The Third Man (1949)Overview -
Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, black-market opportunist Harry Lime--and thus begins this legendary tale of love, deception, and murder. Thanks to brilliant performances by Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles; Anton Karas's evocative zither score; Graham Greene’s razor-sharp dialogue; and Robert Krasker’s dramatic use of light and shadow, The Third Man, directed by the inimitable Carol Reed, only grows in stature as the years pass.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
There is no shortage of films about war. The subject has captured the minds and imaginations of the world, with the limitless amount of amazing first hand accounts, and the fictional dramatizations that hit the theaters on a yearly basis, telling the tales of the heroes, villains, great loves, miracles, and tragedies that have befallen the world in time of battle. The funny thing, to me at least, is that there aren’t anywhere near as many films that tell the story of the world recovering from the war, the men and women rebuilding their lives and families, or those who set out for their own selfish means, to become rich, in the areas hit hardest by the bloodshed. Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man,’ is one such tale, concerning a man who used the desperate post-war situation around him to further his own means.
The story follows Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a fledgling writer, who arrives in Vienna, responding to a message from his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) that offered him a job. Nearly immediately, though, Martins discovers that Lime is dead, as the result of an auto accident just before his arrival. Wanting to find out what happened, Martins begins to probe Lime’s friends and neighbors, only to discover discrepancies in the stories, and is told that, contrary to the police report, there were three men who helped move Lime’s body to a nearby statue, not just two. Martins sets out to find out about the third man, unraveling the shroud of mystery surrounding Lime and his racket, crossing paths with the police, and with Lime’s female companion Anna Schmidt(Alida Valli), an actress who may know the truth behind the story.
To say that Welles steals this show is an understatement. The entire film up to his introduction leads up to discovering he is not as dead as his tombstone would indicate. This may be considered a *spoiler*, but anyone who knows Welles is in the film can figure out who he plays by his conspicuous absence through most of ‘The Third Man.’ His silent first appearance in the film is memorable and haunting. His diatribe in the famous ferris wheel scene is ominous, and disturbing. The film takes a drastic turn in tone upon his introduction, yet doesn’t fall apart; instead, it draws viewers in, as a new level of tension is introduced. Instead of wondering what really happened, we are now curious to know why a man would go to the lengths that Lime went to fall off the face of the Earth.
The depths that man would go for material gain, to the point of losing one’s humanity (and life), is a theme that is barely skimmed in ‘The Third Man,’ but it is an important plot point to consider when viewing the film, as one becomes informed of Lime’s selfish transgressions, ones that did irreparable harm to others. As Lime's famous ferris wheel rant reveals, he places very little value on a human life if it is not his own.
The city of Vienna, the sole setting of ‘The Third Man,’ plays as important a part as any actor in the film. The bombed out city, with rubble scattered everywhere, had a powerful look, which presented the desperate situations of the inhabitants fantastically. Piles of bricks and dirt are stacked against buildings, playing an important part of a few crucial scenes in the film, while the labyrinth-like sewer system creates a setting of wonderful tension for the finale, where danger is lurking around any corner. These sewers can seen as a very thinly veiled analogy, especially the shots of the fingers protruding through the grates, desperate to escape.
I've always imagined the story told in the film to be the one that Martins later writes to recount the complicated affair. He makes numerous references, when discussing the situation with police, that he will use the situation in a novel he is working on, entitled “The Third Man.” The story is told solely through Martins’ eyes, and encompasses the perfect mix of intrigue and suspense, a mysterious love triangle, and a betrayal. Whether you romanticize the film in this matter, or not, there are plenty of ways to enjoy this bit of classic cinema.
‘The Third Man’ was amongst the introductory slate of Criterion Collection Blu-rays, after a long hold out by the distributor to release titles on a high def medium. A classic black and white film, ‘The Third Man’ is full of unusual, intentionally disorienting angles (so much so, that a famous anecdote involves William Wyler, a friend of director Carol Reed, sending him a level). This Blu-ray presents the title in it’s authentic pillarboxed full frame (1.33:1) ratio, with an AVC MPEG-4 codec.
There is a natural, non-intrusive grain in this release, with a fair amount of imperfections in the source. Specks of dirt, scratches, and vertical lines are present throughout the entire movie, and the film sometimes has a bit of a horizontal shift from time to time. There is also a bit of a flicker in the lighting occasionally, though it is not very distracting. Some whites appear busy with noise, particularly the final shot of the film in the cemetery sky.
