Criterion // 1949 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // May 22nd, 2007
"You're going to find me the real criminal -- perhaps like one of your stories?"
In 1948, when novelist Graham Greene headed to Vienna to concoct a plot for a movie, he saw a city divided into four zones -- American, British, French, and Russian. The black market was rife in the starving city as people dug out of the rubble with bare hands. Particularly nasty was a ring that supplied deadly, watered-down pencillin.
"Many Austrians were still living on the minimum ration of less than two thousand calories a day," a text feature notes as it points out that "the most basic of supplies and foodstuffs were still unavailable." Even film stock from the production itself disappeared into the black market hole. "Land of peas, land of beans, land of the four Allied zones. We're selling you, on the sly, our beloved Austria," a parody of the Austrian national anthem said, referring to the illegal trade.
Like Holly Martins, the protagonist of The Third Man, Graham Greene had seen a friend's moral decency put into question. Greene's former boss in the British Secret Service was infamous traitor Kim Philby. Philby, moreover, had helped leftists escape through the Vienna sewers in Austria's brief 1934 civil war.
Thus, postwar Vienna was the perfect setting for one of Greene's "entertainments." He wrote a treatment, which called its hero Rollo Martins and had a very different, more upbeat ending than the one that reached the screen. That treatment, which became a novella, can be found in abridged form in this two-disc set and is available elsewhere at full length.
The movie brought two heavyweight producers together: Britain's Alexander Korda and America's David O. Selznick. It's said throughout the supplemental materials that Selznick clashed often with Korda and director Carol Reed -- but if he also influenced the powerful final frames of the movie as mentioned, Selznick's presence was certainly worth it.
The Third Man left a lasting impact on the movies. As an essay in the accompanying booklet notes, it's one of those movies that -- even if you haven't seen it -- looks familiar because its themes and touches have been picked up a million times. All of those themes and touches are discussed in detail on the two discs of The Third Man: Criterion Collection.
"He must have known I was broke -- even sent me a plane ticket," Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane) says of his thoughtful friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin). Martins was expecting Lime to meet him at the train, but instead finds himself going to Lime's funeral.
After Lime's coffin is buried, British security chief Major Callaway (Trevor Howard, Green for Danger) has a talk with Martins, telling the loyal friend that Lime was a racketeer. "You could say that murder was part of his racket," Callaway says. Not believing the major, Martins decides to look into Lime's death -- and life -- on his own.
Martins soon finds a discrepancy in the testimony at the inquest. The porter at Lime's apartment building says there was a third man, not previously mentioned, at the crime scene. When the porter is murdered, it looks like finding the third man will be the key to the mystery -- and clearing Martins in the porter's murder.
Along the way Martins meets Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch, So Ends Our Night), who carries a small dog and a copy of one of Martins's novels; Popesco, who confronts Martins with a warning to stay out of the matter; Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto), who just can't be pinned down under questioning; and Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, The Paradine Case), Lime's girlfriend who's having trouble with a passport.
Will Holly Martins find the third man and solve the mystery behind his friend's accident?
Like many a British mystery, The Third Man is full of atmospheric detail, starting with the opening narration. As you hear Carol Reed in opening narration say, "The situation does tempt amateurs, but they can't stay the course like a professional," the point is illustrated by a body bobbing in the river. The Third Man manages to maintain the opening's mixture of seriousness, melodrama, and levity.
The use of small details is masterful throughout. When Holly Martins questions the porter, a sad-faced boy chases a ball into the room. That boy is the one who sees Martins at a murder scene and points the finger at the novelist. He's also at the front of the line chasing Martins and Anna Schmidt through the Vienna streets. The German voices that are constantly in the background reach an accusing crescendo in this scene as well. Often, the noise of people shouting, combined with the light from windows, lets the audience know there are people around in the desolate environment of postwar Vienna at night. To see those details play out in a lighter scene, watch the crowd slowly leave as Martins struggles through a literary questioning session.
It's not much of a spoiler to acknowledge that Harry Lime turns up, very much alive, in the person of Orson Welles. Even when The Third Man first came out, audiences must have known this would happen. When he's first spotted by Martins, he flashes a smile that's confident and sly, even though Martins might turn him over to the authorities. It's not Welles's amorality that struck me during his speeches; instead, it was his unshakeable confidence that Martins would come to see things from his point of view.
As Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten shows a strong sense of morality, justice, and loyalty, but ends up struggling to make the right decision in a constantly changing situation. Even in this ambiguous situation, Martins acts readily on his moral sense, making him a predictable but volatile character. Trevor Howard as Major Callaway (inspired by his similarly-named real-life counterpart) makes a good counterpoint for Cotten. He shows a strong morality himself, yet he's not above manipulating Martins into helping him.
Alida Valli puts a human face on Vienna's suffering as the actress who loved Harry Lime. When Martins first meets her backstage, she offers him a drink of whiskey, but is relieved when he declines. "Fine. I wanted to sell it," she says, hinting at the prevalence of the black market and the poverty and hunger that fuel it. Her situation also hints at the realities of postwar Europe: her passport is forged, since as a Czechoslovakian, she will be consigned to life behind the Iron Curtain. Lime provided her passport, so his rackets gave her freedom. She's willing to give that freedom up to protect him in return.
The performances are strong throughout, including turns by veteran Austrian performers Paul Hörbiger and Hedwig Bleibtreu in mostly German-language roles.
The cinematography has what's often called a disorienting quality. The oft-noted angles that were a specialty of Robert Krasker, the Oscar-winning director of photography, are just a part of it. Martins often appears as a small figure against the huge, medieval cityscape of Vienna. Harry Lime, on the other hand, appears large. His face fills the screen as his pursuers lurk in the background during a chase scene. Perspective shots often find the characters looming as they approach or shrinking as they walk away. This technique says what the dialogue doesn't at times, telegraphing the relationship between Martins and Anna. When Lime gives his speech about the dots below as he and Martins ride a ferris wheel, don't be surprised if you're realizing that our hero Martins has been just one more dot all along.
There's an occasional dark scene; an encounter in a darkened room that hinges on Martins -- and the audience -- not seeing who's there with him suggests that those were present from the start. The black-and-white contrasts are clean and sharp on this British print, though, as they create a portrait of a postwar city that's ominous yet beautiful, even with remaining rubble from the wartime destruction. The sound's mono, but the famous zither music by Anton Karas and the cacophany of voices come through without trouble.
Extras abound in this Criterion two-disc release:
* Peter Bogdanovich introduces the movie, noting that Orson Welles the director had a lot of influence on the movie, but none of it was direct. Bogdanovich knows, because he discussed it with Welles. It's deeper and more personal than the typical TCM introduction.
* There's a double dose of commentary tracks. Director Steven Soderbergh and Screenwriter Tony Gilroy have a good rapport as they dissect the movie. "It's even better than people say it is," Soderbergh concludes in his The Third Man commentary. I'll have to agree, thanks to one detail that came up as he was talking. I hadn't noticed that Orson Welles is writing Anna's name in the dust or steam of the ferris wheel window as he and Joseph Cotten spar verbally. New York University film professor Dana Polan contributes the take on the movie that you might get in a good classroom analysis, discussing the themes and techniques of this film made with "narrative economy." Polan also points out references to other films, particularly those of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, in The Third Man, and mentions references to Carol Reed's classic in later movies. Both commentaries, thankfully, make sure Reed gets a chunk of the credit for The Third Man, a movie influenced by two titans: writer Graham Greene and actor Welles.
* "Shadowing The Third Man" covers just about every aspect of the movie in 90 minutes as it follows assistant director Guy Hamilton, who doubled for Orson Welles as Harry Lime's shadow looms large during a chase, and script supervisor Angela Allen through modern Vienna. The 2004 documentary has too many arty touches, such as projecting the movie on walls, but Hamilton (who later directed Goldfinger) makes a great tour guide.
* "Who Was The Third Man?" takes a look at the movie from the Austrian point of view. Its best moments are the profile of Anton Karas, the man behind the zither theme, and footage of a modern-day Vienna sewer tour inspired by the movie. This one has an odd habit of numbering the people it profiles, creating an effect more like a Travel Channel "Top Ten" than the intended reference to the movie. It's in German (I believe), with English subtitles.
* "Graham Greene: The Hunted Man" has some mysterious touches as it profiles the author: he's interviewed on a train and his image is unseen during the hour. The 1968 episode from the British Omnibus TV series features recreations of scenes from Greene's novels, including Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair, but doesn't touch on The Third Man at all.
* There's a lot of stuff covered under "The Third Man File." The "Insider Information" segment recaps material covered elsewhere, while "U.S. vs. U.K. Version" shows the movie's two openings and discusses the 11 minutes that were long missing if you caught this in a theater or saw it on TV in the United States. "Kind to Foreigners" translates examples of untranslated foreign-language dialogue. There's also an original U.S. trailer for "The 3rd Man" which paints the movie almost as a steamy romance rather than the thriller it was. I couldn't access the U.K. press book.
