Devastated from the fallout of World War II, the crumbling city of Vienna is the destination for American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). It’s 1949, and Martins is seeking his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has promised him work. When he arrives at Lime’s home, he discovers that his friend recently died in an accident. Upset and confused, Martins heads to the funeral, where he meets several of Lime’s acquaintances, including the mysterious Anna (Alida Valli). As Martins begins asking questions about Lime’s accident, he learns more than he expected, particularly from pushy military police officer Calloway (Trevor Howard), who suspected Lime of terrible crimes. While Martins pursues Anna, Calloway pursues Martins, searching for a possible link to Lime’s criminal activities. The more people Martins speaks to, the more deceit he uncovers, and the strangest mystery of all is the identity of the “third man” who was reportedly at the scene when Lime died; two other witnesses are known, but no one can identify the third.
In 1948, British producer Alexander Korda commissioned renowned writer Graham Greene to write a treatment dealing with post-war intrigue. Greene chose war-torn Vienna as the backdrop for his story, which eventually became The Third Man. Korda partnered with producer David O. Selznick on the project, and they offered it to British director Carol Reed. Determined to give the picture a unique style and sensibility, Reed tapped cinematographer Robert Krasker (Brief Encounter, El Cid), with whom he had collaborated on Odd Man Out. Krasker, who won an Academy Award for his striking, richly detailed black-and-white photography on The Third Man, later credited Reed with suggesting the many canted camera angles that give the film a quality Krasker described as “lewd.” The filmmakers’ efforts to give The Third Man a unique visual texture included having three separate camera units shoot almost 24 hours a day for several weeks on location in Vienna. Krasker carried out the intense night shooting and carefully supervised the day unit and “sewer unit” headed by cinematographers John Wilcox and Stanley Pavey, respectively.
The Criterion Collection released an excellent DVD of The Third Man in 1999, and the company recently reissued the title as a two-disc special edition that includes a slew of new supplements and a new transfer of the feature. Compared to the 1999 pressing, the new release has a slight edge, with better depth of field and a more broadly visible gray scale. The most notable difference between the picture transfers is that Criterion has decided to “window box” the 1.33:1 image on this new pressing. This process, which presents a slight black box around the image, allows for maximum, uniform picture information on all four sides; some of this information is occasionally lost on home screens, particularly standard 4x3 TV sets.
The monaural audio on this new DVD is slightly better, offering clearer tonality. With this DVD, as with the 1999 edition, Criterion has chosen to present the original British version of the film, which is 11 minutes longer than Selznick’s 93-minute cut; the latter paints Martins in a more serious light.
This package’s supplements are generous but occasionally redundant. They include most of the extras featured on the 1999 release: an introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; Greene’s abridged original treatment (read by Richard Clarke); radio-play features; Cotton’s voice-over from the U.S. version; stills; a press book; the U.S. trailer; an updated presentation of the film’s history from writer Charles Drazin; vintage newsreel footage of the sewers of Vienna; and a newsreel glimpse of Anton Karas, the zither player who performed the film’s legendary score.
The new supplements start with two audio commentaries, one a detailed analysis by film scholar Dana Polan, the other a lively but only marginally interesting appreciation by filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy. Also new are a solid 30-minute Austrian documentary, “Who Was The Third Man?”; an excellent hour-long BBC Omnibus profile of Greene; printed essays by Drazin, Luc Sante and Philip Kerr; a glimpse of some of the scenes’ untranslated dialogue; and Frederick Baker’s 90-minute documentary “Shadowing The Third Man.” Baker’s piece is filled with brief interviews with cast and crewmembers, including Krasker, but it seems unnecessarily padded to feature length by far too many long clips from the film.
This DVD update of The Third Man highlights the lasting importance of the film, which has long been considered one of England’s most accomplished pictures. This edition is ideal for longstanding fans and will certainly welcome new viewers to the sinister, romantic beauty of post-war Vienna, a city pictured from the heights of its gilded Riesenrad (a famous Ferris wheel) to the depths of its labyrinthine sewer system.