Saturday, September 11, 2010

THE THIRD MAN: Blu-ray (London Films 1949) Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Based on a screenplay by Grahame Greene, director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is arguably the most perfectly realized post-war thriller; a dark, yet deceptively playful melodrama that follows the exploits of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – or that is, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp novelist who cannot bring himself to accept that his old best friend has been accidentally struck and killed outside his fashionable Viennese apartment.
A co-production between London Films and American producer David O. Selznick, The Third Man charts Holly’s growing disillusionment with Harry’s death…or perhaps disappearance? From its dilapidated Viennese facades - the once proud trappings of a sophisticated city now in ruins and quartered by Allied forces pushing it to the brink of extinction - to the film's triumphantly thrilling climactic showdown in the bowels of the city’s sewer system, The Third Man moves like gangbusters.
Like the best thrillers from any vintage, at first all the pieces seem to fit. Holly arrives at Harry's apartment in Vienna, only to be informed by the building's porter (Paul Horbiger) that he is too late to accompany the funeral cortege to the cemetery. Harry Lime, at least it seems, is quite dead - the victim of a hit and run. Holly arrives at the cemetery in time for the priest's blessing. There, he sees Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and two of Harry's fair weather cronies; Baron Kurtz (Ernest Deutsch) and the Romanian smuggler, Popescu (Sigfried Breuer).
Also in attendance is Major Calloway (Trevor Howard); a cynical ex-military determined to learn the truth behind Harry's untimely demise. Calloway offers Holly a ride from the grave in his motor. The offer is only slightly philanthropic. Moreover, Calloway is interested to learn all he can about Holly's purpose in Vienna. After getting Holly properly pissed, Calloway encourages him to take the first train from Vienna back home. But Holly isn't going anywhere. In fact, he is more determined than ever to explore Harry's past in the hopes of learning what happened to his old friend.
Upon returning to Harry's apartment, the porter explains to Holly that he heard the accident and saw Baron Kurtz, Popescu and a third man carry a lifeless body across the street where medics pronounced him dead. Ah, but then there is the curiosity that won’t go away: ‘the third man’ – unnamed and unidentified by either Kurtz or Popescu upon further interrogation.

The one sympathetic note from this chorus of dissention derives from Harry’s former flame, Anna Schmidt– an actress whom Major Calloway soon discovers is living and working in Austria with forged papers. Through a twist of fate and good timing Holly agrees to stay behind, unravel the mystery of Harry's death and hopefully help Anna recover from her loss. But will his investigation also dismantle the faith and trust he once had in his boyhood chum?
Calloway has Anna detained with the prospect that she will be deported. Meanwhile, Holly soon discovers that Popescu and Kurtz are keeping secrets from him and the authorities. Determined to unearth the truth, Holly travels the cobblestoned streets by night, skulking about the scenery until one evening he witnesses a sight he never thought he would see again. Harry Lime - alive and well and eager to explain his part of the a point.
At a lonely abandoned fairground in the city's centre, Harry tells Holly that he cannot reveal to anyone the truth of his survival. Holly agrees to remain silent, though he stresses to Harry how much it would mean to Anna if she knew he was alive. Just why Harry wishes to remain legally dead remains a mystery to Holly until Calloway tells Holly that his friend was dealing in black market drugs. These tainted medical supplies were sold at a premium by Harry to hospitals who gave them to their adolescent patients. The lucky ones simply died. But the survivors are now crippled or in a coma and doomed to remain so for the rest of their lives.
Reluctantly, Holly agrees to help Calloway apprehend Harry. He sets up a meeting between himself and Harry at a remote cafe near the train depot - a rouse that is successful at drawing Harry from the shadows. Anna is astounded to see her lover resurrected before her eyes. But before the two can be reunited, Calloway and his men burst onto the scene. Harry makes a break through the back of the cafe and down into the rusty bowels of the city's sewage system with Holly, Calloway and the police in full pursuit. After some truly harrowing cat and mouse antics, Harry and Holly come face to face. Harry takes dead aim at Holly but is shot to death at the last moment by Calloway.
The film ends as it had begun, this time however at the real burial of Harry Lime. Calloway offers Holly a ride to the station. But the two come across Anna solitarily walking away from Harry's grave, having lost him twice. Calloway lets Holly out of the car and drives off. However, Anna, who now blames Holly for Harry's death, walks by him and onward to a remote fixed point in the distance without so much as looking his way.
Thus ends, The Third Man - its bittersweet, bleak view of the future as uncertain and self destructive as the past inhabited by these spurious characters. The film is justly famous for its departure from conventional orchestral underscoring, with Anton Karas zither tracks ricocheting between playful lyricism and grating chords that heighten the taut visual styling of Robert Krasker's stark and rather cockeyed cinematography.

Reed’s direction is both solid and revolutionary – exercising the skewed camera in nearly every shot to create a world where nothing and no one are as they seem, and, everything, from Vienna’s glowing and decadent post-war decay, to its harrowing sewers beneath the city are lit with dramatic integrity. In a near cameo role, Orson Welles dominates every scene in which he appears and steals the whole show. All of the cast perform with inspired perfection to create a rich tapestry of immorality and/or aloofness; milling about with that intangible and elusive spark of cinematic magic firmly tucked between the grit and sneer of their careworn teeth.

The Third Man has been released twice before by Criterion Entertainment; once as a deluxe 2-disc DVD, the other as a single Blu-Ray with all of the 2 disc's extra features included herein. Now, due to a lapse in rights, The Third Man arrives anew on Blu-Ray via Lionsgate Home Entertainment. The results, however, are not so much an improvement over Criterion's efforts as they represent the film in yet another 1080p incarnation that may or may not be satisfactory to collectors.
Comparing the Criterion Blu-Ray alongside Lionsgate's efforts it seems as though the Lionsgate disc has an ever so slightly smoother image. However, this may be the result of more stringent DNR (digital noise reduction) application, rather than improving on the original film elements. Grain is still present, but it has been considerably tempered from Criterion's Blu-Ray.
Also, the Lionsgate disc seems to exhibit a slight greenish tint that the Criterion did not have. This, of course, can be remedied by simply turning the color scale of one's chosen monitor down to zero. Overall, fine detail is still quite evident, with close ups of faces most impressively rendered. So, which is better? That remains open for discussion. Suffice it to state herein that Lionsgate's Blu-Ray will not disappoint.
The audio on both Blu-rays seems to be sourced from the same elements and are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Where the Criterion wins the war in this reviewer's opinion is in the extra features. The Lionsgate offering excises the audio commentaries, introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and the nearly 2 hr. 'Shadowing the Third Man' documentary.
In their place we get a few scant extras that do not live up to the reputation of the film - the best probably being Guy Hamilton's newly recorded commentary track and Joseph Cotten's nearly hour long audio only interview where the star waxes affectionately about the film and his overall career. Bottom line: The Third Man is a fantastic film of timeless appeal and enduring magnetism. If you missed the Criterion offering from a few years back you owe it to yourself to purchase this disc as a runner up. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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