Criterion // 1949 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 16th, 2008
The legendary tale of love, deception, and murder.
"I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough and whom had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs but, well, umm, you know they can't stay the course like a professional. Now the city is divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the center of the city -- that's international -- policed by an international patrol. One member of each of the four powers. Wonderful! What a hope they had! All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know. Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit. Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him, some sort, I don't know, some sort of job. Anyway, there he was, poor chap. Happy as a lark and without a cent."
So begins The Third Man, the story of American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane) and his attempt to discover how his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles, Touch of Evil) died. With the help of Lime's girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli, Suspiria) and the watchful eye of the British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter), Holly's search will take him deep into Vienna's underground.
I had just watched The Third Man a few weeks before this Blu-ray arrived at my door, so I decided to pop it into the player just to check out the quality (this is, after all, one of the first crop of Blu-ray discs from Criterion). Well, that was the plan, anyway. After the enigmatic zither music and the dulcet tones of Carol Reed's opening narration I was hooked, and kept watching despite how recently I'd seen the film. Not many thrillers are worth watching twice, let alone twice in one month. Maybe that's part of the reason why the BFI decided that The Third Man was the best British film of all time. It seems almost inevitable, looking back. Getting the titanic talents (not to mention egos) of producers Alex Korda (of The Thief of Bagdad fame) and David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind, anyone?), director Carol Reed (The Fallen Idol), writer Graham Greene (The Quiet American), and actor Orson Welles (Mr. Citizen Kane himself) involved in the same project seem destined for classic status (or disaster, which it luckily avoided). The film is justifiably famous for its place in cinema history. It looks back to silent cinema (especially German Expressionism), while simultaneously influencing so many later films (it is no accident that Steven Soderbergh provides a commentary on this disc). In fact, much like Citizen Kane (the AFI's number one movie) and Casablanca, watching The Third Man for the first time produces a dizzying sense of déjà vu. Camera angles, bits of dialogue, editing tricks, atmosphere -- all of these parts of The Third Man have influenced cinema in the last six decades.
However, if influence were all that The Third Man had going for it, the film would be more admired than enjoyed, and I can say that I heartily enjoy The Third Man. The performances, from Orson Welles' rakish charm to Trevor Howard's British stoicism, are sublime to watch. Anton Karas' zither score nimbly dances throughout the film, and the whole film feels like a lark, like there was one shot to make this film and they pulled it off. There's a joy and a freedom in the possibilities that opened up after the war, like even a writer of dime-store mysteries could find love and fortune, even in the bombed-out streets of Vienna.
Sadly, this joy, this freedom has a price, and that's what gives The Third Man its dramatic weight. Holly Martins perfectly embodies the kind of heroic figure who appears routinely after World War II. He naïvely insists on the simple values, on black and white distinctions between good and evil that a postwar Vienna cannot sustain, with its deprivation and damage. It might seem like an indictment of American values (and it probably is), but it is more a condemnation of rigidity. Orson Welles as Harry Lime embodies the kind of rapacious opportunist who profits from war, a figure that will become more and more common as the twentieth century dragged to a close. Also, perhaps the most tragic of all, Major Calloway has all of the values of Holly, but total awareness that they are impractical in the face of men like Harry. The film's atmosphere of dread and paranoia seems, looking back, to be a blueprint for so much of the malaise of the latter half of the last century. But perhaps I'm being glum. Certainly Harry would tell me to think of the Renaissance instead of cuckoo clocks.
Hopefully it will suffice to say that The Third Man is a classic that belongs among the best of film collections. I can say with certainty that this Blu-ray from Criterion is the best way to see The Third Man, short of a restored 35mm print. I was initially somewhat skeptical as I watched, because the last DVD release of the film by Criterion looked very good. However, after a direct comparison of the sources, I can say the Blu-ray's charms are subtle, but add quite a bit to the film's presentation. The added resolution of this AVC encoded transfer really makes the details "pop," and the film seems almost three-dimensional at times. The black levels are deep and consistent, making the wet streets and subterranean spaces even more gorgeous. However, the biggest upgrade for me was the grain structure of this disc. At times I noticed that the DVD just didn't have the resolution to handle the film's grain, which led to a bit of smearing in the background during some scenes. The problem is remedied with this Blu-ray, as grain looks very natural, much like a 35mm print. The only downside is that the print that was used was not pristine, so the scratches and other damage are even more apparent. Luckily, The Third Man is such a good film that I doubt most people will notice the print damage after the first few scenes. The audio is uncompressed mono, and it is very clear and distortion free.
Criterion has ported over the vast majority of the supplements from the two disc DVD edition of 2007. Those includes audio commentaries by Steven Soderbergh with Tony Gilroy, as well as an excellent academic commentary by Dana Pollan of NYU. Another audio option includes a reading of Greene's treatment for the film. Speaking of audio, there are a pair of Harry Lime-related radio features included on the disc. On the documentary side, we get three different offerings: two on the film, and one on Graham Greene. There are also numerous primary documents on Vienna and the making of the film, including press material. Since Criterion decided to release the British version of the film (with Carol Reed's opening narration), they've given us Joseph Cotten's American opening as a supplement. The best addition to the extras is a timeline feature that allows for easy navigation between the film and the various audio supplements that are available, making it easier to pinpoint different parts of each audio track.
A lot happens in The Third Man's hour and forty-four-minute runtime. For me, it took multiple viewings to get a firm grasp on the film's plot and characters, but it was certainly worth the extra effort.
I'm not terribly impressed with the packaging of this disc. A cardboard sleeve holds a book with a tray on one side, and a pocket for the usual Criterion booklet on the other. Sadly, only one of the three essays included in the larger DVD booklet made it over to the Blu-ray release. I don't know if this was an issue with rights or the new size of the packaging, but it's disappointing to lose any of the excellent essays Criterion usually includes.
If you've never owned The Third Man, then this Blu-ray from Criterion is the way to go. If you have that earlier single-disc Criterion, it's worth the upgrade. However, if you already bought the 2007 double-disc set, your decision may be more difficult. The picture and sound are certainly improved, but whether that's enough to justify to justify a purchase is going to depend largely on the budget of the viewer. However you decide to own it, The Third Man is a remarkable addition to almost any collection.
I don't care how many hospital wards they show me, I think The Third Man is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 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
* Two Commentaries
* Abridged Recording of Graham Greene's Treatment
* "Shadowing The Third Man"
* "Graham Greene: The Hunted Man"
* "Who Was the Third Man?"
* "A Ticket to Tangiers" Radio Program
* 1951 Lux Radio Theater Adaptation
* Illustrated Production History
* Alternate Opening with Narration
* "Kind to Foreigners?"
* Archival Footage of Post-War Vienna