Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Paul Horbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Alida Valli
Graham Greene, Alexander Korda
Hunted by men ... Sought by women.
Orson Welles stars as Harry Lime and Joseph Cotten plays his childhood friend, Holly Martins, in this fascinating thriller set in postwar Vienna, scripted by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Martins receives an urgent call to visit Lime, a black marketeer wanted by the police. But the word is that Lime has just been killed-or has he? The Third Man's stunning cinematography and twisting plots are best enjoyed in this pristine edition of the 50th anniversary theatrical re-release.
Runtime: 104 min.
Release Date: 11/30/1999
• Introduction from Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
• Graham Greene Treatment
• “The Lives of Harry Lime” Radio Program
• “Lux Radio Theatre Presents The Third Man” Radio Program
• Anton Karas Footage
• Sewer Footage
• US vs. UK Version
• Original US Trailer
• Re-Release Trailer
• Production History
• Restoration Demonstration
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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The Third Man: Criterion Collection (1949)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 30, 2003)
Given the title of the group behind it, the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movies focused on flicks considered to be US productions. However, it could be tough to make such a differentiation, which means that a few flicks pop up on both the AFI chart and a similar listing created by the British Film Institute.
A few flicks show up on both compilations, though they appear in different locations. For example, Lawrence of Arabia placed third on the BFI chart but fell to fifth on the AFI one. Interestingly, the BFI rated The Third Man as the greatest British film of all-time, but the 1949 classic only ranked as number 57 on the AFI version.
While I wouldn’t rank The Third Man as a better film than the remarkable Lawrence, I definitely wouldn’t place so many movies between the two. I might not consider it in the same league as Lawrence and some of the other top-ranking flicks cited by the AFI, but it nonetheless provides a thoroughly terrific and inventive experience.
Set in Vienna after the end of World War II, The Third Man quickly relates the facts of the era and the setting. We learn of a post-war black market that pervades the city, and we also find out that the four governing powers – American, British, French and Russian – split it into four different zones of control. However, an international one resides at the heart of the city, which all four powers patrol.
Into this setting steps American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), the down-on-his-luck author of cheap Western novels who comes to Vienna to seek a job promised to him by old friend Harry Lime. Martins quickly discovers that Lime recently died in a car accident, and when he encounters British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), he hears about Lime’s alleged illicit activities as part of the black market. Martins takes offense at Calloway’s statements, and though the Major wants the American to leave town, Holly sticks around to clear Lime’s name.
This becomes easier said than done, as Martins meets a long roster of shady characters who associated with Lime. None of them can keep the story of Harry’s demise straight, and Martins gets pulled in deeper when he learns of a mysterious “third man” present at the accident that killed his friend. As Martins investigates, he also gets to know Harry’s glum girlfriend Anna Schimdt (Valli), a cabaret performer who turned depressed after Lime’s death. Inevitably, Martins falls for her himself, which complicates matters.
On the surface – and based on my synopsis - The Third Man sounds like a fairly ordinary thriller. Nothing in that description hints at the depth and life that actually shows up in this splendid film. Well ahead of its time, Man fires on all cylinders and creates a very vivid and enjoyable experience.
All of the acting seems strong. Cotten moves through a variety of moods and emotions neatly and doesn’t telegraph them. He displays a believable forcefulness and naivete early in his pursuit, but he turns naturally less innocent as the tale progresses. The cynicism of the European characters contrasts with his more basic and forthright tone, but the distinctions never seem artificial or forced.
As I watched Man, I indicated that I thought Martins offered a good generalization of the American frame of mind, especially from that era. He seems somewhat simplistic in his notions of right and wrong, but he seems committed to truth and justice, and he also appears persistent despite various setbacks. However, my assumption that Martins acted as a representation of the US fell flat when I examined the DVD’s extras; the character originally was supposed to be British, so there went that theory! Well, at least my interpretation allowed me to feel clever for a few minutes; that doesn’t happen very often, so I’ll continue to bask in my unearned glow.
Anna offers possibly the riskiest character in Man. Between her generally morose tone and her limited screen time, she easily could have come across as whiny and annoying. However, Valli brings her to life richly, as she makes Anna melancholy but not overwrought. She keeps the character at a distance but still allows us to see why Martins would fall for her.
While I liked the acting, The Third Man still would have worked well without able performers just due to the creative filmmaking and inventive storytelling. Graham Greene’s plot provides twist after twist, and many of these come across as genuine surprises. However, these variations never seem self-consciously quirky or forced, and they always delight the viewer. I won’t discuss the specifics – otherwise, they won’t offer twists anymore – but suffice it to say that you probably will encounter a number of wonderful turns here.
Director Carol Reed doesn’t telegraph these points, and he makes an excellent script even better with inventive cinematography and brisk pacing. Man spends just as much time as necessary on different elements and then it pushes us along. This never seems rushed; instead, the movie keeps us going forward in a logical and tight manner.
