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 Disc: Vital Stats
'The Third Man' arrives alongside 'Delicatessen' as the first titles in the StudioCanal Collection to land Stateside since 'Contempt,' 'Ran,' and 'The Lady Killers.' That isn't to say that there were no other releases in this line in the meantime, as there are numerous other SC titles available in the UK as of present, released in the months between.
This marks the second release of 'The Third Man' on Blu-ray here domestically (though the UK release will mark its first appearance across the pond), as it was originally released through the Criterion Collection (as spine number 64). That release was one of the first Blu-rays to go out of print, due to the owners revoking distribution rights on the title, so that they may press their own, creating a competitive line to the famous collection. One non-disc extra with this release is a 20 page booklet, featuring article by Charles Drazin.
The disc itself is a BD50 Dual Layer Disc, housed in a cut-out eco-case that is held by a solid, dark black slipcover. Let's just avoid comment on the artwork for this release, as it is quite...unique. The packaging for this re-release indicates the disc as Region A locked, much like the Criterion release, and my LG BH100. The audio and subtitle options on this release vary from the concurrent UK release. There is no concurrent DVD release for this title, making the Blu-ray the only in-print offering at this time, domestically.
Upon inserting this disc into your player, you will be prompted as to what country you reside in, the USA or Japan. Previous SC titles had a pile of European countries listed, and this is further proof of the (inane) region coding for this title. The Amazon.com listing states that this is the first colorized version of the film, however, no such blasphemy is contained on this release. This is the classic black and white only version we've all grown to love.
'The Third Man' is presented with a 1.33:1 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer that varies significantly from the Criterion Collection release that bowed almost two years ago. That isn't necessarily a good thing.
There's quite a smattering of dirt, debris, and lines all over this release, significantly more than the previous version, with some amazingly large or heinous onslaughts leaving one to wonder how much it would have cost to license the Criterion supervised restoration. Brightness levels can still shift, as they did before, but shadow details take a humongous drop. Where black on black in the darkest shadows used to be quite easy to discern, now it's just one big mess. The picture retains some nice depth, but detail levels take a hit. Edges appear pretty clean, free from halos of any kind. Aliasing pops up from time to time in the jackets of the actors, in varying degrees (the tighter the pattern, the more problematic it can be).
Let me just say I wouldn't have minded a brown tint, caused by a layer of barbeque sauce smeared across the picture, compared to the sometimes blurry, borderline sterile and inhuman veneer found here. Early reports and screenshots showed this release having a significant amount of grain removed from the picture, and as much as I hate to give any credit to screenshots, they were right. Jackets and their intricate stitching appear smeared, while the stitching on Major Calloway's shoulders is illegible, even in a closeup of his arm. The sewers never looked cleaner, and that's just dirty. There is no disputing how different this release looks from the Criterion edition, but these changes, they're not for the better. Another blow to the StudioCanal Collection name. A big, big blow. If there weren't a previous release, this wouldn't have been as big a deal, but since we know the potential, it's downright unforgivable.
I really, really hate to sound like a Criterion cheerleader, but this time, this one time, I cannot dispute the evidence. This time, the up and comer is a goner, by comparison. The Linear PCM 1.0 mix has been replaced with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 version, and it isn't even close.
Anton Karas' zither playing reaches highs that the rest of the film cannot, but when it gets loud, it gets rough. Really rough. Tinny, screechy, sometimes with notes and fast playing becoming an indistinguishable mess. Dialogue is for the most part clear, but some lines and scenes feel like the dialogue just isn't even attached, like it's in a different room harmonic, just awkward, disassociated. The amount of snap, crackle, and pop beneath the entire film puts Rice Crispies to absolute shame. Louder dialogue blares, and the entire sewer sequence that highlights the tense finale is incredibly difficult to hear properly. The opening of the grates to the sewer in the climax give a tiny clank, whereas before it was a loud, proper clang, reflecting their weight.
Just five minutes with the Criterion disc, after watching the StudioCanal Collection version, made me quite sad. Out with the good, in with the crap, in terms of audio.
A huge smattering of extras from the Criterion release of this film did not find their way onto this release. It would take much less time and "print" to say what is still here from that pressing, but I'm getting to that in a second. The two audio commentaries are gone, as is the amazing 'The Third Man' Treatment reading. Bogdanovich's intro was axed, as was the full length documentary, and the Who Was the Third Man? feature. The Lux Radio Theatre radio presentation of the story is gone, as is the comparison between releases (though the alternate opening is found by its lonesome here). Kind to Foreigners, a take on the non-English dialogue, is gone, as is the press book, footage of Anton Karas, of Vienna police, a discussion through gallery of the city separation, and the hour long feature on the original writer.
The StudioCanal Collection release of 'The Third Man' is definitely unique. It has great extras, but still falls short of the impossible to reach standard set by the amazing pile found on the Criterion Collection release. That release was among the first titles to go out of print from one distributor, to reappear in another library on the Blu-ray format. And it's so far removed from the presentation quality of the Criterion that it may as well be DVD.
This Collection has earned itself a not-so-good reputation among the Blu-ray community with their troubles with 'Ran' and 'Breathless,' and after some time away, they've come back with more of the same. Buy the Criterion release. Don't look at the price and get scared away. It's worth twice that much, content-wise. If you're on a tight budget, this release will be quite tempting, but we're talking about the best home video format to date here. Good enough just isn't good enough, anymore, especially when we already know the potential of a title from past releases. A big step backwards.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.