It isn't hard to see why so many people love the film.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
csjlong's picture

This is a review of Criterion's new May 2007 re-issue of Carol Reed's "The Third Man." The main body of the review was written by John Puccio for Criterion's original DVD release of the film. The rest of the review (covering the features of the new DVD release) is written by Christopher Long.

The film according to John Puccio

The image of a towering Ferris wheel dominates a bombed-out, postwar Vienna. This circular reminder of happier times that were and would be again is a chilling yet reassuring symbol, one of many impressions that stick indelibly in the viewer's mind. Look at any movie critic's list of top-ten favorite films and you'll almost always find "The Third Man." It may not be the number-one choice; that's usually reserved for things like "Citizen Kane," "Grand Illusion," "Rules of the Game," "Casablanca," or "The Godfather." But "The Third Man" will be up there with the best, giving you an idea of the company it keeps.

I came to the movie late, during a college film class in the mid sixties, and it knocked me over. It made my list then and there, and I have been looking forward to owning a pristine copy of it ever since. Thanks to Criterion my wish has come true. Written by Graham Greene, produced by Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, and directed by Carol Reed, this 1949 British noir classic has never looked better.

It isn't hard to see why so many people love the film; it has the right stars, setting, mystery, atmosphere, humor, and music to set it apart. Taking them one at a time, the stars are Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and Orson Welles. Cotten plays Holly Martins, an author of cheap Western fiction who goes to Vienna just after the Second World War at the invitation of an old friend, Harry Lime. What he finds when he gets there is that Lime is dead, the victim of a suspicious "accident." His subsequent investigation into the affair leads him through the shadowy underworld of the city, with ominous whispers and sinister characters lurking everywhere.

Valli plays Lime's old lover, Anna Schmidt, who grieves his loss despite knowing his dubious reputation. Howard plays a hard-nosed British major, Calloway, closely examining the case. And Welles plays the enigmatic figure of Lime himself. A word about Welles and the Lime character: Harry Lime has been described as the ultimate antihero. Surely, Welles's portrayal of him is one of the most fascinating in the annals of film. Lime is built up for an hour before he ever makes an appearance. Then, when he does, we see he is a crook, a scoundrel, a black marketeer; indeed, a rat. Yet the character is so endearingly charming a rogue, he went on to his own radio and TV series! Amazing.

As much a character in the film as any of the actors is the city of Vienna. Marvelously photographed in black and white, the only way to shoot any great film according to Welles, the city takes on an identity of its own. There isn't a wasted shot; every scene serves a narrative purpose. The city's grand architecture, its battered and crumbled walls, its fog-enshrouded back streets establish a moody atmosphere that augments the mysterious goings-on of the plot. What's more, Reed captures the city from almost every standpoint but straight-on. There's hardly a direct angle to be found, everything ever so slightly askew, giving the film a bizarre, surrealistic quality. With everyone in the city looking malign, from children to cab drivers, it all combines to create a world where nothing is as it appears to be.

Juxtaposed to the story's dark forces is its droll wit. Cotten's part, figuratively, is that of the American cowboy out of his depth; hence his occupation as a Western pulp-fiction writer. The part was originally proposed for Jimmy Stewart, but Cotten is perfect, contrasting a suave urbanity with an understated naiveté, ever bumbling into situations beyond his understanding or control. Thrust among gangsters and thugs, his most serious injury comes at the beak of a parrot!

Then, there's that wonderful zither music. Played by musician Anton Karas, the zither is the only instrument used throughout the film. Its melancholy, sometimes otherworldly tone underlines all of the action and, like the city of Vienna, is as much a part of the picture as the actors or story line. The music became so popular, in fact, that it made an international star of Karas, and the "Third Man" theme became forever linked with the film in viewers' minds. Yet its use in the movie was wholly by accident. Director Reed "discovered" Karas playing music during a party just before the film went into production. After some small debate with the producers, Reed hired Karas to compose the musical score, and the rest is history.

A review of the 2007 re-issue by Christopher Long


The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Unlike the original release, the re-issue is picture boxed. It is an entirely new source print than was used in the original release. Both versions offer very good transfers; this isn't an instance of Criterion trying to make up for a poor original release (like with "The Seven Samurai"). The re-issued transfer is definitely cleaner than the original, and a shade brighter in spots. The new transfer does not offer any reason for current owners to upgrade to the re-issue; it's the extras that are going to be worth it to fans.


The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.


The two-disc re-issue is packed to the gills.

Disc One features a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich (xx min.) and two separate audio commentaries: one by Steven Soderbergh and writer Tony Gilroy, and another by film scholar Dana Polan. I only sampled each, but greatly preferred the one by Polan (of course I'm a film scholar myself, so I'm biased.) The disc also includes an abridged recording of Graham Greene's treatment for the film, read by actor Richard Clarke; this feature, like the Bogdanovich intro, were also on the original version.

Disc Two has enough features to be worth purchasing all by itself. First there are the features from the original Criterion issue: "The Third Man on the Radio" (a 1951 episode of "The Lives of Harry Lime" and a 1951 Lux Theater adaptation of "The Third Man"), Joseph Cotton's alternate opening voice-over, and an illustrated production history.

The new features are quite impressive. "Shadowing ‘The Third Man'" (2005) is a stylish 90-minute documentary nominally about the making of the film, but mirroring the film's tone, it raises as many questions as it answers. Directed by Frederick Baker and narrated by John Hurt, thi shifting, niftily edited film, much like "The Third Man," carries the eerie impression that it was directed at least in part by Orson Welles.

"Who Was The Third Man?" is a 30-minute documentary commissioned by the Vienna Sewer Department (if you haven't seen the film, that probably sounds very strange). It features interviews with cast and crew members. It's not on a par with Baker's documentary, but it's still a worthy inclusion.

"Graham Greene: The Hunted Man" is a 1968 "Omnibus" episode from the BBC. The 55-minute look at the life and work of the author is pretty standard fare, but still quite absorbing.

"The Third Man File" includes several smaller features, some of which are on the original release. One neat addition (if it was on the original, I overlooked it) is a presentation of a scene from the film in which the foreign dialogue goes untranslated to emphasize Martins' confusion; here the dialogue is presented with subtitles. The "File" also includes the original UK press book for the film.

The original liner notes offered only a short essay by Michael Wilmington. The new liner booklet (26 pages) includes essays by Luc Sante, Charles Drazin, and Philip Kerr.

Film Value

I don't quite agree with John that "The Third Man" deserves to be considered among the very greatest films of all-time. It is a tremendous stylistic accomplish even if all those Dutch angles get a bit old halfway through. The introduction of Harry Lime and the entire sewer sequence are marvelous, of course, and if it's all a bit heavy-handed, we can forgive it because it's just so damned cool. After all, we've got Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles and that's just about all you need for a good movie.

The Criterion re-issue offers an excellent transfer from a new source print. It isn't significantly better than the original, but the bulked-up extras certainly make the re-issue a worthy upgrade for fans of the film. At the very least, Disc Two of the re-issue is worth renting from Netflix, but be warned it could take a couple nights to get through all the material. The two audio commentaries are also worth considering in your decision to upgrade.

John's Film Value rating is a 10. Mine would be an 8 or 9, depending on my mood. Talk about splitting hairs.


Film Value