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The Third Man

The Third Man
Criterion 64
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 104 min. / Street Date May 22, 2007 / 39.95
Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee, Ernst Deutsch, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Alexis Chesnakov
Director of Photography Robert Krasker
Art Director Vincent Korda
Editor Richard Marks
Music Anton Karas
Original Story and Screenplay Graham Greene
Producers Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick, London Films
Producer and Director Carol Reed

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Criterion Collection has been quietly upgrading many of its earlier DVD releases that appeared before enhanced transfers became the standard, and before Criterion adopted fastidious digital clean-up policies. Beauty and the Beast, "M" and The Wages of Fear have all been replaced with vastly improved transfers. The Third Man came out in 1999 in a sharp and clear version that made instant converts to the Criterion way of doing things; now it has been superceded by a beautiful two-disc set with a new transfer and a number of attractive new extras. Savant's review is a revision of his earlier piece from December 3, 1999.


Penniless pulp western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) goes to postwar Vienna expecting a writing job from his old buddy Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to arrive in time for his benefactor's funeral. Holly smells murder when witnesses give flaky versions of Harry's 'accident.' English 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 was 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, even its eccentric zither music track. 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 as 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 a 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 butthe 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. Most are okay films that just miss the mark of greatness (Our Man in Havana), and some are just plain disasters (the 50s version of End of the Affair) due mostly to producer attempts to alter Greene's world-weary, frequently defeatist mood. 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 refers repeatedly to Calloway as 'Callahan' as an insult, 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 really understands 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.

In 1949 The Third Man hit its mark because it painted a compelling picture for audiences that couldn't comprehend what the fuss was 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 instead makes a commitment to idealism and sacrifices his romantic future with the love of his life so the world can defeat Evil and Utopian Peace can prevail.

TM shows how the sentiments and idealism ofC have soured in the postwar situation: Rick's counterpart is the equally suave but morally inverted Harry Lime. Both keep their illegal activities (gambling, black marketeering) functioning 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 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 new kind of 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.'

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 from bitterness to 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 one that 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 a hero from one of his own pulp Westerns. 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 music 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 as Selznick's contribution to the production. Orson Welles more likely than not participated to help finance his ongoing independent productions. With very little onscreen time he manages to invest Lime with a completely credible dimension of suave 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 reissue of The Third Man is a handsome disc with unique extras, but unless they buy every Criterion release just on principle, collectors who already own the earlier DVD will be faced with a difficult decision. The old transfer was excellent, one of those sparkling examples of perfectly rendered B&W that convinced a lot of early adopters that DVD could indeed better analog video reproduction. The new transfer is probably better but this reviewer (who does not examine waveforms or make fine technical distinctions) found little difference; it was hard to tell them apart on an ordinary monitor. On a computer screen it becomes evident that Criterion has slightly windowboxed the image on all four sides.

The fan's need for the new The Third Man lies therefore with the extras, and the new disc unearths much more material on the making of the movie. A 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 hold together 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 takes a fresh home-grown approach that overcomes any redundancies. Although Vienna thought the movie bad for the civic image when new, it's now become practically a civic monument.

Besides some excellent essays from Luc Sante, Charles Drazin and Philip Kerr, disc producer Susan Arosteguy (taking over from the first disc's Fumiko Takagi and Karen Stetler) adds useful little extras like a peek at the film's un-translated German dialogue sequences. The elderly local actress playing Anna's landlady has a field day improvising exasperated complaints about the international MPs that invade her house. We're told that her insults were a perfect reflection of Viennese frustrations with the occupying forces.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Third Man rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video transfer: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Original, back again: Video introduction with Peter Bogdanovich; Abridged version of Graham Greene's original treatment, read by Richard Clarke; a radio episode from The Lives of Harry Lime and a Lux Radio adaptation of the story; Joseph Cotten's alternate opening narration; BTS photos, pressbook, and the awful U.S. trailer. New supplements: 2 audio commentaries, one by scholar Dana Polan and one with Stephen Soderbergh and writer Tony Gilroy; 90 minute documentary Shadowing the Third Man 2005; 60 min 1968 TV show Graham Greene: The Hunted Man, 30 minute Austrian making-of docu; a look at the un-translated foreign dialogue in the film; new insert booklet with essays by Luc Sante, Charles Drazin and Philip Kerr.
Packaging: 2 discs in card and plastic holder with booklet in card sleeve.
Reviewed: May 22, 2007.


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 her 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.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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