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The Third Man

(1949) **** Unrated
106 min. Selznick Releasing Organization. Director: Carol Reed.

/content/films/3276/3.jpgJust what is it that makes The Third Man so great? Beloved British director Carol Reed, working at the height of his considerable powers? Orson Welles in one of the most famous screen performances of all time? Or perhaps Anton Karas' zither score, which immediately establishes a distinct character of exoticism, intrigue, and fun that Reed consistently and wittily applies to his narrative? The answer, of course, is all of the above and much, much more, but I would argue that the key player rising above such esteemed company is Mr. Graham Greene, the celebrated novelist and screenwriter responsible for some of the snazziest dialogue ever imprinted on celluloid.

Greene's story and screenplay, which he accurately described as "a comic thriller," is a gift that keeps on giving, with patter that's never less than brilliant. The Third Man's post-war exploits amount to a darkly romantic adventure for those who thought Casabalanca wasn't urbane or sophisticated enough. Mercury Theatre veteran Joseph Cotten is ideally cast as one Mr. Holly Martins, a self-described "hack writer" of dime-store Western pulp (like Death at Double-X Ranch and The Lone Rider of Santa Fe). Martins is an incongruous presence in the persistently old-world atmosphere of Vienna, but he's come at the behest of Harry Lime, a friend of twenty years and a man too slippery and charismatic to be refused. When Martins arrives to discover that Lime has been run over in an auto accident, the American novelist quickly discovers there's something shady about the story of Harry's death (something shadier yet than Robert Krasko's all-time-great chiaroscuro photography).

What transpires is simply too good to relate in common prose (certainly Greene thought so): it simply must be seen. Suffice it to say that like so many British (and Wellesian) films of its time, The Third Man is populated with terrific actors whose magnetic presence mitigates any unlikely plot particulars. Lovely leading lady Valli (a.k.a. Alida Valli) plays a Czechoslovakian actress wanted by the Russian police and, more importantly, one that loved Harry Lime not wisely but too well. There's also a coterie of incisive character actors: Trevor Howard beautifully limns the Claude Rains-esque role of Major Calloway; as Sergeant Paine, Bernard Lee conducts a master class in how to make a "minor" character major; Ernst Deutsch's Baron Kurtz crafts prime slime ("I've done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war," he admits at one point); and Wilfrid Hyde-White plays to distracted perfection the amateur intellectual Crabbin (in a moment of inadvertant clarity, Crabbin refers to Martins as "Mr. Holly Martins from the other side"). The Crabbin subplot proves a remarkable example of the screenwriter's "Rule of Three," one that's a perfect mousetrap for Holly.

Much of the character of The Third Man comes from the Babel that is postwar Vienna, with its uneasy international "cooperation" amongst American, British, Russian, and French politicos and enforcers. Martins' naivete in the face of it all quickly seems symbolic of the souring of Americans' blithe trust in authority as the shadow of "the good war" lengthened. At the heart of the mystery is a conspiracy of war profiteering and self-preservation that swiftly blackens Martins' once happily ignorant playboy spirit. Welles plays a master manipulator at the heart of Vienna's labyrinth: with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile and a twisted justification ever ready, he's a narrowly sympathetic devil with only a trace of soul wrapped within his prestidigital skill at winning love and trust.

/content/films/3276/1.jpgThrough it all, Reed proves a master stylist in complete control (despite unfounded rumors that Welles grabbed the reins when he felt like it). Reed's use of sound is canny: the wingtips clattering on cobblestones, the echo of gunshots in the sewers. And visually, Reed writes the textbook on location shooting in his use of Vienna, including the most elegant use of high angles, low angles, and dutch angles you've ever seen (the Ferris wheel sequence makes equally effective use of location and studio shooting, the latter an awfully clever visual answer to the dutch angles that preceded it). The final chase through the sewers is boldly shot and edited, and the film's indelible final shot is a masterpiece of world cinema that can be held against any film ever made. The same could be said of the entire film, an ingenious entertainment for the ages.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0; PCM 1.0

Street date: 9/21/2010

Distributor: Lionsgate; The Criterion Collection

As domestic distributor of the StudioCanal collection, Lionsgate now has the only edition of The Third Man that's in print on Blu-ray, and though the transfer's not as gorgeous as Criterion's, the film still looks quite good, and the disc offers a strong selection of unique extras that may entice even Criterion owners to double-dip. On the whole, the image is quite strong in terms of detail, and the appearance certainly retains the picture's film-like quality, though this version isn't as sharply defined in contrast and has a bit more dirt and a few more scratches than the digitally scrubbed Criterion version. Audio is strong in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 presentation.

New to this release is a fine audio commentary with assistant director Guy Hamilton, 2nd unit continuity Angela Allen and Welles biographer Simon Callow; it's great to hear directly from experienced film technicians (Hamilton being a well-known director in his own right) who were on the set of the film, especially joined by Welles expert (and well-known actor in his own right) Callow.

Also new to this edition are The Third Man Interactive Vienna Tour (HD), a terrific look at filming sites and Vienna's The Third Man Museum; the self-explanatory "Interview & Zither Performance by Cornelia Mayer" (4:43, HD); and two audio-only Guardian NFT Interviews: a 1987 Q&A with "Joseph Cotten" (47:15, SD) and a 1984 interview of "Graham Greene" (8:05, SD). The historically important interviews make fascinating listening, though poor Cotten was appearing against doctor's orders, with a bad case of laryngitis making his speech a tad torturous.

