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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/24/99

The Third Man
1949 (1999) - Rialto Pictures (Criterion)

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

The Third Man: Criterion Program Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A+

Specs and Features

104 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 82:33 at chapter 20), Amaray keep case packaging, video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, abridged recording of actor Richard Clarke reading Graham Greene's treatment, restoration demonstration, radio broadcasts of The Lives Of Harry Lime: A Ticket To Tangiers (written and performed by Orson Welles) and the 1951 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Third Man (featuring Joseph Cotten and Evelyn Keyes), archival footage of zitherist Anton Karas playing from Pathe Pictorial, Pathetone news footage: In The Underworld of Vienna (featuring allied troops maintaining the Vienna sewers), original British release opening version versus U.S. opening comparison, original U.S. trailer, re-release trailer, production history with maps, photos and notes, film-themed menu screens, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: English, Close Captioned (SDH)

"In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love -- they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

I first saw The Third Man about 5 years ago, back when I had a new thing for the work of Orson Welles. I was scraping up everything I could find on him and his work, after I read his treatment for Heart of Darkness. It was utterly brilliant, and it made me remember how much I loved Citizen Kane when I first saw it. I ran out and picked up The Stranger, Touch of Evil and Lady From Shanghai. I couldn't believe how much talent that guy had. After that, I rented The Third Man laserdisc from Criterion, and it just smacked me in the head. It was one of the coolest things I ever saw. Welles is so incredible, even though he's only in it for about 5 minutes, and by the end of the film, Joseph Cotten turned out to be one of my favorite underrated actors. Even the music, which at first caused me to wonder to myself why a film noir would have such a happy score, graphed itself into my brain. I was just nodding to myself in agreement, when the BFI recently announced The Third Man as being the greatest British film ever made. In my book, it's one of the greatest... ever.

The Third Man follows Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a down on his luck pulp fiction writer, who has come to Vienna at the request of his best college buddy Harry Lime (Welles). It's right after World War II, and Vienna is a military mess, occupied by Russia, France, America and England. Post-war business is good for ex-patriot Harry Lime, and Harry has offered Holly a job doing publicity for him. There's only a slight problem -- Harry was just killed in a pedestrian car accident. The day Holly arrives is the day Harry is being laid to rest. Mourning the loss of a good friend, Holly sits down with Calloway (Trevor Howard), who turns out to be a military Major investigating Harry. Seems Harry was a racketeer dealing bad penicillin, which has resulted in the deaths of many children. Holly doesn't believe this, and starts his own investigation, which leads him into a seedy underworld of human nature that has produced one of the silver screen's greatest anti-heroes -- Harry Lime! The film is just a spiral, that coils tighter and tighter on its way in. It's a ride that is as fun today as it must have been back in 1949. It's amazing how well this film has aged. Aside from the black and white photography, this film looks like it could have been made last year.

Most of the success for the film falls on director Carol Reed's shoulders. It was Reed who insisted upon shooting in Vienna, against producer David O. Selznick's wishes. It was Reed who fought hard to cast Orson Welles, considered to be box office poison, in the role of Harry Lime (again over Selznick's wishes - he wanted Noel Coward). Hell... Joseph Cotten, although Reed's only choice, was almost replaced by Jimmy Stewart. Imagine if Noel Coward and Jimmy Stewart where in this movie -- both are fine actors, no doubt, but neither has the menace that Cotton and Welles contain. Each character is a flawed human, and as the film stands, it's almost a documentary (not surprising, considering Reed's past as a documentary filmmaker during the war). If Selznick had had his way, The Third Man would have been a very Hollywood-looking film, that would have fallen between the cracks of film history, lost and forgotten. But screw that -- Reed got his way, and this is a brilliant film. And now, everyone can enjoy it on DVD. Reed may have won an Oscar for Oliver, but he really deserved it for this film (for which he was also nominated).

The Third Man is obviously an old film, but you'd never know it looking at this transfer. A lot of love went into this film, and when you look at the restoration reel, you'll see just how bad this film originally looked. The picture shows a bit of grain (which just adds to the noir look anyway) but overall, it looks great. The black and white image is full of personality, and is free of artifacts. The sound is in its original mono, and does the job just fine. The Ferris wheel scene is really full-sounding, with a great many mechanical sound effects that will fool you into thinking that the soundtrack is more than just mono.

On the extras side, Criterion went crazy with this film. And I mean, crazy. Just about everything you could want is here -- more than I ever even knew about. It starts with a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, a writer, director and film historian, who spent a lot of time with Orson Welles (chronicled by his book This is Orson Welles). The best moment in the Bogdanovich intro, is when he definitively lets go of the rumor that Welles directed himself in this film. He did write the "Cuckoo Clock" dialogue, but that was about it. Reed was firmly (and capably) in charge. There's a commentary track, which is kind of different when it comes to commentaries. It features actor Richard Clarke (A Night to Remember and Midnight Cowboy) reading from Graham Greene's original story treatment. Greene's treatment was a story overview, that was never really meant to be seen by the public, and served primarily as a skeleton to hang the meat of the screenplay on. The way it was recorded for this commentary is incredibly neat, because it fits over the action and sometimes dialogue of the scenes it's talking about. It's very cool. Another cool extra (actually a cool set of extras) is a pair of radio broadcasts from the 1950s. One is Orson Welles as Harry Lime, in an adventure set years before the events occurring in The Third Man. Here, Lime is an adventurer with a conscience, who loves and foils with nary a thought. Apparently, there were a series of radio broadcasts that explored the past of everyone's favorite anti-hero -- there's only one archived on this disc, but it's of note because it was written by Welles himself. Another broadcast available here, is a radio performance of The Third Man, with Jospeh Cotten reprising his role from the film. It's condensed, but it gives you an idea as to what it must have been like to experience old-time radio. A nice still of an old radio serves as the visual that accompanies both broadcasts, so that you get the proper feeling. Also included here is that restoration demonstration (showing just how much work was put into this film -- massive is a word that only halfway explains it), footage of Anton Karas (the man behind the music of the film), along with news footage of the sewers that play a major character in the film.

How much would you pay for a special edition of this magnitude? Don't answer yet -- there's more. You also get the original British opening of the film (which is attached to this print on the DVD), as compared with the American version. Carol Reed reads the opening with a dark air about him -- Cotten's version is less ambivalent. I like the British version better, and I'm glad it's the one on the DVD. There's also trailers for both the U.S. release and the recent re-release, and a briefly explored production history by Charles Drazin (writer of the book In Search of The Third Man) with photos and notes.

I am really excited (but not surprised) by the job done by Criterion on this disc. They've taken yet another classic, and made it even more perfect than it was. Do yourself a favor and check this disc out when it comes out. If you've never seen it, you're in for a treat. And if you're as big a fan as I am, then this is the DVD special edition you've been waiting for.

Todd Doogan
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