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The Criterion Collection has made the leap into Blu-ray with the intention of releasing some of its new titles in parallel DVD and Blu-ray editions. This month marks the debut, and starts with one of the company's most popular titles, Carol Reed's 1949 The Third Man. This is the third go-round for the title, after a lauded 1999 disc that made instant converts to the Criterion way of doing things. As part of its program to quietly upgrade many of its earlier DVD releases that appeared before enhanced transfers became the standard, a little less than two years ago Criterion updated the disc with a beautiful two-disc set with a new transfer and a number of attractive new extras. Those extras are back with the added beauty of 1080p High Definition Blu-ray mastering. Savant's basic review is a revision of his earlier The Third Man piece from December 3, 1999.
Penniless pulp western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) gets off the train in postwar Vienna expecting a writing job from his old buddy Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But he arrives only in time for his benefactor's funeral. Holly smells murder when witnesses give unreliable versions of Harry's "accident". English military policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) eulogizes Lime as a murderous black marketeer, better off dead. Lime's obsessively loyal girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) vacillates between affection for the naïve Holly and a morbid desire to join Harry in death. More suspicious characters join the mix, along with some story revelations best left undisclosed. If you are lucky enough not to know the big surprise of The Third Man, try to stay ignorant until you can see it!
The critical reputation of Sir Carol Reed suffered in the sixties as a new generation of hip English directors swept away the old guard that Reed represented. (Notable survivor: David Lean.) The Third Man is a linear story with no radical cinematic innovations, and auteurist critics began insinuating that Orson Welles was somehow responsible for the film's look, style -- why, the movie even has a parrot squawking in close-up, just like Citizen Kane. Critics lauding the inventive anarchy of merry men like Richard Lester would use Carol Reed to personify the stuffy old school, calling his tilted-camera 'Dutch angle' shots a cheap gimmick.
Baloney. The Third Man works wonderfully. Its vivid B&W images and cockeyed angles are only one aspect of a delightfully baroque visual and aural feast. The amazing night exteriors are lit almost identically to those of the bleak Night and the City made in London around the same time. But Reed's Vienna is not a nightmare world of Film Noir. It's a gay European town gone sour, spoiled and rotting. Bombed to bits, its inhabitants eke out their living in any way they can. Old men sell balloons and a Baron plays violin for restaurant patrons.
Much of the great beauty of Vienna is intact -- some of the apartment interiors are lavish by American standards, even if their inhabitants can't scrape together a square meal. Anna is a stage actress in a theater that has excellent costumes but can't afford to keep the electric lights burning. The Evil in The Third Man is not the fatalism of Film Noir but the social rot that follows any great catastrophe when opportunists capitalize on political confusion. Corruption festers in situations of hopelessness, where moral rules seem no longer to apply.
Graham Greene's letter-perfect script is the real star. Many Greene novels would be adapted for the screen but few as well as The Third Man; producers loved Greene's stories but were wary of his world-weary Catholic moralizing.
Most Greene adaptations, such as Reed's own Our Man in Havana, are good films that just miss the mark of greatness. Some are just plain disasters, like the 50s version of End of the Affair. Here Greene's grim Vienna is enlivened with sly humor, a breakneck pace and endearing characters. A sinister Baron appears holding a copy of a silly cowboy book. Martins insults Calloway by repeatedly referring to him as 'Callahan', but is broken-hearted when Anna repeatedly calls him Harry instead of Holly. Bernard Lee (James Bond's 'M') is given a stock police goon role yet turns out to be the most sensitive and gentle character in the story. Finally, Greene and Reed really understand how to construct a thriller even when cribbing from Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. Nothing could be funnier than the potentially murderous cab ride that whisks Holly into an excruciatingly humiliating literary meeting. "Do you believe in the stream of consciousness?" a man asks, and "author" Holly doesn't know what he's talking about.
The Third Man hit its mark in 1949 because it painted a compelling picture for audiences confused by the postwar fuss in Europe. Like Berlin, Vienna was an internationally occupied city divided into zones and policed by a joint multinational force. Cooperation was a cold formality between victors already politically divided. In The Third Man English policeman Trevor Howard walks a tightrope trying to deal with his opposite number, Brodsky, who appears to be harboring criminal Harry Lime in the Russian sector.
Perhaps the best way to 'place' The Third Man (TM) for a younger audience is to compare it to the better known Casablanca, (C). C is also about an aloof profiteer, Rick Blaine, who is deeply involved with displaced persons, corrupt officials and political confusion in wartime Morocco, where French autonomy is an illusion indulged by Nazi overseers. Feigning cynical detachment, Rick ultimately makes a commitment to idealism. He sacrifices a romantic future with the love of his life so the world can defeat Evil and Utopian Peace can prevail.
TM shows how the sentiment and ideals ofC have soured in the postwar situation: Rick's counterpart is the equally suave but morally inverted Harry Lime. Both maintain their illegal activities (gambling, black marketeering) with payoffs to officials of questionable authority (Renault / Brodsky). In C, the risks taken by Rick, Elsa and Renault are in harmony with the larger drama being played out between the Axis and the Allies. This "ideological security" helps all three of them make painful personal decisions based on faith in a moral cause. By contrast, Martins, Anna and the late Harry Lime of TM drift in a moral limbo where such absolutes no longer exist. The Allies have "won" but Vienna has become a political mire of injustice and conflicting ideologies. The gamblers, black marketeers and corrupt French of Casablanca are closet patriots that spend their leisure time helping refugees and secretly opposing the Nazis. In this postwar Vienna, Harry Lime's gang routinely commits obscene, indefensible crimes. Their profit motive shows no regard for their innocent victims, who are considered expendable "suckers": "Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?"