In previously available features, you'll find "Original Trailer 1" (2:43, HD) and "Original Trailer 2" (1:49, HD); "The Third Man on the Radio" (28:45, SD), the 1951 "A Ticket to Tangiers" episode of Welles' The Lives of Harry Lime radio series; a Stills Gallery (HD); and "Joseph Cotten’s Alternate Opening Voiceover Narration" (1:18, SD).

Lastly, like all StudioCanal Collection releases, the disc comes with a booklet, this one featuring an essay by film historian Charles Drazin, author of Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul, The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s and In Search of The Third Man.

Always one of the jewels of The Criterion Collection, The Third Man helps to launch the distributor's first wave on Blu-ray. Presented in the preferred UK version, the film's best-yet AV transfer is good to go on the biggest of home displays. Sure, it has a few minor flaws due to limitations in the source (a scratch here, a contrasty shot there), but for the most part, the hi-def image has as much detail as there is to be had from this sixty-year-old film, and the picture is unwavering, with not a hint of the unsightly flickering that often plagues old B&W transfers. Even the mono soundtrack gets an upgrade in an uncompressed mono track that delivers a more stable, clear sound than any previous home-video presentation. A "Timeline" feature in the menu lists for easy access chapters of the film and touchstones in the commentary tracks.

The voluminous bonus features from Criterion's two-disc 2007 DVD set are all ported over to Blu-ray, beginning with a film-fan-friendly "Peter Bogdanovich Introduction" (4:39, SD) that spins out a few observations and recollections about The Third Man and Welles. Two audio commentaries are also preserved from the 2007 DVD: one by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and director Tony Gilroy, and one by film scholar Dana Polan. The former track is not so much for fans of the film as it is for fans of Soderbergh and Gilroy who would be interested in what they have to say as the film unspools. They evince a film fan's enthusiasm but a dearth of helpful facts and scholarly interpretations of the film, Those are saved for Polan's track, as the professor winningly offers up screen-specific analysis that represent Criterion at its best as a "film school on a disc." The disc's depth of archival interest is emblematized by the inclusion of an abridged recording of Graham Greene's original The Third Man treatment, read by the late actor Richard Clarke.

Frederick Baker's elegant 2005 documentary "Shadowing The Third Man" (1:33:10, SD), narrated by John Hurt, overdoes it with the film clips, but effectively separates fact from fiction regarding the making of the film and highlights Greene's themes. The film's historical contexts and Greene's inspirations (including friend "Kim" Philby") are explored, as are the various instance of happenstance that resulted in the flawless final product (one, as the doc explains, that Selznick's American cut temporarily marred). The doc incorporates archival interviews and clips of Graham Greene, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, Alexander Korda, Anton Karas, and Robert Krasker, as well as new interviews with assistant director Guy Hamilton (the director of several James Bond classics), continuity person for the second unit Angela Allen, runner Joe Marks, Herbert Halbik ("Boy with Ball"), David Korda (producer Alexander Korda's nephew), Daniel Selznick (son of David O. Selznick), film historians Charles Drazin and Brigitte Timmermann, and Malcom Conway of Shepperton Studios, among others. Hamilton and Allen entertainingly tour their old Viennese haunts, with Timmermann in tow..

Next up is the rarely shown 1968 program "Graham Greene: The Hunted Man" (56:23, SD), an episode of the long-running BBC arts documentary program Omnibus. The show features an extensive biography of Greene, with interviews, recreations and film clips helping to get the job done. The program also features a rare interview with Greene, who discusses the themes of his most famous works.

The 2000 Austrian/German TV documentary "Who Was the Third Man? A Search for Clues Fifty Years Later" (29:15) commemorated the film's 50th anniversary in Austria. Presented with subtitles, the doc offers an Austrian perspective on the film's history and particularly its location shoot. Return visits to the locations, newsreels and news clippings, and interviews with Austrian cast and crew members (most notably Paul Hörbiger and Karas in archival clips) make the portrait complete.

A category called The Third Man on the Radio yields not one but two radio dramas related to the film: one being "A Ticket to Tangiers," a 1951 Welles-penned, Welles-performed episode of The Lives of Harry Lime, and the other being the 1951 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of The Third Man, with Cotten reprising his role.

Rounding out the special edition are a wealth of background featurettes. The "Insider Information" (8:48) montage displays a gallery of stills and promotional materials as a voice-over narration penned by Third Man expert Charles Drazin offers a pithy history of the film. U.S. vs. UK Version details the differences between the two cuts of the film, allowing a comparision between the "U.S. Opening" (1:24) and the "UK Opening" (1:35). "Kind to Foreigners" (5:24) usefully presents subtitled versions of the unsubtitled scenes in the film. There's also the "Original U.S. Trailer" (2:24) and Original UK Press Book, presented in a gallery format. From the archives come the newsreel clips "Anton Karas at London's Empress Club" (2:56), "In the Underworld of Vienna" (1:49), and The Third Man's Vienna, an annotated slide show in gallery format.

As usual, the Criterion packaging is also of note: a 14-page booklet includes Luc Santie's essay "The One and Only," detailing the film's history and influence on the cinematic landscape. Certainly anyone who has yet to own The Third Man on home video should snap up the Blu-ray, one of the most important available on the format; even current owners will find the upgraded video hard to resist: Criterion's Blu-ray of The Third Man is a cineaste's dream come true.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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