If there is any scene in The Third Man that captures the ability of Carol Reed, it is the Ferris wheel. Here Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) meets his mysterious friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) face-to-face for the first time.
Before their meeting inside one of the wheel’s cars, the camera is tilted left to right. As their conversation grows darker and more sinister, Lime revealing his sickening past, the rotating wheel seems to have an effect on the camera. As they step out from the ride, the camera tilts right to left. It’s a subtle touch, as if the unbelievable heartlessness of Harry Lime has completely turned Holly’s world around.
For a film known for its shadows, that scene takes place during the day, with some superbly framed establishing shots. It is a fantastic contrast, moving away from the bombed-out streets of Vienna for that brief moment, at least until the film moves underneath them.
Third Man establishes itself through shadow, with that unmistakable noir feel. The streets are beautifully lit, and the lights serve their purpose. Harry Lime is a mysterious, brooding character, cloaked in darkness until his spectacular reveal, which in story terms is a happy accident.
Much can be said for the musical accompaniment from Anton Karas, played entirely on a zither. Lime is a character created through nothing but dialogue prior to his full close-up. Karas uses the the Third Man theme simply as a cat approaches Lime’s feet. The theme grows in complexity, reaching a crescendo when a light hits his eyes. It is incredible, tense and involving in a way few films have ever succeeded.
There is a lot to take in when viewing The Third Man, but the ending is especially gutsy. The film uses a number of perspective shots, but usually closed off and cramped. Sewers are usually shown as long tunnels, with a strong light at the end for the character to silhouette against. The same goes for the streets of Vienna, the buildings dwarfing and confining the characters as Holly tries to learn of Lime’s fate.
However, in the final shot, Holly is free. He stands on the left of the frame, dwarfed by amazingly well aligned trees. It is over for him, and his quest completed. He is allowed to leave his confinement, even if his love interest wants nothing to do with him. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Movie]
Criterion delivers a wonderful 4:3 AVC encode for this Blu-ray release. Black levels are remarkable, flawlessly capturing the shadows the film relies on for its effect. It also holds up on the other end during those daylight scenes, delivering clean whites with no noticeable blooming.
Print damage is noticeable although far less common than is to be expected. The restoration is fantastic. Sharpness is impressive with few dips in quality. Detail is preserved well, including excellent definition on hair and fur coats. The concrete of both destroyed and standing structures are well textured. Facial detail is consistent. A complex grain structure (which spikes in a few scenes) is maintained with no problems. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]
An uncompressed PCM mono mix is wonderful in how well it is able to represent the Karas musical score. Stunningly crisp, all high notes are captured with minimal distortion. A moment of hissing and another pop on the audio track are quickly forgotten.
Dialogue is handled well and consistently audible. It should be noted the music is mixed slightly higher, although not offensively so. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]
Criterion delivers one of the best collections of extras ever on Blu-ray. Two commentaries begin with directors Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy, followed by film scholar Dana Polan going in alone. Peter Bogdanovich offers his thoughts on the film in a short introduction.
Third Man Treatment acts as a sort of third commentary, with actor Richard Clarke reading the initial treatment of the film as it plays. Shadowing the Third Man is a 93-minute making of narrated by John Hurt, and one of the best pieces on this disc. This is followed by additional making of content, including Who Was the Third Man, a piece on the film from Germany that runs a half hour.
A nine-minute piece on the production history follows those, and if screenwriter Graham Greene is interesting to you, a 1968-hour long documentary details his life. Additional features (!) include two full radio programs, a brief comparison of the US and UK versions, a subtitled version of the scene involving Alida Valli where all characters speak in German to emphasize her confusion, press materials, trailers, and multiple picture archives. This is all of course in addition to an excellent booklet inside the case with further information. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Extras]
Note: Unfortunately, Criterion lost the license to the film and the Blu-ray has now gone out of print, and scalpers have raised the price to ridiculous levels. That’s a shame, as more people need to experience the film in this Blu-ray form.