Next up in our mini-series of revisiting StudioCanal Vintage Classics, is one of the greatest British films of all time, Carol Reed’s masterpiece thriller set in post-war Vienna, ‘The Third Man’. This was re-released by StudioCanal in 2015 following the film’s 4K digital restoration, and is accompanied by a wonderful array of special features. But we’ll get to those later.
‘The Third Man’ sees pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrive in Vienna to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover that Lime has been killed in a suspicious car accident. Something doesn’t add up though, and Martins begins asking too many questions. He ends up entangled with Lime’s mistress Anna (Alida Valli), and getting in the way of the investigation led by the British Military Police commander, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard).
As witnesses start disappearing, Martins becomes convinced something is rotten about this case, and demands the police take it seriously. But his interference only puts him in further danger, as he must confront some truths about his friend Harry Lime that he’d rather not know. It cannot be overstated just how good ‘The Third Man’ is. An endlessly entertaining and thrilling crime movie, but also a vividly striking film noir.
Robert Krasker’s cinematography is on another level. This is one of the most visually stunning pictures from any era of filmmaking. There are images in ‘The Third Man’ that are beyond iconic. The depth of image and extraordinary detail in each frame have led to theories and apocryphal tales over the years that Welles may have had a hand in the filmmaking. It’s all nonsense of course, but speaks to what a great job Reed and Krasker did.
Reed’s direction is so expertly calibrated. Every scene is elegantly structured. Every image is perfectly composed. His use of tilted angles and exquisite wide shots, perfectly capturing the broken post-war Vienna, destroyed and crumbling. Light and shadow have arguably never been so well utilised. But make no mistake, this film isn’t just pretty pictures of Vienna. It has an all-timer script from novelist Graham Greene. Dense, layered, full of darkness and complexity and incredible dialogue. Every character, even those with the smallest parts, are given depth and nuance.
Anchoring all of this is the mighty central performance from Joseph Cotten. The classic film-noir protagonist, he is relatively naïve and innocent, before getting dragged into a world of darkness he can’t believe exists. Then you’ve got Welles. The proto “Brando as Kurtz” larger than life star, who is barely in the film, but once he turns up he draws everyone and everything into his orbit. It’s one of the great supporting performances. His extraordinary monologue on the Ferris wheel still chills your blood.
We’ve not mentioned the music yet. Who would expect an entire score of Austrian folk music played on a zither for a film-noir? But my god it works. It’s catchy, jaunty, strangely melancholic, and just goes perfectly with the film. You couldn’t imagine ‘The Third Man’ with one of those big lush orchestral scores. Anton Karas’s work on this film was so iconic, the first few bars of the theme are engraved on his headstone.
The special features on the disc are kicked off with an audio commentary featuring the film’s assistant director (and future director of four James Bond films) Guy Hamilton, internationally renowned actor and Orson Welles biographer Simon Callow, and also Angela Allen who was script supervisor on ‘The Third Man’.
‘Shadowing The Third Man’ is a feature length documentary produced by StudioCanal, directed by Frederick Baker and narrated by John Hurt. The documentary charts the production of the film, and features new and archival interviews from the main cast and crew.
Next up is a short interview with zither player Cornelia Mayer, who of course also treats us to a performance of the Harry Lime theme. The next special feature is an interactive map of Vienna on which you can select different areas to see how it looked during the film compared to how looks in the present day. It also shows which scenes from the film were shot there, and also a Vienna tour guide provides further information. You could spend a long time exploring this special feature.
‘The Third Man on the Radio’ is a 30-minute radio play from 1951 written and performed by Orson Welles. This is a wonderful little addition to the disc and makes for a great listen. He really is the greatest radio performer ever. This is followed by two audio only interviews with Joseph Cotten and Graham Greene at the National Film Theatre from 1987 and 1984 respectively.
There’s an alternate opening to the film, with narration by Joseph Cotten rather than Carol Reed as used in the final film. ‘The Third Man: A Filmmaker’s Influence’ is a short programme featuring notable directors talking about their love of the film and how it has influenced their careers. Contributors include Martin Scorsese, Ben Wheatley, and John Sayles.
The disc is rounded out with a 20-minute documentary about the 4K digital restoration, followed by ‘Dangerous Edge’ a PBS documentary from 2012 all about the life of Graham Greene.
For more information on the StudioCanal Vintage Classics collection, visit the recently launched website. This treasure trove of detail takes film fans deeper into their favourite films with behind-the-scenes stills, never-seen-before vintage campaign books, specially commissioned writing, clips, extras and trailers.