Plot-wise, it’s the most Hitchcockian film the great man never directed. Dime store novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in Vienna to take up a job offer from an old friend, Harry Lime. Upon arrival, he discovers his friend has died in mysterious circumstances, and with the help of Lime’s girlfriend (Alida Valli) sets about investigating the circumstances of his death. As he’s drawn deeper into the mystery, he runs afoul of both the racketeers looking to profit in the war-ravaged city, and the various occupying forces - in particular the British – who control various areas of Vienna.
Director Carol Reed incorporated many then little-used techniques from German expressionist cinema – including the frequent use of distorted angles – to add to his leading man’s sense of alienation, putting both him and the viewer in an unusual, uncomfortable environment. The technique’s shown up in everything from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to The Evil Dead, but has never been used to greater, more disorienting effect than here.
And then there’s Orson Welles. After one of the most memorable entrances in film history, the film takes great care not to overuse its villain. He appears in only a handful of scenes, but is mesmerising in each. His explanation of his own dubious morality - imparted from the top of the city’s famous Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel - is borderline enough to convince anyone to turn to a life of crime. It’s arguably Welles’ greatest role, certainly his best in a film he didn’t himself direct (rumours have persisted over the years the Welles at least partially directed The Third Man, something he himself denied).
It’s Welles’ performance which always gets the praise in The Third Man, but in truth, there’s not a weak performance here. Welles’ frequent collaborator Joseph Cotton and Alida Valli have less showy roles, but are no less impressive. They’re ably supported by a who’s who of 1940s British character actors, including Trevor Howard and James Bond’s Bernard Lee (Bond fans may also want to note that, besides the appearance of M, future Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was assistant director here, and the film’s Ferris wheel made a memorable cameo in The Living Daylights).
Re-released in a stunning 4K restoration to mark Welles’ centenary, if you’ve somehow never seen The Third Man, now’s the perfect time. Every shot of the film has always looked stunning, but the restoration makes it look better than ever. Each shadow is blacker than ever before, each Dutch angle more disorientating. Whilst it’s not a perfect restoration – with some shots still betraying the film’s age – this is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing an as-new version. There’s also a comprehensive set of extras, including fans such as Martin Scorsese and Ben Wheatley waxing lyrical about the film and its influence on them.
The Third Man remains one of the greatest British films ever made (and yes, quite possibly the best). It’s thrilling, complex, morally ambiguous, beautiful to look at, and features a captivating performance from one of cinema’s true icons. Genuinely essential.
Extras: Audio commentary, interviews, filmmaker’s influence documentary (featuring Martin Scorsese & Ben Wheatley), alternate narration, restoration featurette, 90 minute documentary, radio play (written by & starring Welles), Graeme Green documentary.
THE THIRD MAN: LIMITED COLLECTOR'S EDITION (1949) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: CAROL REED / SCREENPLAY: GRAEME GREENE / STARRING: JOSEPH COTTON, ORSON WELLES, ALIDA VALLI, TREVOR HOWARD / RELEASE DATE: JULY 20TH