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The Third Man: The Criterion Collection (2007)

"The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly."

Everyone remembers Orson Welles' speech about cuckoo clocks, jaunty and murderous at once. And the zither music, plucking minor keys around our expectations. Then there's director Carol Reed's vertiginous canted angles and the way they bevel Robert Krasker's rich, deep black-and-white cinematography. The atmospheric rubble and melancholy damp of war-smashed Vienna. That moment when the story turns on the cat that "liked only Harry." Beautiful and haunted Alida Valli's long final walk away from both the cemetery and the happy ending imagined by Joseph Cotten's sadder-but-no-wiser pulp novelist Holly Martins. Graham Greene's script that knows precisely when to light its fuses. The glittering, quotable dialogue.

In The Third Man, from 1949, Martins is a "scribbler" of hack Westerns who arrives in postwar Vienna to land a job and join his old pal Harry Lime. Instead he finds himself drawn into a murder mystery and a network of deadly black-market racketeers. It's a suspense-thriller-romance steeped in Hollywood's best influences and "gimmicks," yet it's crafted with enough looming European "art-house" style to topple Fritz Lang into an existential funk. It's a hybrid that blurs the lines between what's comic and what's corrupt and cankerous. It melds melodrama with razor-blade noir tones, smirking lightheartedness with ruminations on seductive evil.

Why, The Third Man delivers so many well-loved attractions, and endures as a favorite among casual and dogmatically zealous movie lovers alike, that opening it up for a film-crit autopsy risks deadening its rewatchable pleasures with the whiff of formaldehyde. Criterion evidently knows this. So when they decided to reissue their The Third Man DVD — which in 1999 set a gold standard for the restorative treatment of masterpiece films on home video — they did so with a care not for autopsies, but for nested gift boxes. The more you open, the more pleasant surprises you get to unwrap.

Criterion's 2007 two-disc reissue keeps all the extras from the 1999 edition, including Peter Bogdanovich's introduction with its amusing "Mr. Wu" story. This time Criterion pumps up their DVD with new material that by itself makes this release a gotta-have-it for newcomers and a worthy upgrade for longtime enthusiasts. The nested gift boxes begin with two commentary audio tracks that deliver different, yet equally smitten, perspectives on the film, its production and participants, and its influence as a high-pop-culture and filmmaking touchstone. The first, recorded in 2007, comes from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Their light and chatty dialogue while watching and admiring the film pulls back The Third Man's layers from a filmmaker/fan's point of view. The second track brings us an academic approach from film scholar Dana Polan. As we've heard on other discs, Polan makes his Great Movies 101 erudition fully engaging, and here his classroom notes on the film's subtlest cogs and gears are lively and listenable.

Together the two commentaries complete a right-brain/left-brain appreciation of The Third Man. Each acknowledges that the film's richness invites deep-think bathysphering for any allegorical "meaning" it may contain. A U.S. foreign policy lens — Holly as well-intentioned but clumsy and naive America sticking its nose into other countries' business only to have it bitten — is one perfectly cromulent interpretative stance.

But the commentators also agree that such wine-and-cheese analysis is by no means a requirement for enjoyment. "We had no desire to move people's political emotions," wrote Greene. "We wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh." Greene thought of The Third Man as a comedy-thriller. Reed directed it like the bleakest of noirs. It isn't often that such a push-me-pull-you dynamic brings out the best in both forms. As if taking cues from the scene where clueless pulp-fiction writer Martins withers before a high-toned book society, the film is both James Joyce and Zane Grey. It's fitting then that The Third Man — co-produced in England by Alexander Korda and in the U.S. by David O. Selznick — ranks #1 on the British Film Institute's list of all-time best British films, while also making the American Film Institute's list of top American films.

