Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles
Director:  Carol Reed
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date: 
May 22, 2007

"I never knew the old Vienna..."

Film ****

The world of The Third Man is one of the most perfectly captured in all of cinema…it is the world of post World War II Vienna.  Here, a city that was once a cultural Mecca of art, music and beauty is now a rather surreal place, scarred by the effects of the war.  Elegant relics that remain intact seem strange amidst occasional piles of rubble and craters left by bombs.  It is a city divided amongst four zones, American, English, Russian and French…each with its own system of trying to maintain order, and obviously, not much communication between them given the language barriers.  Under these war-impoverished conditions, a black market could exist quite profitably…provided the individuals involved were crafty enough to work the system and evade four sets of watchful eyes.

It is this intriguing and hazardous setting that writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed elected to use in creating one of the greatest films ever made.  Into this post-war environment comes the protagonist, Holly Martins (Cotten), who has arrived upon the invitation of his close friend of 20 years, Harry Lime.  Unfortunately, he seems to be just a tad late…he is informed that Harry was killed in a car accident.

It doesn’t take long for a mystery to begin to unfold.  Holly seems unsatisfied with the conflicting stories related to him about Harry’s death…most reports indicate he had been helped to the side of the road by his two friends.  One witness, a porter looking down from his window, claims to have seen a third man.  Who was he?  No one wants to talk, but Holly becomes more and more determined in his frustration, particularly when the local British officer, Calloway (Howard) vaguely informs him that Harry was not the kind, warm, funny friend that Holly remembered, but actually a rather seedy individual.  He advises Holly to just let it go, and return home.

(Warning:  spoilers ahead.  Skip to the next section if you haven’t seen the movie…and also, skip the features on the disc until after you’ve seen the film.  You’ll enjoy them much more afterward.)

The mystery of the story comes to a rather abrupt end, when Holly spots Harry (Welles) looming in the shadows, smiling at him, before disappearing into the night.  Holly soon learns the full truth about his childhood chum:  he was operating a black market scheme whereby he stole the much needed penicillin from army hospitals, watered it down, and sold it on the streets for outrageous prices to desperate people.  And those people—many of whom were children—would be condemned to slow death or madness from their illnesses because of the weakened penicillin.

From that point on, the film is no longer a mystery, but a deep and powerful drama, complete with an agonizing moral question at its core:  can Holly, or should Holly, help the authorities capture the man who had mercilessly perpetrated this heinous crime?  Or does the loyalty of 20 years of close friendship take precedence?  It’s not an easy question, and it rests entirely with Holly.  One of the film’s intriguing elements is the way their past together is never fully explored.  We, the audience, only see the Harry Lime who heartlessly made his money from the deaths and sufferings of others.  We don’t feel any sympathy for him.  But the earnestness to which Cotten brings his character makes us understand just how much the decision is tearing him apart. 

I don’t want to go much further into the plot than that.  There is an interesting subplot involving Harry’s lover, Anna (Valli), who brings yet another dimension to the argument of loyalty versus morality. 

I would like to touch upon the mastery of the film’s look and cinematography.  Reed has created a beautiful, often haunting, black and white portrait of a world out of joint…a theme emphasized by his constant use of tilted angles in his camera work.  On top of that aspect, his editing is impeccable, as scenes that angle one way are always counterbalanced in the next cut by a scene angling the opposite way.  His use of lighting really brings out the drama in his story…from the startling moment we first glimpse the elusive Harry Lime, to the famed, thrilling finale that takes place in the sewers below the city.  Exaggerated shadows often add to the sense of disquiet.  In short, Reed has taken what would have been an excellent story in any regard, and created a purely cinematic experience from it. 

I must write about on Graham Greene’s story and screenplay as well…it is simply one of the best ever written for the silver screen, easily ranking alongside Citizen Kane or Casablanca.  The script is lively, punctuated with moments of wit and humor, and most importantly, completely engrossing, from the spoken narrative opening onward.  Perhaps that’s why the film defies easy categorization, such as film noir.  There no sense of Hollywood styling here.  Greene has created very real people here, all flawed to certain extents.  The way they interact with one another is not always pretty, but very truthful.  He even avoided the conventional love story between Holly and Anna (that producer David O. Selznick originally wanted), because to have indulged it would have made a mockery of the characters and what they represent…and also cheapened the overall effect of the movie. 

It was this faithful spirit that the writer shared with the director and stars—that rare uniformed dedication that happens every so often in the medium that allows fruitful masterpieces like this one to emerge.

Video ***

Again, Criterion delivers the goods, although the results are not quite as consistently satisfying as some of their most recent titles.  Though the restoration work was extensive and praiseworthy, there were a few elements that may not have been correctable.  There is a bit of a noticeable flicker from time to time, as images dance from slightly lighter to slightly darker…more noticeably in the extremely dark sequences.  Also, the print didn’t clean up quite as nicely as I would have hoped…though suffice to say, this is probably the best the film has looked in decades.  Overall, though, the black and white photography is very crisp, with sharp images even in the scenes featuring deep focus detail, and certainly the transfer is exemplary enough to appreciated Reed’s terrific cinematography. 

Audio **1/2

The Dolby mono soundtrack has a bit of a low hiss to it, but not enough to be distracting, and the dialogue and Anton Karas’ famous zither score both shine through cleanly.

Features ****

Once again, Criterion offers a double disc's wealth of extras for the cinema buff.  The movie on the disc is the full length English cut, with Carol Reed’s opening narration, but for comparison, there is also the American introduction voiced by Joseph Cotten.  The first disc also contains two commentary tracks:  one film scholar Dana Polan, and the other by director Steven Soderberg and writer Tony Gilroy, a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich. plus a reading of Graham Greene’s original prose treatment of the story (as a commentary track). 

The second disc has three documentaries:  a 2005 90 minute one on the making of the film, an hour long 1968 episode of the BBC's "Omnibus" series featuring Graham Greene, and a 2000 30 minute Australian one with cast and crew interviews.  There is a trailer, archived footage of composer Anton Karas and the sewer location, behind the scenes photos, and my personal favorite…two Harry Lime radio programs from the 1950’s (one featuring Welles reprising his role).  You can turn off your monitor and experience this just the way the audiences did back then.  Outstanding!


Landmark films like The Third Man represent everything that brought me to DVD in the first place…especially when they’re given class transfers and a generous features package.  This is simply one of the greatest movies ever made—a masterpiece of storytelling, photography, editing, and acting—and the passage of time has certainly not detracted from it’s ability to thrill and entertain.  Enjoy.

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