The Third Man (Rialto Pictures, NR)

The-Third-Man 75I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone with the slightest bit of passing interest.




The-Third-Man 500

2015 is the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth, and already this year we’ve seen a touring retrospective of his films (which, sadly, has not come to St. Louis, nor looks likely to), a crowdfunding campaign to finally finish his last film The Other Side of the Wind, celebratory articles and physical media reissues from all over the world, and countless other materials. Add to this list a restoration of The Third Man, Carol Reed’s 1949 film, made from a script by Graham Greene, which features very little screen time for Welles but remains one of his most-loved performances. It is also one of the films Welles was affiliated with that is the most immediately, outwardly enjoyable.

The overall success of The Third Man is so great that in 1998 the American Film Institute claimed it as the 57th greatest American film of all time, and in 1999 the British Film Institute claimed it as the single best British film of all time (though debatable; it’s more a British film than an American one, and the AFI dropped it from the 2007 update of its 100 greatest films list). In the fourth quarter of 2008, it was one of the first wave of Blu-rays the Criterion Collection released as they first entered the format, and it was much discussed for being somehow less clear, visually speaking, than the previous DVD releases—the film stock used by Reed and his cinematographer Robert Krasker (Brief Encounter) was very grainy, and the Criterion Blu-ray did such a good job of preserving this that its aesthetic looked unprecedented in the realm of physical media, and in the eyes of digital junkies this was something close to bad.

Studiocanal’s “fine grain” restoration, done from the original negative, is the source for Rialto Pictures’ currently touring (and very successful) print of the film. The Third Man is a gorgeous film—all canted angles, shadows, and baroque production design—and seeing it on the big screen and so clean-looking is a revelation. I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone with the slightest bit of passing interest, but at the same time wonder how well it represents Reed’s and Krasker’s intentions. Reed’s films (Oliver!, Odd Man Out, etc.) tended toward grainy, and one has to assume that this restoration of The Third Man is perhaps over-cleaned. Besides, I’ve never been one to shy away from some grain.

And that grain aids in reflecting the grit of the premise—Mercury Theatre Player Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland from Citizen Kane) plays the American pulp novelist Holly Martins, who goes to Vienna to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime, who supposedly has some work for him. Immediately upon arrival he finds that Mr. Lime has been killed in a car accident, but witnesses’ stories don’t quite match up, and Martins starts investigating the suspicious death of his friend. That is to say, both in visuals and in plot, The Third Man fits firmly in the film noir tradition, which style of filmmaking is not known for glossy, immaculate images. Though on the surface it might seem a ridiculous question (and it might stay ridiculous after thoroughly enjoying seeing this restoration of one of our great films), but we must ask: just how nice do we want this thing to look? | Pete Timmermann

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