The characters of the wartime C may be confused, but they are ennobled by patriotism and able to make wise decisions. Patriotism is dead in the Viennese ruins of TM. Even the benign characters are too disillusioned to function effectively. Holly waffles and plays at romance like a schoolboy. Anna drifts between bitterness and suicidal despair. 1 Amoral, dog-eat-dog postwar conditions have transformed petty crook Harry Lime into a monster willing to kill children for profit, who can rationalize extermination if he doesn't have to be personally involved. The outcome of WW2, with each victor grabbing for territory and influence, has shown Harry that the only real interest is self-interest. It's not exactly a romantic or sentimental idea, but it shows how the world changed from 1941 Casablanca to 1949 Vienna. If WW1 killed off the idea of chivalry and noblesse oblige, then WW2 exterminated the concepts of national patriotism and the ascendancy of human values.
The Third Man's 'romantic' conclusion is almost a parody of the grand finale to Casablanca. It's a classical setup: Holly's done the right thing, just like one of his own pulp Western heroes. He loves the girl and wants to protect her. But villains inspire as much devotion and loyalty as do heroes, and a valueless heart has no forgiveness. The world won't always welcome lovers, as time goes by ... Anton Karas' final zither cue seems to be laughing at Holly, serenading his obsolete romanticism as the leaves fall on the empty road around him.
A flawless production, The Third Man boasts perfect casting, some of it accidental. Both Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli were fresh from the Selznick flops Portrait of Jennie and The Paradine Case and were loaned out as Selznick's contribution to the production. Orson Welles more likely than not participated to finance his ongoing independent productions. With very little on-screen time he manages to invest Lime with a suave, seductive dimension of Evil. That Welles respects the part and his director is obvious because he neither affects a strange accent nor concocts one of his phony fake noses to amuse himself. Harry Lime is a charming, slippery, untrustworthy scoundrel ... a persona Welles had little difficulty adopting!
Criterion's Blu-ray disc of The Third Man takes the step up in quality in stride. The 59 year-old movie looked great on DVD and Blu-ray adds the final edge. The image is brighter and sharper, pulling every bit of detail out of the wet Vienna streets. Hairline scratches and other flaws are still present, of course. It is now easy to see the difference between original footage and the optical sections used in dissolves, where the image picks up considerable grain. I could be wrong, but the added clarity also reveals that rear-projection is used for one of the angles of Harry Lime's fingers reaching up through the sewer grating as leaves fall; it looks like a clever studio insert. The audio is even clearer; old 16mm prints always seemed to distort Anton Karas' exciting zither music. Still present is the odd jump cut when Holly Martins enters Anna's room for the first time; apparently some dialogue was snipped out to pick up the pace. Watching the movie again, I noticed that the dialogue is cut very, very tightly; the newsreel prologue seems designed to zip by without allowing us to absorb its jaded voiceover: "Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but you know, they can't stay the course like a professional."
The Third Man is such a favorite that Blu-ray owners will probably buy it just on principle. The extras are almost identical to those on the previous remastered DVD. The 90-minute documentary Shadowing the Third Man is quite frank about the stormy relationship between Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick and Carol Reed, and almost goes too far in characterizing Orson Welles as an uncooperative player and credit-hog. The slick show uses digital effects to 'project' movie scenes onto Viennese walls, room interiors and metal gratings, a visual motif that dazzles with an occasional 'morph' effect. A 60-minute 1968 English TV show Graham Greene: The Hunted Man uses excerpts from TV dramatizations of the author's works to illustrate an extended audio interview recorded on the Orient Express. Greene comes off as a fascinating and complex man. A half-hour Austrian making-of docu uses a fresh homegrown approach that overcomes any redundancies. Although Vienna thought the movie bad for its civic image when new, it's now become practically a civic monument.
The smaller format insert booklet repeats the excellent essay by Luc Sante but drops pieces by Charles Drazin and Philip Kerr. The featurette about the film's un-translated German dialogue sequences is still fun, especially the exasperated local actress playing Anna's landlady and her improvised complaints about the international MPs that invade her house.
Another benefit of the new Blu-ray formatting is a "Timeline" display that tracks chapters in the movie and shows what's happening on the three additional audio tracks. This makes it easier to pop between the commentary of Dana Polan (who wants us to read gay implications in scenes with the British military policemen), the track by filmmakers Stephen Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy, and Richard Clarke's reading of an abridged version of Graham Greene's original treatment. It's a helpful extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Star Alida Valli was chosen for her role in The Paradine Case precisely for her cold sensuality, the feeling that gentleness and great crimes could coexist within that mysterious face of hers. The Third Man makes good use of this quality. Is Anna Harry Lime's innocent dupe? She doesn't seem shocked when confronted with his crimes. Is she romantically schizophrenic, denying her complicity with Harry yet suffering for it with bouts of depression? Her remorse seems focused only on her personal loss and not on any moral culpability. Or has the war simply made Anna completely and selfishly amoral, incapable of involvement in anything beyond her own survival and self-interest? A later Valli role in the horror film Les yeux sans visage presents a mystery woman who helps kidnap, mutilate and murder young girls at the bidding of a mad doctor. Her exact motivation, indeed her exact relationship with the doctor, is never made explicit. Yet the character is completely credible, evoking thoughts of what kind of women were employed as workers in Nazi extermination camps. Without the extraordinary qualities Ms. Valli brings to The Third Man, Anna's mysterious relationship with Harry Lime would be a real problem.
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