The tremendous amount of positive aspects and features to this video transfer greatly outweigh the negatives. Facial features are amazingly detailed, from the bumps, curves, lines and indents in a character’s face, to individual strands of hair being perfectly clear, both when formed in a taut hairstyle of some, to the wild, stray hairs of others. Clothing shows intricate detail, too, from the cross stitched patterns in overcoats, to dangling bits of fur, to the indents, curves, and contours of hats, or rich black shoes with fine stitching and bright reflection from the lighting. This fine detail is also apparent in both the foregrounds and backgrounds, from the war torn, jagged walls, to the fine outlines in the deep, dark cobblestone roads and the varying patterns in the bricks in the sewers. Contrast is fantastic, while there are countless shades of grey providing character and depth to the background. There is a beautiful three dimensional feel throughout the entire film.
‘The Third Man’ also boasts an incredibly rich, deep black level, which is particularly noticeable in night shots, as interiors and daytime moments are, for the most part, a menagerie of greys and whites. Shadows from actors can overlap shadows from the set, and as the characters move, their shadows lurk clearly among the deep backgrounds. In short, this is a beautiful video presentation, and while it's not perfect, it looks wonderful for a film this age.
The audio for this release is a purist's dream, while it may disappoint those who are under the belief that Blu-ray must have some amazing lossless surround track. A lossless mono track is provided for ‘The Third Man,’ and it does a great job, from the credits shot in the film, the extreme close-up filling the screen to the strings of a playing zither (the sole instrument used in the score), to the finale of the film. The Anton Karas zither score is easily the best sounding element of the film, with it’s great range and beautiful, peculiar feel permeating the film, at times as the forefront element.
Dialogue is very crisp, and clear throughout, even through the score and atmospheric sounds, with spoken words in multi-story buildings possessing a sweet sounding echo. The Rice Krispies (snap, crackle, and pop) are completely absent from this track, in addition to lacking any audio hiss. The most powerful segment of this track has to be the sewer climax, as boots bang across bricks, splash in the water, and clang against the metal stairs in the filthy labyrinth. I could only register a single complaint, that sometimes bass, in dialogue, had a bit of an unusual thump on some sounds, such as the first syllables of some words.
Criterion Blu-ray releases are packaged in thin cardboard digipaks, complete with slipcovers, that are attractive, yet fairly flimsy. It seems a common occurrence to receive a package with a 30 to 40 degree slant in the packaging along the spine.
The Criterion Collection is perhaps best known for it’s immersive supplement packages and the extras for ‘The Third Man’ are a perfect example. Originally released by Criterion on DVD on a single disc, “50th Anniversary Edition,” ‘The Third Man’ also saw a Criterion re-release in 2007 as a two disc set, loaded to the brim with extras. This Blu-ray release matches the extras from the latter release, with the main difference between the releases being found in the booklet (a staple for Criterion releases, an afterthought for nearly every other distributor), as the dvd edition had more essays than the one included here, from Luc Sante.
- Audio Commentary by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and screen writer/director Tony Gilroy - This track is full of interesting tidbits from the pair of modern filmmakers concerning ‘The Third Man,’ such as casting rumors, shooting schedules, the merits of the film versus the test of time, and the decisions of the characters in the films. The comparison of Welles on the ferris wheel to Bugs Bunny is particularly interesting, funny, but somewhat truthful.
- Audio Commentary by film scholar Dana Polan -
This commentary is easily the superior of the two. The professor of cinema studies from New York University recorded this rapid fire track for the release of the two disc DVD edition in 2006. This track is absolutely amazing in it’s analysis of the film, as the smallest detail, both from lines in the film, or character’s subconscious actions, is expounded upon. I could not have asked for more from any commentary.
- ‘The Third Man’ Treatment - Read by Richard Clarke, an abridged reading of the story of ‘The Third Man’ in it’s first draft. This track plays over the film, much like a commentary, only without the bits of the film slightly audible in the background. The gaps in the story are covered with pieces of the zither score. This track is actually quite interesting, as it gave me a bit of insight into some of the tiny elements in the film, such as the tea scene between Holly and Anna, which is vastly superior with the descriptions given here, fleshing out the scene greatly.
- Peter Bogdanovich Introduction (SD, 4 min) - A short intro by the actor/filmmaker, who was a lifelong friend of Welles, splashed with occasional stills from the film.
- Shadowing ‘The Third Man’ (SD, 93 min) - A documentary narrated by John Hurt, detailing the truths and mistruths of the film, full of interesting anecdotes, including the abuse of drugs (uppers and downers) for production purposes. The most important part of this feature, in my eyes, is found early, with archival footage of Welles disclaiming directing any portion of the film, a common misconception due to the style of some of the shots. The further into the feature you get, the more prolonged the footage from the film gets, outweighing the analysis at times.
- Who was the Third Man? (SD,29 min) - This German retrospective commemorates the 50th anniversary of ‘The Third Man.’ English subtitles (that default on, but are removable) are provided, as this feature has no alternate audio track. Footage of modern Vienna is interspersed between clips of the film, analysis, interviews, and vintage footage. This feature does a fantastic job painting the situation that created the circumstances in the film: the lack of penicillin, the rationing of food, and the police state. The 29 minute runtime absolutely flies by, and is definitely worth the time it takes to watch.
