the third being 1959’s Our Man in Havana). But, it was The Third Man that established him as a filmmaker of international standing, particularly because it bridged the gap between American and British filmmaking, taking the best from both worlds. Although written and directed by two Brits, the cast was a mix of Americans and Europeans, and the producing duties were split between the powerful Hungarian-born British producer Alexander Korda (the first film producer ever to be knighted) and the American David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind), virtually the only powerhouse independent producer of the studio era and the man responsible for bringing Alfred Hitchcock stateside.

The Third Man has often been described as “European noir” for the way it relocates the tone, style, and themes of American film noir to a European setting. The match is evocative, with the rubble of war-torn Vienna and its cavernous sewer system, which are frequently shot from slightly canted angles, providing perfect visual signifiers of the noir-ish themes of betrayal, dislocation, and the failure of larger social systems to protect the individual. Robert Krasker’s cinematography is sublime in the way it stylizes the story’s shadowy settings without losing a fundamental sense of reality. The location photography in Vienna helps to establish the narrative’s elaborate double-dealings in a recognizable materiality, giving it that much more emotional heft. This is the story, after all, of best friends betraying each other.

And this, of course, brings us to the uniformly excellent cast, which reteams Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles as best friends/antagonists, which they had played before in Citizen Kane (1941). Cotten makes an excellent protagonist--one of those conflicted, weary noir heroes whose attempts to do the right thing land him deeper and deeper in the darkness. Many have suggested that Harry Lime was the role Welles was born to play, and despite the fact he’s on screen for a scant 10 minutes, he leaves an indelible impression, even when he doesn’t say a word (the first time he is revealed on screen ranks high among the all-time great star entrances).

It has also been suggested that Welles, who was in Europe at the time trying to mount his own productions, had more than a little influence over the film’s visual look (he also wrote the unforgettable speech he gives on the Ferris wheel about the cuckoo clock). There is some debate about just how much control Welles had over the scenes in which he appeared, but even if he didn’t call a single shot on the set itself, his 1940s films, particularly the noir-ish Citizen Kane and outright noir The Lady From Shanghai (1947) were clearly influential in Reed’s visualizing of The Third Man. The ultimate irony, of course, is that The Third Man has gone on to become one of the most influential films in Western cinema, its shadow ultimately looming larger than any one of its individual collaborators.

The Third Man Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video introduction by writer-director Peter Bogdanovich
  • Audio commentary by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy
  • Audio commentary by by film scholar Dana Polan
  • Shadowing “The Third Man” (2005), 90-minute documentary
  • Abridged recording of Graham Greene’s treatment, read by actor Richard Clarke
  • “Graham Greene: The Hunted Man,” 1968 episode of the BBC’s Omnibus series
  • “Who Was the Third Man?” (2000), 30-minute Austrian documentary
  • 1951 “A Ticket to Tangiers” episode of The Lives of Harry Lime radio series
  • 1951 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of The Third Man
  • Illustrated production history with rare behind-the-scenes photos, original UK press book, and U.S. trailer
  • Actor Joseph Cotten’s alternate opening voice-over narration for the U.S. version
  • Archival footage of postwar Vienna
  • A look at the untranslated foreign dialogue in the film
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by Luc Sante, Charles Drazin, and Philip Kerr
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 22, 2007

    This is another of Criterion’s recent revisits of a previous release. There was nothing particularly wrong with the original 1999 DVD of The Third Man, although, not surprisingly, Criterion has found more ways than one to outdo themselves. Like the original disc, the new high-definition transfer on the reissue was taken from a restored 35mm fine-grain master positive, but the print is clearly different. The image is slightly better in the new transfer, particularly in the way it better maintains grain structure and therefore better approximates a filmlike image. There is also less damage this time around, with virtually all tiny nicks, scratches, and bits of dust taken care of by the MTI Digital Restoration System. The other main difference between the two transfers is that the reissue is slightly windowboxed, a practice I still have a hard time justifying despite Criterion’s explanation that it is intended to allow for optimal viewing on all monitors. The monaural soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from a restored 35mm fine-grain master positive print and digitally restored, is superb. There are no aural artifacts or hissing at any point, and the soundtrack has a surprising depth and vitality for being monaural, especially with all the echoes and gunshots in the sewer chase sequence.
    Perhaps to justify revisiting an already solid DVD release, Criterion has gone above and beyond in procuring a vast array of supplements for this new two-disc special edition. Virtually all the supplements available on the 1999 DVD are reproduced here: a five-minute video introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, an abridged recording of Graham Greene’s original treatment read by actor Richard Clark; a 1951 episode of The Lives of Harry Lime radio series written and performed by Orson Welles, as well as the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of The Third Man; David O. Selznick’s alternate opening for the U.S. version of the film, which shortens the intro and replaces Carol Reed’s narration with Joseph Cotten’s; behind-the-scenes photographs; three minutes of archival footage of Anton Karas playing his zither score at a party; a two-minute archival film titled “In the Underworld of Vienna” about the Special Command Brigade that patrolled Vienna’s sewers; and the original theatrical trailer. The only supplements from the original disc not included here are the 50th anniversary re-release trailer and a restoration demonstration (clearly not appropriate here with the new transfer).

    In addition to what we’ve seen before, there is a wealth of new supplements, starting with two new audio commentaries. The first is a friendly and extremely insightful conversation between filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (whose most recent film, The Good German, was clearly influenced by The Third Man) and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), while the second is a more academic analysis by film scholar Dana Polan. The disc also includes several documentaries, starting with Shadowing “The Third Man” (2005), a 90-minute feature documentary on the film’s production that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. This is an excellent overview of the film’s production and lore, but it could have been 20 minutes shorter if it had included less footage from the film projected onto odd surfaces like doors, building exteriors, and the film’s famous Ferris wheel. “Graham Greene: The Hunted Man” is an hour-long episode of the BBC’s Omnibus series from 1968 that features a rare interview with the novelist, and “Who Was the Third Man?” (2000) is a 30-minute Austrian documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew. Also included is a 9-minute production history written by Charles Drazin (author of In Search of “The Third Man”) with voice-over narration by actor Robb Webb; all the scenes from the film that include dialogue in foreign languages with subtitles so non-polyglots can finally know what the characters are saying; the original British pressbook; and a slideshow of images of postwar Vienna.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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