The Third Man
June 4, 2007
Based on a story by Graham Greene, The Third Man (1949) was the follow-up to his previous collaboration with director Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol (1948) and was not an easy film to get made but the end result speaks for itself as it has since become an undeniable classic. The Criterion Collection released an excellent edition on DVD many years ago and is revisiting it again this year. It is so rare that a double-dipped title is worth buying. Usually, only a few new extras are added and then resold to the public but this new edition is worth picking up even if you have the previous one. A wealth of new extras have been added making this a must-have for any film buff.
The setting is post-World War II Vienna and American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Cotton) arrives with the promise of a job from his old friend, Harry Lime (Welles), a black market racketeer, only to find himself immersed in a mystery. He is told that Lime has been killed under rather mysterious circumstances (an accident, supposedly). Holly meets a colourful assortment of characters: Major Calloway (Howard), a British police officer investigating the murder and who paints a pretty nasty picture of Lime; Anna Schmidt (Valli), Lime’s beautiful girlfriend; and “Baron” Kurtz (Deutsch), a friend of Lime’s and fellow black racketeer and who ends up filling Holly in on the details of his friend’s death.
Holly manages to scam a gig as a guest speaker at an upcoming lecture in the city and decides to investigate his friend’s death, much to the chagrin of Calloway. The deeper Holly digs, the more details of the “accident” don’t add up. There are too many convenient coincidences and conflicting accounts. What is clear is that people want the incident quickly forgotten and don’t take kindly to the writer sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong. Initially, he comes across as a naïve fellow thrown into a world where he has to quickly get his bearings. He uses his skills of observation as an author to question the people who knew Lime. The mystery he becomes embroiled in could easily be something out of one of his own pulp novels.
Despite his lack of screen-time, Lime’s presence is felt in every scene as the characters constantly refer to or talk about him. When the enigmatic Lime finally appears, all we see are his feet, the rest of him is hidden in the shadow of a doorway as the director teases us by prolonging the first actual shot of Welles’ face. When it does happen, it certainly was worth the wait – a lit window suddenly illuminates Lime’s face complete with a bemused expression that is classic Welles.
Holly and Lime finally meet face-to-face in a conversation atop a Ferris wheel where Welles delivers a famous speech (that he wrote) where he justifies killing innocent people for money and subtly threatens his friend. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” It is these last couple lines that are the zinger and indicative of the playful mood that permeates the entire film. The two men meet again for what turns out to be one of the most memorable chases in the history of cinema as the police pursue Lime through the sewers of Vienna.
Vienna is literally a divided city, split-up amongst the Allies – England, France, Russia and the United States with the centre of the city an international free-for-all of sorts. The architecture looks beautiful during the day and foreboding at night with ominous shadows everywhere. The city is a character unto itself and Reed’s camera explores its shadowy alleyways, bombed out ruins and labyrinth sewer system.
Reed orchestrates The Third Man with the utmost expertise, teasing us with tantalizing clues, unreliable witnesses, a MacGuffin and playing with us by taking Holly on a high-speed car ride that suggests danger but reveals its destination to be the lecture he is scheduled to speak at. Reed also employs plenty of skewed angles and all of the stylish hallmarks of film noir. The film’s legacy lives on. Robert Altman paid homage to the film’s ending in the conclusion to his own, The Long Goodbye (1973) and Steven Soderbergh, who has been heavily influenced by the film’s style in two of his own films, Kafka (1991) and The Good German (2006).
The first disc features an introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. He talks about Reed as an underrated director and herald’s the film’s atmospheric black and white cinematography. Naturally, he talks about Welles’ role in the film.
There is an audio commentary by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Not surprisingly, they talk about the nuts and bolts mechanics of the story and the film’s style. They just don’t talk about the film as fans but from the point-of-view of filmmakers as well. Soderbergh dishes plenty of fascinating anecdotes about the film (taken from Charles Drazin’s book), including how Carol Reed has three units filming at once and slept two three-hour shifts every day. This commentary is like watching the film with these two guys in your living room – very casual and conversational but never dull.
There is a second commentary by film scholar Dana Polan. He argues that The Third Man is a hybrid film with various identities and moralities. He also says that it looks back to the past and ahead to the future of cinema. Polan cites plenty of examples within the film to support his thesis while also exploring its themes. This track is a nice contrast to the first as it is more scholarly in nature.
“The Third Man Treatment” features actor Richard Clarke reading Graham Greene’s abridged treatment for the film with a preface that explains the story’s origins.
The second disc starts off with “The Third Man File,” a collection of featurettes that include a production history by Charles Drazin, author of In Search of The Third Man; a comparison of the U.S. and U.K. versions of the film which included different opening voiceover narrators; subtitles for the scenes that featured untranslated foreign languages which is a nice touch; the original U.S. trailer; and the original U.K. press book.
Perhaps, the strongest extra in the entire two-disc set is “Shadowing The Third Man,” Frederick Baker’s definitive 90-minute documentary on the film with visits to some of the original locations and archival interviews with key cast and crew members. This doc dispels a lot of the myths surrounding the film, like, for example, that Welles directed his scenes – not true. This is a fascinating look at how this film came together including filming anecdotes told by those who were there.
“Who Was The Third Man?” is a 30-minute documentary made for the 50th anniversary of the film’s Austrian premiere with a look on how Vienna and the country in general were presented. It also examines how the film was received by its population.
“The Third Man on the Radio” features a radio play that was only one of a series that acted as prequels, fleshing out Harry Lime’s past. Many were in fact written and performed by Welles himself. Also included is a radio play adaptation of the film with Cotton reprising his role.
“Graham Greene: The Hunted Man” is a rare 1968 BBC profile of this famous novelist and screenwriter. Almost 60 minutes in length, it is an excellent look at his life and illustrious career.
Finally, there is “From the Archives,” a collection of various odds and ends, including a brief look at composer Anton Karas playing the zither; a look at the underground sewers of Vienna and how they were patrolled by the police in old, archival footage; and a pictorial essay about Vienna during the time that the movie takes place.