- “A Ticket to Tangiers” (29 min) - The first version of ‘The Third Man,’ a radio feature focusing on the adventures of Harry Lime, from a weekly series entitled “The Lives of Harry Lime.” Starring Orson Welles, this story is a far cry from the film, in terms of suspense, and the dealings of Lime. Welles’ deep rumble is very hypnotic, and had it not been for his involvement, this radio play would have been dreadful.
- Lux Radio Theatre Presents “The Third Man” (60 min) - The second of the ‘The Third Man’ on the radio features. Starring Joseph Cotten, Evelyn Keyes, Ben Wright, Edgar Barrier, Irene Winston, and Ted de Corsia. Broadcast in April of 1951, this telling of the story even includes the radio commercials. I have to say Cotten did a fantastic job reprising his role, his voice having the same tone and inflection as in the film, but the rest of the cast were poor substitutes, especially Keyes as Anna. The most famous lines in the film, concerning a certain cuckoo clock, are butchered, as de Corsia attempts to be dramatic Additionally, the zither score sounds amateur, and there are bits of orchestra, as well, rather than the pure zither score of the film.
- Insider Information (SD, 8 min) - A gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, with narration by Robb Webb, culled from the book “In Search of ‘The Third Man,’” by Charles Drazin. This feature tells the tale of making the film, from casting, production, and shooting, and while it is very slow moving, it is very informative, and doesn’t overlap the information from the commentaries too much.
- U.S. vs. UK Version (SD, 3 min) - The film has had more than one opening voiceover, and the differences between the openings of the film are compared in this feature. The differences aren’t about different shots, as they are for the most part the same, but rather how the character of Martins is portrayed as at the start of the film.
- Kind to Foreigners (SD, 5 min) - There are some non-English lines spread throughout the film, and this feature looks at them, with subtitles. The scenes definitely have a different feel to them, with Martins being cursed without his knowledge. The language barrier of the area is never overly explored in the film, save for the opening voiceovers, so this extra is a bit neat.
- Original U.S. Trailer (SD, 2 min) - If you want to see how drastic an upgrade in audio and video quality this Blu-ray is, look no further. I’ve always loved classic film trailers, with their unique narration, and constant repetition of the film’s title.
- Original UK Press book (HD) - A compilation of pages from the original UK press book, in gallery form. 26 images of this nice piece of film history are presented, with multiple shots zoomed in for legibility.
- Anton Karas at London’s Empress Club (SD, 3 min) - The first of three “From the Archives” features. There’s nothing overly special here, just footage of Karas playing his trademark zither, while some diners are a bit confused.
- In the Underworld of Vienna (SD, 2 min) - A vintage clip detailing police in Vienna, who have manhole duty. The job stinks, but somebody’s got to do it. Some shots portray amazingly narrow tunnels that are not in the film.
- ‘The Third Man’s’ Vienna (HD) - The last of the “From the Archives” extras is a photo gallery, accompanied by backstory. The segregation of the city by the four allies is shown in a map, destroyed architecture is on display, and there are some neat police posters. The possible inspiration for Lime is explained, as well, in one of the text shots.
- Graham Greene: The Hunted Man (SD, 56 min) - A vintage (1968) profile of the writer of ‘The Third Man,’ from the BBC “Omnibus” series. To say that this feature is all over the place would be akin to calling Harry Lime child-friendly. The interview of Greene is played over some very random footage that is for the most extreme of fans only.
Is my praise of the film not yet enough to convince you to give this film a viewing if you've never had the pleasure? If not, consider the fact that ‘The Third Man’ was rated the best British film of the 20th century by the BFI in 1999, and was a part of the AFI’s “100 Years... 100 Movies,” a show that highlighted the greatest American films ever made. While it may not make much sense for a film to be claimed as both an American film and a British film (‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ and ‘Doctor Zhivago’ also have this odd distinction), what does make sense is the Criterion Collection including this all-time classic in it’s library of screen gems. With strong video and audio, and the same amazing supplement package as the 2006 two disc DVD, ‘The Third Man’ on Blu-ray is as highly recommended as they come.
Complete Your Collection Screwheads! - Where to Find Sam Raimi Films on Blu-ray or 4K UHDBy:
Time To Get Your Fuzzy Pink Elephant - HDD's 4K UHD & Blu-ray Shopping Guide Feb 18, 2024By:
The Criterion Collection Dates & Details May 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Blu-ray ReleasesBy:
Turbine Celebrates 50 Years of Flesh Gordon With 4 New Fully Engorged Blu-Ray MediabooksBy: