" I never knew the old Vienna before the war. With its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm."
And so begins Carol Reed's The Third Man. Produced by Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, with a wonderful screenplay written by Graham Greene, based on his own novel. The Third Man really begins and ends with a funeral, each followed by an emotional walk down a tree-lined avenue.
Pulp western writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives in Vienna with the promise of employment, courtesy of an old friend named Harry Lime (Welles). Shortly after arriving, Martins witnesses a burial ("A fellow called Lime."), and sets out to discover how his friend died. After several encounters with Harry's lover - Anna - (played by Alida Valli) and dogged cop Major Calloway (Howard), Martins learns of the circumstances behind Lime's death and the identities of two of the three men who carried him, barely alive, from a road accident. Who is the mysterious 'Third Man'?
Criterion's special edition DVD includes a videotaped introduction by Peter Bogdanovich who recalls a conversation with Welles who exclaimed; "Black and white is the actors friend. Name me a great performance in colour, I defy you!"After witnessing the truly sublime acting on view here, I know exactly what he meant. Practically everyone who has seen this film will mention Welles' name before any other cast members, and it has to be said that precious few actors have made such a lasting impression with such limited screen time. It's just past the hour mark before we clap eyes on Harry Lime, giving us ample time to savour some wonderful performances: Ernst Deutsch and Siegfried Breuer (playing Kurtz and Popescu - two of Limes' alleged body-carriers) representing two of Vienna's four 'league of nations' zones; Howard in fine form as Lime's determined pursuer, and Wilfred Hyde-White as the good-hearted socialite who unwittingly arranges a disasterous address by Martins to an audience of bookworms. The latter provides one of several humorous moments, but this is essentially a tragic tale of love, loss and regret with a question of morality values which affects cast and audience. Foremost amongst the excellent cast are Cotten and Alida Valli (known simply as 'Valli' in those days) who exhibit a chemistry that one rarely encounters in cinema. Cotten is terrific, torn between loyalty to his lifelong friend and a public duty to ensnare a shadowy figure who is responsible for the death and mental decay of young children. It's an award-worthy performance that is equalled, nay bettered, by Valli who makes full use of some of the best dialogue in a film brimming with more quotable lines than the entire works of one Q. Tarantino. Those familiar with Valli via Dario Argento and Mario Bava really should acqaint themselves with this film, and witness one of the most beautiful screen actresses at her absolute best.
And so, we move on to Orson Welles, who first appears after Anna's cat succeeds where the police have failed (a much better feline turn than the sorry moggy in Truffaut's La Nuite Americaine - reviewed elsewhere on this site). Lime's fear-stricken flight into the Venice sewers makes for a thrilling climax, but his best scene has to be that marvellous conversation with Martins on the Prater wheel: "Switzerland? Brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!" Welles delivers most of his priceless lines in a manner halfway between roguish and charming, but it's not enough to seduce most of us into hoping he evades the law. Even Martins takes a backward step when he learns his friend of long standing had diluted penicillin and sold it as a treatment for meningitis: make that two steps when Lime amplifies his reprehensible attitude towards human life during their penultimate encounter ("Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?"). Lime's character was trumpeted as 'The ultimate anti-hero' in the original American trailer, but 'cold hearted bastard' is far nearer the mark: first-time viewers will be able to decide for themselves as they draw closer to seeing if Martins does co-operate with the police or sit back and let friendship hold sway over pure evil.
Criterion's DVD includes a section devoted to showing just a few of the 22,000 digital repairs which transformed a battered print into a sparkling version fit for the 50th anniversary re-release. Often, this sort of before-and-after comparison can be something of a sham (find the roughest looking version, etc) but Criterion really have done a fine job. Granted, this restored print does occasionally look less than pristine - inevitable, given its age - but this is the best looking home video version by a country mile and is guaranteed to delight everyone; particularly new admirers who will be stunned by Robert Krasker's brilliant photography.
The rest of the supplementary material provides plenty of icing on the cake: Graham Greene's original treatment (accompanying the film on a second audio track); 2 radio plays - 'A Twist To Tangiers', and 'Lux Radio Theatre Presents The Third Man' with Cotten joined by Evelyn Key; 2 rather disappointing theatrical trailers; production info and archival footage of Anton Karas performing his famous zither theme in a Vieannese cafe. There's also the alternate opening voiceover narration by Joseph Cotten - an interesting addition but Reed's original version wins hands down.
This really is a disc that does justice to a film that won the Palm D'or at Cannes and still appears near the top of critics' 'Best Films Of All Time' lists. "It wasn't the German gin", just an all-time classic getting the acclaim it deserves.
[A new 4K resolution Blu-ray has been released by Studio Canal, leaving the film looking the greatest it ever has for home viewing.]