Studio Canal’s THE THIRD MAN Blu-ray Review

     September 20, 2010

Criterion has had a number of titles go out of print throughout their run on DVD. This had everything to do with who owned a particular title as Criterion often will license something, and if those rights change hands, or the owners think they can do a better job or make more money than you get a collector’s item. One of the most viscous blows (or best news ever for people who like selling out of print material) was when Studio Canal took back the rights to about fifty titles, including two titles that had made it to Blu-ray: The Third Man and The Man Who Fell to Earth. For those who just want the movie, The Third Man has been re-released by Lionsgate in an addition that features a different 1080 transfer of the movie and mostly different supplements. Criterion-o-philes are going to tell you that the new version is inferior. And my review of The New addition of The Third Man on Blu-ray follows after the jump.

Basically, unless your Jeff Wells and don’t like grain, the Criterion edition is far and away the winner in terms of picture and sound quality. Those who are beating up on this disc are being a bit harsh, this is an acceptable 1080 transfer, and though there are scratches, it’s not that bad, it’s just not as good. If there wasn’t a Criterion edition to compare this to, it would be a reasonable upgrade. And even if one were comparing it to the previous Criterion two-disc, the better 1080p picture quality would make up for the less precise transfer. But in direct comparison, this is a fine, but more flat presentation.

As for the film, it took me a long time to come to Carol Reed’s The Third Man.  Such is the nature of “best of all time” lists. When you hear a film is a classic, sometimes what makes it so wonderful has been digested previous to watching it, and when you know the film is about Harry Lime (Orson Welles), and his faked death, waiting for Lime to show up changes how you watch the first hour.

But there is so much worth here that I’m slightly embarrassed for taking a while to come to the film – though I must say I’m a bigger fan of other key works of Reed from this period (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and Outcasts of the Island are all well worth hunting down). Working from a story by Graham Greene (from Greene’s own screenplay, with contributions from Welles and Reed if rumors are to be believed), it follows hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) as he comes to Vienna for work. Harry sent for him, but Harry has recently passed away. There are witnesses, but Martins decides to do his own impromptu investigation. It leads him to Lime’s girl Anna Schidt (Alida Valli), who Lime made papers for, but otherwise offered little. Holly is attracted but offers none of Harry’s panache, and so his interests are stymied. The police want Martins to go home as soon as possible, as he’s nothing but a nuisance and doesn’t know his friend as well as he thinks. As Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) eventually informs him, Lime has been selling black market penicillin and it’s been killing a lot of innocent people.

When the witnesses stories get tangled up and one dies, Martins finally gets a moment with not dead Harry. The two go for a ride on a Ferris wheel and have a scene that is one of the most famous speeches and moments in cinema. “Like the fella says, 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. So Long Holly.” From there the film amps up the tension, and becomes one of the great foreign film noirs.

Photographed by Robert Krasker – one of the great masters of cinematography – the film is as crooked as Harry, literally. Much of the film is shot on Dutch angles (maybe the Battlefield Earth director was a fan), and the film leads to one of the greatest set pieces as Lime is pursued in the Viennese sewers by cops and Martins. Thematically, there’s a lot going on that ties into both Greene and Reed’s interest in betrayal and understanding, and the language disconnect is used to brilliant effect. There’s also that damned Zither music that starts humorously, and then grows more ominous and sarcastic. Like the use of Dutch angles, it’s the sort of bold choice only a master could make, because it takes a real commitment to something that could prove affection or annoyance.

But what I love most about the film is the look, and that’s where this version suffers. The Criterion edition looked stunning, and the grain and effect of film is never muted, where here it’s a bit smoother and dulled. The Criterion looked cinematic and never clean in an overly processed way, whereas here it looks good but there’s no “wow.”

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in Dolby digital mono. The only carryovers from the Criterion release are the spin-off radio drama “A Ticket to Tangiers” (1951, 29 min.). It’s an episode of “The Lives of Harry Lime” series, written and performed by Orson Welles.  Also carried over is the film’s opening narration as provided by Joseph Cotton for the American release, where the disc version opens with Carol Reed himself providing the narration. The other supplements are exclusive to this set. There’s two trailers, and a commentary by Assistant director Guy Hamilton, actor/historian Simon Callow, and 2nd Unit Continuity Angela Allen, an interactive tour of Vienna showing the locations from then and now, a stills gallery, audio interviews with Cotton (47 min.) and Greene (8 min.), and an interview and performance by Zither player Cornelia Mayer (4 min.). The Criterion has way better supplements, but it’s out of print. If you love the film, it’s worth hunting down or holding on to the original release, but this will do.

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