Hailed as the best British film of all time, Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ arrives on Blu-ray as part of the Studio Canal Collection. This is a film with an iconic status that is revered by both film makers and critics alike. It is studied and dissected as part of many media courses and although I’d seen segments over the years, I somehow had managed to avoid watching the movie in its entirety. One of the great things about reviewing the latest releases on Blu-ray is the fact that it ensures that you sit down and watch classics too as they hit the High Def format – allowing you to fill in the gaps in your education. There will be, at least, one generation of people who have not seen this film and now they have the opportunity to watch it in the comfort of their own home – although I’d recommend projecting it on a big screen for maximum impact.
Originally released in 1949, the black-and-white comedy drama was shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so it will come as a great surprise to those of us who believe that no good movies were made before the advent of widescreen or surround sound – or even before ‘Star Wars’.
It stars Joseph Cotten as Western fiction writer Holly Martin, who has been invited to Vienna with the promise of a job by his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). On arrival at Lime’s apartment he’s told that he’s too late as his friend has been killed after being hit by a lorry in the street outside. He arrives, just in time, at the local cemetery to witness the funeral of his friend and here he meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who fills him in on the fact that his friend was a black marketeer in things other than just cigarettes and petrol. He meets Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) who is in mourning, but the more Martin hears of the circumstances surrounding the death of his friend, the more he suspects that something fishy is going on and he seeks to discover the identity of the third man who was present at the time of the ‘accident’.
To reveal more of the story would be to spoil it for those who, like me, had never seen the entire film. It’s well worth coming to the picture fresh and experiencing it just as a cinema audience would have back in 1949.
For real film collectors, the movie opens with a British Board of Film Censors certificate from the period of its theatrical release – a rare thing to find even on a 16mm print in the past.
The film is extremely atmospheric, due to the shadowy lighting of cameraman Robert Krasker, who won an Oscar for his efforts here. Having seen the movie, I cannot now imagine it in anything other than black-and-white. It just would not work so well in colour. The street scenes in Vienna, particularly the night shots, are very stylish making use of skewed camera angles to throw the viewer off balance and perhaps feel some of the confusion experienced by Joseph Cotten’s character.
Then there’s the music. The ‘Harry Lime Theme’ played by Anton Karas on the zither ( a multistringed instrument) is one of the most enduring pieces of music in cinema history and it contributes greatly to the feel of the film. It conveys the playfulness of the cat and mouse game as well as the setting perfectly. It’s also a piece of music that plays in a mind loop after you’ve seen the film. The combination of the music and the camerawork lends the film an almost surreal, dreamlike quality.
The film is also interesting due to the fact that a young Bernard Lee appears as Military Police Sergeant Paine, who at one point knocks out Martin with a swift right, to prevent him from thumping his Major. As most Bond fans will be aware, Lee played ‘M’ in many of the 007 movies in later life – and there is another Bond connection here as Guy Hamilton ,who went on to direct some of the most successful entries in the Superspy series, was Assistant Director on ‘The Third Man’.
Not much has been said here of Hollywood golden boy Orson Welles, but his darkness of character was just right for the part of Harry Lime.
Produced by Alexander Korda, ‘The Third Man’ might have been just another small British picture, but for the casting of Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli. As they were both under contract to MGM, Korda had to agree to David O. Selznick having US distribution rights as well as a say in the making of the picture in order to gain their release. His involvement caused director Carol Reed to take part in many late night sessions with the Hollywood Mogul who wanted to interfere in every department. One bad habit of Selznick was the use of Benzedrine (Speed) to allow him to burn the candle at both ends – and Reed used it too to keep him going on the many strenuous night shoots in Vienna. This was all long before the world knew of the potentially dangerous side effects of the drug and it was seen simply as a means to an end.
Orson Welles is famously reported to have claimed that he wrote most of ‘The Third Man’, but when interviewed on camera he claimed he’d taken part in a foreign language interview and that he’d been misunderstood. He then modestly adjusted his statement to claiming that he had provided most of his character’s dialogue – again untrue as the script had been written by Graham Greene. Isn’t it amazing how big people and big egos seem to go together? I guess it’s how ‘stars’ build reputations for themselves.
Over the years many people have sought to ‘borrow’ from ‘The Third Man’, whether it be the angular camerawork, the projection of shadows or the echo of footsteps down empty streets. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That being the case, those involved with ‘The Third Man’ must feel very flattered indeed.
After having seen the film, I can only wonder why I hadn’t taken the time to watch it before. So don’t let the fact that it’s an ‘old black and white movie’ put you off. This is a film that demands to be seen by every new generation. It’s quirky, the suspense is excellent and does the final shot mean that ....?
Nope, I’m not spoiling it. Watch it tonight!
Movie score : 9
1,121 word review written by Alan Paterson.
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