* Newsreel excerpts show Anton Karas in a London concert and follow the "police of the underworld" (Vienna sewer cops) on patrol. The latter is one you'll just have to see, especially since real sewer police were involved in the movie's final action set piece.
* A text feature, "The Third Man's Vienna," has a lot of interesting details about Graham Greene's visit to the city, the situation there, and the genesis of his story.
* A booklet features three critical essays on The Third Man. I'll have to note that I think of the movie as less Greene-centric than novelist Philip Kerr makes it out to be, despite Greene's famous combination of complicated moral dilemmas and deceptively simple entertainment, but the essays are interesting reading.
* Two radio shows are included in the package as well: "Ticket to Tangiers" from The Lives of Harry Lime and a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the movie. The Harry Lime episode, written by and starring Orson Welles, has all the mysterious touches, including Welles whistling the Third Man theme and an introduction that might contradict the ending of the movie. The character has been toned down for 1950s radio, but he's still a clever, confident trickster. The Lux show follows the movie's plot, but lacks the atmosphere and sense of a character caught up in an overwhelming situation. It stars Joseph Cotten, but it lacks Orson Welles. The Lux show isn't horrible, but it doesn't pack the punch of the movie; it's just a mystery story.
* If that weren't enough, you can listen to an abridged version of Graham Greene's book as you watch the movie. The abridgement is designed to match fairly closely with the movie scenes and, even cut down, the book provides a few more insights into the characters. The story is close, but everything's slightly different -- starting with its hero, now an Englishman named Rollo Martins who makes a more conventional amateur detective. It's read by the late actor Richard Clarke as narrated by Callaway. Greene's preface, provided as text, explains that The Third Man "had to start as a story" but what you're reading was never meant to be read. It's still a fairly good yarn, though watching and reading reminded me that, in this case, the movie is the superior version.
Somewhere in there, you'll find just about everything -- even newspaper or magazine cartoon panels that reference The Third Man's zither score. Heck, I'm surprised they didn't include a zither and a disc of lessons.
As is the risk with many a Criterion release, you could be overwhelmed with the many special features. Plus, of course, there's some overlap as common points are repeated throughout. Lime may be a shade of green -- or Greene -- but how many times and ways can you hear that one pointed out?
The Third Man is an entertaining thriller with plenty of action and plenty of lighter moments to break the tension. The hints in the dialogue and imagery, though, reveal something more serious and realistic: the plight of impoverished postwar Vienna. In much the same way Harry Lime becomes a major character with only a few scenes, that racket-ridden city becomes a major player in The Third Man, adding a gravity that makes the movie memorable. Carol Reed's use of the Vienna setting brings an added dimension to Graham Greene's excellent writing.
Oddly, the customs of 1940s cinema that make reading between the lines a must make the fate of the war-torn city more compelling and bring home the reality of what the people there must have been living with more effectively as underlying elements. The censor's strictures even help the thriller in at least one point; Orson Welles's last scene with Joseph Cotten plays better without the lines of dialogue that were nixed.
Not guilty. The movie's first-rate and Criterion didn't leave anything out. Not only should you introduce yourself to one of noir's classic characters, but the judge recommends further investigation of Graham Greene's early entertainments, either in print or on film, for anyone looking for crackling good stories.
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Introduction by Writer-Director Peter Bogdanovich
* Audio Commentary by Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and Screenwriter Tony Gilroy
* Audio Commentary by Film Scholar Dana Polan
* Abridged Recording of Graham Greene's Treatment/Novella, Read by Richard Clarke
* "Shadowing The Third Man" Documentary
* "Graham Greene: The Hunted Man" Episode of Omnibus from 1968
* "Who Was The Third Man?" Documentary
* "Ticket to Tangiers" Episode of The Lives of Harry Lime Radio Series
* "The Third Man" Episode of Lux Radio Theatre
* Illustrated Production History -- features rare behind-the-scene photos, U.K. press book, and U.S. trailer
* Alternate Opening from U.S. Release
* Archival Footage of Postwar Vienna
* "Kind to Foreigners?" -- a look at the untranslated foreign dialogue
* Newsreel Excerpts on Anton Karas and the Vienna Sewers
* "The Third Man's Vienna" Text Feature
* Booklet with Essays by Luc Sante, Charles Drazin, and Philip Kerr
* IMDb on The Third Man
* IMDb on Shadowing the Third Man