Yet for all the fine nuggets in Greene's script, and all the exquisite camerawork and deftly sketched characters (including a gallery of economically realized supporting parts), the favorite attraction here for this writer is the film's big reveal, handily the ne plus ultra of big reveals. Even after a dozen viewings, when we reach that scene we're keyed up with expectation: The camera tight on a content cat grooming itself in the shadows between a pair of polished shoes. A local resident, complaining about Martins' shouting, opens an upstairs window and poof!, like a magician's trick there's Orson Welles snapped into being beneath the window light. Welles caps the instant with an "I know a secret" smile that brings his boyish and charismatic Harry Lime to coruscating life. Soon afterward, we ascend into the Prater Wheel sequence, where Harry reduces the victims of his crimes, including dead and crippled children, to mere dots and those cuckoo clocks.

Welles — who showed up late in the shoot and so loathed the Viennese sewer-system locations that Reed had to reconstruct them in the English studio — makes Lime such a memorable presence despite little time on the screen, Reed tends to get second-fiddled for his contributions to this "Orson Welles movie." That Reed made one of the great "Wellesian" films hardly mitigates the injustice.

Like Casablanca, here's a movie that jelled from a perfect storm of talent in every department. Oh, what an ideal double-feature! The Third Man is Casablanca's dark-souled half-brother, the one Shakespeare would call the villain but the one who'd get the best speeches anyway.

*          *          *

Criterion's reissue edition delivers The Third Man in a new print that presents fewer specks and scratches, and a smoother transfer, than the outstanding 1999 edition. The DD 1.0 monaural audio sounds as good as the previous disc's. The biggest difference between the two presentations is that this time the 1.33:1 image is slightly window-boxed, something Criterion has been doing routinely lately and a practice not without its detractors. Frankly, both editions are so exquisite on this point that whether or not you trade in your old copy for the new one probably comes down to the additional extras that called for the new second disc.

They are a quality bunch. The film's production history — from Greene's initial notes and the tug of war between Selznick and Korda, to Reed's benzedrine-fueled directing regimen and Anton Karas at his zither — comes chronicled in a library of new and archival menu items. The highlight here is a 90-minute feature documentary, "Shadowing The Third Man," which premiered at Cannes in 2005. Actor John Hurt narrates this thoroughgoing exploration of the film's creation. It revisits, in a sometimes self-consciously arty fashion, the original locations and includes a guided tour of production info from assistant director Guy Hamilton, with footage of Korda, Selznick, and Reed.

To plumb the production's earliest genesis, click to the recording of Greene's original story treatment (in first-person told by the Calloway character). Abridged, it's read by actor Richard Clarke and available as a separate audio track for the film. Greene's plucky preface to the treatment is here too, and he confirms that Welles wrote the cuckoo clock spiel. By way of an off-screen audio-taped interview, Greene offers biographical reminiscences and insights on his work in "Graham Greene: The Hunted Man" (56 mins.), a 1968 profile produced for the long-running BBC arts program, Omnibus. "Who Was the Third Man," a 29-minute Austrian documentary commissioned by the Vienna Sewer Dept. for the premiere's fiftieth anniversary, tips a hat to the film that made Vienna's labyrinthine subterranean canals as famous as Rick's Cafe. Elsewhere here we get a vintage reel devoted to Vienna's crack squad of official sewer police.

Further marginalia, fragments, and oddments include a 1951 episode of radio's "The Lives of Harry Lime" starring Welles (proving that villainous charm has an immortality all its own), and Lux Radio Theatre's 1951 one-hour adaptation of the film with Cotten reprising Holly Martins. A gallery of behind-the-scenes photos are narrated and sequenced into a brief production chronicle. "Kind to Foreigners" gives English subtitles to the film's scenes where no English is spoken. An old reel shows us Anton Karas performing at London's Empress Club. Also here are the original U.S. trailer and U.K. press book, and a comparison of the original U.S. and U.K. opening narrations that kick off the film's moral tone in varying ways. The boxed trifold digipak comes with a handsome 26-page booklet with welcome essays from Luc Sante, Charles Drazin, and Philip Kerr.

—Mark Bourne

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