‘The Third Man’: Ferris Wheels and Sewer Chases, All to the Sound of a Zither

The Third Man is a masterpiece of film-noir, combining the natural cynicism of the genre with a deeply European sense of post-war malaise. Director Carol Reed combined near perfect direction with a cast whose legendary performances in this film revolutionized the way we think about the actor’s contribution to dialogue and setting. Playing off a seedy story by Graham Greene, this perfect concatenation became a paradigmatic modern film.

The new Blu-Ray release of the 1949 classic is in no way an improvement over the 2007 Criterion Collection release. Unfortunately, the Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD Digital Transfer is out of print and not easy to find, making this your best bet to see the classic in the crispness and detail of high definition.

The Third Man tells the tale of adventure novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) and his search for his allegedly dead friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) on, and under, the dirty streets of Vienna. Part film noir, part spy thriller, part existential angst, Carol Reed’s masterpiece works on several levels at once and manages to gather up thematic threads from all aspects of post-war European life, including what disdain for life can do to the most cherished of human relationships. Some of the most legendary dialogue in film history and the most incredible achievements in cinematography (the Ferris wheel scene and the climatic chase in the sewers) all happen right here.

Then there is the unforgettable score by Anton Karas. The music acts as deliciously mournful filigree around the film’s structure, perfectly suiting a story that is equal parts dark meditation on the ruins of history and a tale of adventure. Karas was a successful wine bar performer who was selected by Reed to compose the score. Karras’ zither score became an international sensation and so important to the film that a few critics have insisted that its twangy voice actually holds together the sometimes jangling dissonance of the film and helps pull audiences into its murky recesses.

StudioCanal is increasingly making available in Blu-Ray a number of important classics, this month alone giving us Delicatessen and The Graduate along with The Third Man. Unfortunately, the lack of special features is the great limitation of this release. If a film ever needed lots of extras to convey a sense of it significance and to tell its larger story, this is it.

The context, writing, production, filming and reception of The Third Man is at times as interesting as the film itself, filled with some of mid-century Hollywood’s great controversies. Orson Welles, if you accept Graham Greene’s version of events, tried to snag a writing credit and claimed he was responsible for some of the film’s most clever dialogue. Legendary mogul David O. Selznick did his best to interfere with early writing and production, earning him the everlasting distaste of Greene. Moreover, while critical reception was overwhelmingly positive in the United States and Britain, it was tepid at best on the Continent and in Austria itself.

While the new StudioCanal release contains a few materials absent from the Criterion Collection release, they add nothing substantial. There is a very brief radio interview with Greene that is illuminating of the controversy over Welles contribution to the script. As might be expected, Greene insists that Welles had nothing at all to do with the script beyond ad libbing, as the great writer admits, perhaps the film’s most famous line (the unforgettable “cuckoo clock” comment). Though this is interesting, a Greene documentary on the Criterion collection release tells us much the same.

The Third man is both a crowd pleaser and a deeper meditation on the spiritual crisis of postwar Europe. It can be enjoyed by lovers of popcorn extravagances and also please the art house crowd. StudioCanal has made the film available to a new generation of fans and, if you can’t locate the Criterion release, pick this one up right away.

RATING 9 / 10