The Third Man Review
The hardest reviews to write are the most glowingly favourable ones. Maybe it's the inspired use of Anton Karas' Zither music, or maybe it's the devilishly crooked Robert Krasker photography. It could even be Orson Welles' marvellously cheeky performance as Harry Lime, or even Carol Reed's sterling direction. The list of reasons why classic-noir The Third Man is one of the greatest films of all time carries on and on endlessly. Named as 'Number One' in the British Film Institute's 'Top One Hundred British Films Of All Time', the film succeeds effortlessly in maintaining a timeless quality, and fully deserves to be viewed by everyone at least once, no, make that twice in their lifetime.
I never knew the old Vienna, before the war... The story begins with a spoken prologue by director Carol Reed (Joseph Cotten voiced the opening narration in the US version) and is set in ravaged-by-war Austria, a country now politically divided into four different national sectors. The Third Man's plotting commences with the film's protagonist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp thriller author, arriving in Vienna. Martins has been promised work by his old school chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles), and Lime has even paid for Martins' journey. However, upon arriving in Vienna, Martins is shocked to learn that Lime has recently been killed in a suspicious car accident, and that the funeral is taking place almost immediately. After attending the funeral, Martins notices a beautiful woman was amongst the shifty characters in attendance. The girl is Anna (Alida Valli), and she knew Lime well. Warned by British officer Calloway (Trevor Howard) that murder "was the best thing that ever happened to him...[Lime] was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city...You could say that murder was part of his racket," Martins is shocked and disbelieves Calloway's claims. Becoming suspicious over differing stories by witnesses of Lime's death, and learning that there was a mysterious and unnamed 'Third Man' at the scene of the crime. Martins throws himself headstrong into the murky wind of cloudy deceit that surrounds Lime's death, convincing himself that Anna might have answers to the all important questions of how did Lime really die, and just who is this third man?
Whilst it would be preferable to assess the relative pros and cons of a film, it's extremely difficult to provide a balanced assessment of The Third Man, so apologies for not being able to fault the film. Here is a film in which every department of the production provides such a magnificent contribution, that it is almost impossible to deny the film its status as a cinematic masterpiece.
It is often rumoured that producer David O. Selznick requested the film to be shot entirely using studio sets, and to feature an upbeat score. It would be interesting in an alternative universe to compare 'that' unrealised version with the version that is dear to our hearts. The Third Man utilised real Vienna locations so vividly and in such an inspired fashion, that the real-life degradation by war heavily supported the framework of the film's narrative. The Oscar winning and arguably flawless cinematography by Robert Krasker gives the film a distinct characterisation, using tilted angles and the battered real-life scenery to create a crooked visual platform for a world of crooked characters. Notice the thrilling chase scene, in which the sewer-like locales are used as canvases for the shadows of the characters. The shadows are stretched out of proportion, almost like that of a sewer rat, grotesquely scavenging for the victim. Krasker's contrasting use of dark blacks and luminous whites perfectly juxtaposes the sense of optimism/pessimism brought on Europe by the war.
The directing by Carol Reed, combined with the fabulously quirky Graham Greene story and screenplay, is detailed to the point of masterful. Every character is devious and untrustworthy, and yet they are so lovingly portrayed and given such sardonic charisma that they seem part of the furniture in the The Third Man. Whilst the film is deliciously visual in a celebratory ruined aesthetic, the characters are what renders this world believable. Reed and Greene cleverly keep the film's spirits above its deliberately murky undercurrent, and the fact that the audience is forever grinning despite relatively little humour and an abundance of murder and intrigue speaks volumes for their collaborative efforts. The pair had also worked together a year previously for the excellent A Fallen Idol, although The Third Man would for most critics define their careers. They even clashed over the ending, with Greene originally writing a typically Hollywood conclusion, and Reed convincing him to bring the story full circle which was more in line with the thematic overtones of The Third Man.
Performance wise, Joseph Cotten seems born to play the naïve American idealist that is Holly Martins. Martins is almost a less-wealthier version of Jed Leland in the legendary Citizen Kane, another Welles/Cotten effort, and a film worthy of another glowing review. You could argue that Martins represents the naïve ideals of Hollywood filmmaking, with their happy endings, and two-dimensional good versus evil story-lines. If this were true, then the remaining characters of the film represent European cinema, and that industry's explosive artistic creativity in the face of wartime poverty. Not content with making probably the finest film of all time, Orson Welles effortlessly graces The Third Man with arguably the finest cinematic entrance of all time, next to Omar Sharif in Lawrence Of Arabia. The introducing sequence, forever memorised by film scholars around the world, is possibly the finest marriage of music with a facial look. Karas' zither strums out the inner thoughts of the boyish Harry Lime, grinning naughtily at Martins as if the whole escapade is nothing more than a mere childish prank. The film was strong enough without the pleasure of Welles' presence, but when he does make an entrance, the film becomes world-class and never stoops below that level. As Harry Lime, Welles suggests that when he can be bothered to try and contribute an effective performance, he actually manages to become legendary. The eerily compelling Ferris Wheel sequence, near the film's conclusion, is the best example of great chemistry between two dazzling actors. Graham Greene was highly praised for his 'cuckoo clock' speech that he wrote for Lime's character, a monologue expressing the notion that peace never leads to artistic evolution, and citing that Switzerland's only contribution to the world was the cuckoo clock. Not only was this speech actually improvised by Welles himself, but it resulted in the towering actor being bombarded with letters from angry Swiss residents disagreeing with this throw-away claim! The supporting cast, lead by Trevor Howard (of Brief Encounter fame) and Alida Valli (or Valli as she is credited in the film) provide strong support for Cotten and Welles, and you can even spot a young Bernard Lee as Sgt. Paine. Lee would later mark his career as M in the James Bond films.
No review of The Third Man would be complete without heaping praise on the wonderfully jaunty Zither-twanged score by Anton Karas. The composer was noticed in a bar by director Carol Reed, who noted that having a Zither score would suitably set the sometimes surrealist and yet realist aura of the film. The score may be fast-paced and sprightly in tone, but is merely to balance the film, which could have been mercilessly bleak had Karas' score not given it added character. The annoyingly catchy 'Harry Lime Theme' was one of the biggest instrumental hits of the nineteen fifties, and will linger in your mind as long as any other quality element of The Third Man.
Books have been written on why The Third Man is such an undeniable classic, and it's almost surpassed the element of artistic criticism, since it clearly holds its own fifty three years after its birth and has arguably never been bettered by any other British film. It really needs to be seen in order to understand why it is such a tremendous piece of filmmaking, and even if the story doesn't grab you by the neck (and let's admit it, it won't to some people) then at least watch it for its technically masterful qualities alone. If ever you needed proof that the Oscars are laughable in their proposed 'championing of cinematic excellence', then you only have to notice the fact that the film only won a single Oscar, and this was for its breathtaking cinematography.
Academy Awards 1950
Best Black & White Cinematography - Robert Krasker
Academy Award Nominations 1950
Best Director - Carol Reed
Best Film Editing - Oswald Hafenrichter
Usually, Warner Brothers titles contain some of the greatest transfers when it comes to older films. However, as The Third Man is licensed to Warner through Studio Canal, the transfer isn't up to their usual standards, and is mediocre at best. A film of this quality deserves a transfer in the same league as North By Northwest or Doctor Zhivago, but this version is instead given occasional print shimmers, an abundance of white speckles, and noticeable edge enhancement. It is certainly a very watchable transfer, but no match for the formidable Criterion version, which has excellently been simultaneously reviewed by Jon Robertson.
Presented in the original mono mix, the sound is clearly audible but lacks definition, and is full of hiss on occasions. Desperately worthy of remastering, the sound track is instead flat, but is still acceptable and recorded at a good volume. Again, the Criterion version beats the Region 2 version hands down.
Menu: A good animated menu featuring background clips of the chase sequence, complete with Karas' 'Harry Lime' theme booming over the top.
Packaging: Although it's technically a Warner release, The Third Man has been given an amaray casing, with a stylish black-and-white design and a one page chapter listing insert included inside.
The Lives Of Harry Lime: A Ticket To Tangiers
: An excellent twenty-eight minute 'prequel' radio play that was one of over fifty spin-off radio shows. Written by and starring Orson Welles as Lime, and complete with interval breaks 'just like they had in the old days' in order to capitalise on the use of Karas' zither score. Lime is far less villainous as Lime, but still just as lovably roguish. The play is presented in mono with a static visual image on screen.
Lux Radio Theatre Presents The Third Man: Starring Joseph Cotten and Evelyn Keyes, this is an interesting hour-long radio adaptation of the film. Sound is clearer here than on the Harry Lime radio play, and the radio version maintains most of the plotting qualities of the film, but is obviously a tame and inferior product.
Photo Gallery: A very good collection of black-and-white photos taken behind-the-scenes of the production, complete with user navigation between the images.
Sewer Footage: A brief, one minute Austrian featurette with English subtitles showing Reed filming some of the sewer sequences for the film.
Anton Karras: A two minute featurette with English subtitles featuring some classic archive footage of Anton Karras playing the zither.
Original Trailer & Re-Release Trailer: A good original 1950 trailer advertising 'The 3rd Man' (sic) featuring fifties voiceover narration and a brief explanation of the plot. The Re-release trailer exploits the film's use of zither music, which had by then become world famous, but is ultimately a rehash of the original trailer. What's interesting is the Re-release trailer is cropped at 1.85:1 widescreen.
US Opening Sequence: Although presented with a shaky and grainy print, it is still nice to have the alternative opening narration sequence with Joseph Cotten as opposed to director Carol Reed. The sound skips on occasions and is full of hiss.
There's no denying that The Third Man is one of the must-own classic films, but the picture and sound quality are categorically destroyed by the superior Criterion version. With regards to extra features, this Region 2 has provided every extra that licensing would allow, but the Criterion version still has some excellent features that are notable by their absence in the Region 2 version. If you must own this film, the concept of 'getting-what-you-paid-for' applies, as the Criterion version is more expensive, but is worthy of spending the extra pounds. If you aren't too bothered by some missing extras and the average picture and sound quality, then this Region 2 version certainly won't disappoint.