Carol Reed's The Third Man is widely considered a masterpiece, and rightly so. It's a beautifully shot film that's ripe with atmosphere and rich in character development. Written by Graham Greene and starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, it's a post World War II drama that's aged wonderfully and doesn't feel dated by its setting at all.
When the film begins, the narrator laments having not seen Vienna before the war before explaining to us how the city is now divided and controlled by different factions - the French, the British, the Russians and the Americans. Into this odd mix of culture and post war politics emerges Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a hard drinking writer of popular western novels who has arrived to meet with his friend, Harry Lime, with whom he went to college. When Martins turns up at Lime's home, however, the hired help tells him that his friend just passed away, the victim of an accident.
Martins heads to the nearest pub to drown his sorrows in drink where he meets a British officer, Calloway (Trevor Howard), who has no kind words about Martins' late friend and who tells him to go back to home but Holly isn't so sure that the circumstances surrounding his friend's death are as normal as they seem. He starts asking questions and doing a bit of investigating on his own and soon finds that many of the details conflict, leading him to believe that something is very wrong in Austria. If that weren't reason enough to stick around, Holly's also started to fall for a foxy blonde named Anna (Alida Valdi), who may also know more than she first seems to.
Shot on location in Austria while the country was still a shambles thanks to the war, The Third Man is an incredibly striking looking film thanks not only to the authentic locations but also to the deft cinematography of Robert Krasker. Large parts of the film are shot from rather odd angles, giving the whole film a disjointed look that suits the mystery of the central storyline quite well. The high contrast black and white works very nicely alongside the rather stark lighting employed to create a film with an incredibly unique look, one which is almost instantly identifiable, culminating in a remarkably tense chase sequence that pulls us through the sewers that line the underbelly of the city.
Performance wise, we're in very capable hands here with Cotton playing the crotchety Martins quite perfectly. He's got a worldliness to him and a weariness to him that fits the role very well and his interplay with the rest of the talented cast is completely believable. Welles, who is barely in the film, makes an incredible impression by the time he actually does show up, making the most out of his small but incredibly important part and carving out one of the finest, if briefest, performances of his storied career.
Lionsgate presents The Third Man in an AVC encoded 1.33.1 1080p high definition transfer that preserves the film's original aspect ratio. Compared to the previous edition, released in 2008 by The Criterion Collection (and now out of print), there's a fair bit more print damage and some evidence of digital noise reduction that has sucked out some of the grain and replaced it with some mild smearing. Black levels vary from scene to scene and sometimes fine detail gets lost in the shadows. Texture and detail are there in the close up shots and the image is generally fairly stable, but it's neither as clean looking, as detailed nor as well authored as the Blu-ray release that came before it. Based on its own merits, the transfer isn't horrible, but you can't help but compare it to the Criterion release and as soon as you do that the faults become a bit more obvious and the image quality more disappointing.
The English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track, which comes with optional English closed captioning, is nice and clear. Subtitles are offered in French and Spanish and optional 2.0 tracks are provided in French and Spanish as well. The English track is serviceable for the most part but runs into problems in the higher end of the mix where some obvious and obnoxious tininess becomes apparent. Dialogue is generally easy enough to understand though there are some minor fluctuations in the levels that you can't help but notice. There's a fair bit of pop and hiss in the mix that wasn't on the previous release and as it was with the video, the audio for this disc just isn't as good as what was previously available.
The extras kick off with a commentary track with assistant director Guy Hamilton, Simon Callow and 2nd unit script supervisor Angela Allen. It's a good discussion that covers a lot of ground and they share a lot of interesting stories about the film, the time they spent working on it and the people that they collaborated with on the project. They talk about Reed a fair bit and also shares stories about Cotton and Welles among others. There's a good pace to the track and rarely is there any dead air, resulting in a commentary that's both interesting and entertaining.From there, check out The Third Man Interactive Vienna Tour which is a really well put together map that has selectable areas you can highlight with your remote to learn more about a certain segment. Here we learn more about some more specific aspects of the production as the 'tour' explores a literal museum dedicated to the film, the infamous staircase and sewer used in the film as well as other locations like the hotel, the cemetery, the Strauss Memorial, and the building that Harry Lime called home. As the tour takes us around the city we also see the Am Hof Square, the doorway that frames Orson Welles in one of the film's more iconic shots, a fountain, a cathedral, and the famous Ferris Wheel. This is very well laid out and quite easy to navigate and on top of that it provides a 'you are there' sort of feel that not only shows us what these locations are like today but which also explains their history and cultural significance.
Lionsgate has also dug up a pair of interviews, the first of which is a lengthy one with Joseph Cotton conducted in 1987 while he was suffering from laryngitis, which makes him tough to understand in spots despite the actor's best efforts. There's also a shorter interview with Graham Greene from 1984 in which the author discusses his work. Both were conducted by The Guardian and are fairly interesting. Also look for an episode from the radio serie The Lives Of Harry Lime entitled A Ticket To Tangiers from 1951 which is performed by Orson Welles and the 1951 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Third Man and a five minute piece in which Cornelia Mayer plays a few tracks from the film on her zither before discussing the instrument and her work on the film.
Rounding out the extra features are an alternate voice over narration scene from the film's opening, a still gallery, two trailers for the feature, menus and chapter stops.
It's a shame that the audio and video on this release can't compare to the previous Criterion Collection release because Lionsgate and Studio Canal have put enough into the extras department that this could have made a very nice companion piece, particularly with the commentary and Vienna tour. Videophiles and those who want the film in the best possible quality are going to have to shell out more money for the out of print release, as this transfer is noticeably inferior - that said, it's watchable, even if it's got some obvious flaws and the strength of the film and the supplements are hard to ignore. It's tough to not recommend this disc based on those two qualities, so that take as it stands and know that there is a better looking and better sounding version of the Third Man available.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.