The shot composition of Man appears absolutely terrific. Reed doesn’t stage images in unusual ways simply to be weird or different. Instead, the visuals take on a life of their own and bring the film’s world to life in vivid and intriguing ways. As with the story twists, these elements could have seemed forced or self-consciously arty, but they don’t. Instead, they flow naturally, as does the movie’s unusual zither score. The latter also allows Man to stand out from the crowd, but it blends smoothly with the action and helps accentuate the tale.
Quirky and creative, The Third Man deserves its place as a cinematic classic. The movie has barely aged over the last 50-plus years. Despite many imitators, it remains a distinctive and lively piece of work that seems rich and well executed.
The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C+/ Bonus B
The Third Man appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not without concerns, as a whole the picture looked quite good for an older film.
Sharpness was a definite positive, as the movie always appeared nicely crisp and detailed. Very little softness cropped up, and the image displayed fine accuracy and distinction. I noticed a little shimmering at times, but otherwise the presentation lacked significant moiré effects or jagged edges. As for print flaws, they created the greatest concerns during Third. The picture seemed somewhat grainy and also demonstrated a fair number of examples of specks, grit, blotches, and thin vertical lines. Much of the time, the image demonstrated a distracting flickery quality as well. None of these issues became overwhelming, but they did cause some issues.
Black levels usually appeared nicely deep and tight, and shadow detail looked positive as a whole. Contrast also seemed generally solid, though the picture came across as a little too bright at times. Overall, despite the various concerns I noticed, The Third Man usually presented a very positive picture given its age, so it earned a “B-“ in that domain.
The monaural soundtrack of The Third Man seemed decent but ordinary. Speech came across as a little tinny but generally was reasonably natural and distinct. The lines lacked any significant edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music demonstrated fairly good range and definition, as the score mostly sounded bright and warm for its era. Some effects seemed somewhat harsh, but they usually appeared acceptably concise and accurate, and they even mustered some passable low-end at times; for example, the rumble of a car engine sounded moderately deep. Though erratic, background noise created some concerns. Much of the movie seemed clean, but at times, those elements became much more distracting. Without the latter issues, The Third Man would merit a “B”-level grade for audio, but the noisiness dropped my mark to a “C+”.
On this Criterion release, we find a nice mix of extras. While the flick doesn’t provide an audio commentary, we do get a feature that utilizes an alternate track. The Graham Greene Treatment provides a reading of the author’s early draft. Narrated by Richard Clarke, this offers an entertaining version of the story, and it seems especially fun when we hear variations between the text and the final film. In addition, a “Preface” written by Greene in February 1950 gives us a nice summary of different issues.
For more audio features, we go to a section that includes two radio programs. The Lives of Harry Lime lasts 28 minutes and 40 minutes. Presented as part of a series that expanded the Lime character, Orson Welles reprises his role, though with a few changes. This Lime is much more heroic, unlike the shady personality of the film. The program itself seems somewhat lame, but it’s still cool to hear.
In addition, we find a 1951 radio show called Lux Radio Theater Presents The Third Man. This 60-minute and 25-second piece includes Joseph Cotten as Martens but brings in other non-film actors for the remaining parts. The piece omits some parts of the film and it seems somewhat badly acted; as Lime, Ted de Corsia seems especially poor. However, it still offers a neat historical novelty.
Welles fan and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich provides a video Introduction to the film. The four-minute and 35-second piece gives us some good notes about the production. Unsurprisingly, Bogdanovich largely focuses on Welles, and he nicely draws us into the movie.
Next we find two vintage film pieces. Anton Karas lasts 185 seconds, as we watch the composer play the movie’s theme. Sewer Footage gives us two minutes of newsreel shots that feature the “canal patrols”. Neither program seems especially compelling, but they provide some moderately interesting historical material.
After this we get a comparison of the US vs. UK Version of Third Man. The text mentions changes between the two cuts, and it also offers US and UK openings; the former lasts 80 seconds, whereas the latter goes for 95 seconds. Trailers presents both the original US and 50th anniversary re-release ads. The old one seems notable just because it’s so laughable; with lines like “he’ll have you in a dither with his zither”, it’s not a very good representation of the movie.
In the Production History, we find a good mix of notes and photos that relate to the movie. A Restoration Demo lasts 185 seconds and shows the improvements made for this transfer. I always find these features to be too self-congratulatory, but if you want to discern the differences, give it a look.
When old folks say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, they could refer to The Third Man. However, I’m not sure they ever made ‘em like this. Ahead of its time at the time of its creation, the movie still seems very innovative and inventive; it barely shows its age and remains fresh and wickedly delightful. The DVD does demonstrate some age-related problems, but both picture and sound seem more than acceptable for their vintage, and the packages adds a smattering of fairly good extras. A great movie represented well on DVD, The Third Man earns a strong recommendation.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5964 Stars
| Number of Votes: 57