The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles
Extras: Alternate opening, Behind-the-scenes photos, Commentary Track, Radio plays, trailers and much more...

Based upon a story and the screenplay by Graham Greene, "The Third Man" is a movie that takes you back to post-war Europe in 1949. The film has had a lasting impression on me since I first saw it on TV as a child many years ago. It is a storyteller’s gambit and a lesson in humanity at the same time, combined with stunning images that burn their mark into every viewer’s memory. Criterion Collection is presenting "The Third Man" on DVD in a special edition that contains a fully restored version of the film, as well as a vast number of supplements.

Located entirely in Austria’s capital Vienna, the film very effectively used the ruined heart of the city as the backdrop for this fascinating thriller. The bombed ruins of the houses sprawling across many blocks, the cold, tragic atmosphere of the memories of the War still hanging over people’s heads, director Carol Reed, managed to capture this daunting atmosphere and put it to film in unforgettable pictures. But it is not only the backdrop that makes "The Third Man" a truly poignant film, it is the story itself that will have you hold your breath as the twisting plot throws the viewer into a story of deception and racketeering.

It all starts out one sunny day when Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is following up on a job offer with his childhood friend Harry Lime. Down on his luck and in dire straits, Holly arrives in Vienna and seeks out Lime’s apartment in one of Vienna’s restore middle-class neighborhoods. Upon his arrival he learns that his friend just had a fatal accident right in front of the house a few days ago, when he was hit by a speeding car.

Confused he tries to figure out what exactly happened and notices some discrepancies in what witnesses tell him. It almost seems as if everyone wanted to forget what happened all too quickly, and Holly suspects foul play was in fact the cause of death.
He follows up with the Police who investigated the case but what he gets to hear there is not what he expected – the truth about his friend.

The atmosphere created by director Carol Reed in "The Third Man" is quite unique and highly visual. Dramatic angles, perspectives and camera moves determine the movie’s visual appearance. But also the high caliber cast and most importantly the story make "The Third Man" a truly compelling experience. When seen for the first time, its twisting storyline is sure to present to unexpected to most viewers, but even upon repeated viewing the film doe not lose its gripping impact and thrills. The almost haunting Zither music adds to the dramatic impact of the film, as does the climactic finale, shot entirely in the sewers underneath Vienna. It all adds up to a movie experience that is entertaining, thrilling and without doubt one of the best we have seen in movie history.

Criterion Collection’s release of "The Third Man" is a great tribute to this classic film, presenting it in the movie’s original <$PS,fullscreen> aspect ratio. Due to the full restoration of the film in celebration of its 50th anniversary, the transfer looks surprisingly good, although it can hardly defy its age. Slight registration problems causing a jumping image can be found throughout, as well as some scratches and faded prints. Nonetheless it is a spectacular presentation, as you can see from one of the disc’s supplements. 50,000 frames of film have been restored and a small featurette explains what kind of work has been done to save the film before it deteriorated in its entirety. A/B comparisons vividly show how bad the original print was and how the images were painstakingly repaired to create this presentation.

Running at a rather average datarate, the presentation on this DVD is a mixed bag and in a large number of scenes compression artifacts, mostly in the form of <$pixelation,pixelation>, is evident. An increased bitrate with less compression would certainly have helped to avoid these artifacts, but then Criterion would not have had enough space on the disc to place all the supplements on the same disc. I know that many publishers are regularly walking a thin line to balance the best possible movie presentation and to satisfy the common demand for bonus materials. In the case of a Criterion Collection release however, I would always expect the best possible results, and if need be, a release that comes on two separate discs. As much as I believe that regardless of the compression artifacts evident on this release, this is the best the film has looked in a very long time, as much I am disappointed by the rather mediocre use Criterion makes of the DVD medium here. Edges are well defined without being over-enhanced and the transfer exhibits a great shadow delineation with bold, good looking contrasts.

"The Third Man" contains a mono soundtrack that is presented in a 2-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital> presentation on this disc. As expected, the audio track contains a bit of noise, but has also been restored nicely. For the most part, much of the ambience of the original recording is left intact, and the movie also doesn’t show the usual signs of a cropped high end that so often comes with noise reduction. This is a high quality audio track that is repaired but other than that mostly untouched. The frequency response is limited and the audio is harsh sounding as a result. All of these are symptoms and results that clearly stem from the movie’s considerable age however and have nothing to do with the transfer to DVD.

One of the highlights of every Criterion release are the supplements, and "The Third Man" does not disappoint either. It contains an introduction by writer/director Peter Bogdanovich who puts the film’s importance in a historic context. A comparison between the opening sequences of the film in Europe and the US can be found with a detailed explanation as to what has been changed and why. Another segment contains archival footage of Anton Karas, who played the Zither in the unique and memorable soundtrack of the film, as well as original footage from the sewers underneath Vienna where the film’s atmospheric finale takes place. As mentioned earlier, there is also a segment that demonstrates the restoration and repair process the film went through, as well as the movie’s trailers.

One gem of the release is the original treatment for the film that was done by Graham Greene. It is presented as a <$commentary,commentary track>, read by actor Richard Clarke, as the film goes along and nicely shows how Greene’s images and ideas have influenced the look and feel of the film. Many of the descriptions found in his treatment perfectly match the images we see on screen.

Apart from this, two separate radio episodes of "The Third Man" can be found on the disc in their entirety as well. These episodes were prepared by Orson Welles in 1950 for a British radio station in continuation of the success of the motion picture, as a series called "The Lives Of Harry Limes". Orson Welles was a master of radio plays at the time and his 1938 mass-hysteria creating "War Of The Worlds" radio play was still vividly in people’s minds. The 30-minute episode "A Ticket To Tangiers" and the 60-minute radio version of "The Third Man" are both found in their entirety and in astounding quality on this DVD.

Although the video presentation of "The Third Man" on this DVD with its compression artifacts is somewhat disappointing, there can be no doubt that you won’t find a better-looking version of this milestone film anywhere. The movie is a classic and deserves the attention it has received in terms of the supplements on this release. Given the effort that was also put into the movie’s full restoration, we get to see a clean image with great a contrast and without notable overexposure. Add to that the vast array of supplements Criterion has added to this special edition, and you get a release that is impossible to ignore.