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By Brad Cook | June 20, 2007

The Criterion Collection’s latest film-class-in-a-box concerns a classic movie that unfortunately doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, perhaps because it wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Elia Kazan, or another director of that era who is now looked back on as an A-list talent. Carol Reed was no slouch in the director’s chair, however, and this excellent DVD release showcases how good he really was, and why “The Third Man” deserves to be discussed more often.

The first platter in this two-disc release leads off with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich that lasts about five minutes. Long-time fans of the film won’t learn anything new from it, but those who haven’t seen it before, or not for a long time (like me), should check it out. Disc one also includes a recording of the late actor Richard Clarke reading screenwriter Graham Greene’s original treatment for the film, which you can also access while watching the movie. The text of Greene’s preface is also included here; it helps explain his thought process and why the movie is the definitive version of this story.

Criterion says they restored the film for this release, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like as much effort was put into it as some of their other older movies, such as the latest edition of “Seven Samurai.” Warner Bros. has also put some great work into their classic releases on DVD in recent years, including “King Kong” and “Citizen Kane.” This print of “The Third Man” looks nice, of course, but there are still a lot of noticeable scratches in many spots.

We also have a pair of commentaries on disc one, one by current-day A-list director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter/director Tony Gilroy, and another by film scholar Dana Polan. The former isn’t bad, but it rehashes a lot of the information found on disc two. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts of two Hollywood professionals, and how they approach their craft, but it’s not as insightful as Polan’s track, which adopts a more academic tone as it discusses the film’s symbolism, its story construction, and so forth. I suppose you could look at it this way: Polan is your professor for the semester, and Soderbergh and Gilroy are the guests who drop by one day to discuss their thoughts on the film. Both have value, but in different ways.

Moving on to disc two, a 90-minute documentary called “Shadowing ‘The Third Man'” provides the centerpiece of the supplements. Made in 2005, it features narration by John Hurt as well as present-day thoughts from Guy Hamilton and Angela Allen, who both worked on the movie. Writer/director Frederick Baker does a fine job of digging into the film’s history, with plenty of comparisons between its locations and their present-day equivalents in Vienna, but his trick where he projects scenes from the film onto various places, such as the famous sewer, is overdone. He tends to let those moments linger longer than they should, since anyone watching this documentary should have seen “The Third Man” at least once beforehand, and thus be aware of the scenes being discussed.

We also have the 30-minute featurette “Who Was the Third Man?”, which is in German with English sub-titles. It moves at a more brisk pace, and it does a better job of discussing the film’s origins. “Graham Greene: The Hunted Man,” an hour-long overview of the writer’s life from 1968, also delves into the background of “The Third Man,” along with an extensive discussion of his novels. It also includes plenty of comments from the interview conducted with him.

Moving along, disc two also includes two radio shows: one is a 1951 episode from the series “The Lives of Harry Lime,” while the other is an adaptation of the movie, which aired the same year. “‘The Third Man’ File” section features: “Insider Information,” a series of behind-the-scenes photos with narration; a comparison between the openings of the U.S. and U.K. versions of the film (the longer U.K. version of the movie, which is the better one, is what you’ll find on disc one, of course); about five minutes of scenes from the movie that were left untranslated on purpose, with the translation inserted (the translations weren’t made originally so that the viewer identified even more with Martins, who can’t speak German); the U.S trailer; and a series of screens that display the original U.K. press book.

Disc two concludes with two archival pieces: an old newsreel about Anton Karas, who composed the movie’s unique score; and “In the Underworld of Vienna,” another newsreel that discusses the city’s enormous sewer system and the police who patrolled it after World War II (it never mentions “The Third Man,” so I’m not sure if it was made before or after the film came out). The final supplement is a text piece that explains the situation in Vienna at the end of the war, with several pictures of the city.

For the final exam, be sure to also review the included booklet, which features three essays about the film. If you studied everything carefully, you should ace this class.

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