Lionsgate // 1949 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 14th, 2010
You've never met anyone like him!
"Oh, Holly, you and I aren't heroes. The world doesn't make any heroes outside of your stories."
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane) has been invited to post-war Vienna by his old chum Harry Lime. However, when Holly arrives he's informed that Harry was recently killed in an accident. This news saddens Holly deeply, and he makes plans to return home. After asking a few questions about Harry's death, Holly becomes convinced that someone murdered his old pal. He decides to stay in Vienna a while and keep digging until he uncovers the truth. During his time there, he encounters Harry's former lover Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, The Cassandra Crossing), whom he develops feelings for rather quickly. Will Holly ever solve the mystery of what happened to Harry Lime?
While watching The Third Man, one may get the sense that much of what they're witnessing is something they've seen before. Certain shots, certain lines of dialogue, the general atmosphere of the movie...there's something distinctly familiar about it. This isn't because The Third Man is a derivative motion picture, but rather because it directly influenced oh-so-many films that followed it -- particularly on a technical level (its masterful use of tilted angles has been imitated on countless occasions), but also in terms of its general attitude (The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing and Martin Scorsese's The Departed owe quite a lot to the movie). But for all the film's influence and importance in cinematic history, The Third Man remains a crackerjack thriller that hasn't lost an ounce of its power.
What an evocative atmosphere director Carol Reed creates in this film. The shadows, cigarettes and trench coats littered throughout the film are typical of noir flicks, but when set against the insistently upbeat Anton Karas zither score the atmosphere somehow manages to become even more effectively dread-filled. Reed found Karas playing his zither in a Viennese bar and instantly determined that the sound was right for the film. Most noir scores emphasize the brooding, downbeat nature of what's happening onscreen, while the Karas score keeps attempting to convince us (with less and less success) that things are fine and jolly. The oft-repeated opening theme begins the film on a jolly note and ends it on a bitterly ironic one. The cinematic world of The Third Man is one both unnerving and strangely alluring; a place you desire and fear to return to.
The first hour of the film plays more or less like a mystery procedural, as Holly Martin travels from one person to the next gathering clues about what happened to Harry. Over the course of this hour, the film's subversive subtext starts to slip in, as Holly slowly comes to realize how things really work in this place. Noir is often noted for the manner in which it captures post-war unease, and while I'm not sure I would proclaim the film as the greatest noir ever made (for what it's worth, I'd pick Out of the Past), I do think it perhaps captures that sense of unease better than any other film. The cynical wariness of the genre is something that still resonates today, and as such The Third Man still packs a rather powerful punch.
The performances are excellent across the board, with Cotten proving an effective choice as the slightly rigid American who comes to learn that things can't be accepted at face value. It's a sturdy piece of work that provides exactly what the role requires. Valli is interesting as Anna, always choosing to think the best of Harry no matter how awful he may have treated her in the past. Trevor Howard is quite good as the Major who initially comes across as a stick-in-the-mud but later reveals hidden nuance. However, there's no doubt that the film is stolen by the great Orson Welles, who turns in 10 minutes or so of his most memorable screen time. His appearance is quite possibly the most striking entrance any character has ever made in a film; a masterpiece of timing and construction. His impeccably delivered speech on the Ferris Wheel throws out one memorably profound line after another, and his terrified facial expressions during the tense sewer sequence speak volumes. Never has the man seemed like a bona fide movie star quite so much as in this role.
Now, why exactly is this film being released by The StudioCanal Collection on Blu-ray? Criterion provided us with an absolutely sublime DVD and Blu-ray release not long ago, containing a pristine transfer and loads of extras. Alas, Criterion lost the rights to the film after a certain point in time, so now StudioCanal gets their turn at making a few bucks off this classic. The 1080p full-frame transfer offered on this release is fairly handsome, though seemingly a bit less pristine than the Criterion release (I have only seen the Criterion DVD version, but screen shots available online seem to confirm this). The difference isn't significant (basically a matter of slightly more flecks and specks on this release), but enough for hardcore videophiles to notice. The average viewer probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The audio is clean and clear, offering crisp dialogue and a strong score track. Things get just a tad muddled in the sewer sequence, but overall it's a fine track.
The real disappointment isn't the transfer, but rather the supplemental package. While StudioCanal has done an admirable job of attempting to put together a new package for the movie, it pales dramatically in comparison to the Criterion set. Making this package even more disappointing is the fact that the 90-minute "Following The Third Man" documentary appeared on both the Criterion release and the StudioCanal Region B Blu-ray, but is entirely absent on this Region A release. The inclusion of that valuable supplement would have made the pain considerably more bearable. Anyway, here's what you do get:
* An audio commentary featuring assistant director Guy Hamilton, Simon Callow, and Angela Allen. While this isn't nearly as in-depth or detailed as either of the Criterion tracks, it's a charming chat among folks who were actually around when the film was being made.
* The Third Man on the Radio (28 minutes): An episode of the radio drama The Lives of Harry Lime, which featuring the early adventures of Harry Lime. I'm still sort of bewildered that this show existed, but it's pretty good, particularly considering that it's written and performed by Welles.
* The Third Man Interactive Vienna Tour: You can basically click around on a map spotlighting the various locations used in the film. Each location features a very brief featurette (typically 1-3 minutes) spotlighting that particular area.
* Interview and Zither Performance by Cornelia Mayer (5 minutes): A quick performance of the main theme followed by an interview on how the zither works. Fun.
* Joseph Cotten's Alternate Opening Voiceover Narration (1 minute): Interesting, but Cotten is considerably less effective at opening the film than director Carol Reed ultimately was. I also like the idea of some unknown figure narrating the film better than hearing Holly Martins handle it.
* Interview with Joseph Cotten (47 minutes): A pretty good audio interview from 1987 featuring an interview with the aging Mr. Joseph Cotten -- it's clear that Cotten isn't in great shape (it's mentioned that he has laryngitis), but he does provide some valuable thoughts.
* Interview with Graham Green (8 minutes): A brief audio interview from 1984 with the esteemed writer of the film. We're informed that Orson Welles claimed to have written large portions of the script, but that he only actually wrote the cuckoo clock speech.
* Stills Gallery: A brief collection of behind-the-scene photos.
* Trailers: Two original theatrical trailers.
* Booklet: In yet another attempt at mimicking Criterion, StudioCanal includes a small booklet containing an essay on the making of the film by Charles Drazin.
The Third Man is a great movie and this is a pretty decent Blu-ray release in and of itself, but if you have any way of obtaining the Criterion version, that one is the way to go. However, if you're not interested in paying the increasingly-high prices for that out-of-print disc, this release should prove satisfying enough for those who just want to own the movie in hi-def.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Interviews
* Interactive Tour
* Radio Drama
* Photo Gallery