When people meet me for the first time and learn that I’m a film critic, they often ask me to name my favourite films. I always seem to be on the back foot and never quite have a pat answer ready. But then a list of my favourite films changes all the time, even on successive days. Still, there’s one title I invariably mention, and that’s Carol Reed’s The Third Man. I love it and admire it in equal measure, and I’m confident I’ll go to my grave proclaiming it the best British film ever made.
Happily, The Third Man has recently been the subject of a stunning restoration process, which makes its striking black-and-white images look positively lustrous. This restored version is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
You know the film already, starting with Anton Karas’s memorable theme tune on the zither. And you know about Harry Lime too – the film’s dominant character, even though he remains unseen for most of the story.
The setting is post-war Vienna – occupied and divided into four sectors by the Allies, parts of it reduced to rubble by war. Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has invited his childhood friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), now a writer of Western pulp fiction, to visit him in Vienna, where he has a job waiting for him. But on Holly’s arrival, he learns that Harry is dead – killed by a speeding car and leaving a grieving lover (Alida Valli.) A British agent (Trevor Howard) claims Lime was a black-marketeer of the worst kind, so Holly decides to stick around and clear his friend’s name.
Vienna is a murky world where nothing is quite as it seems, and everyone seems to have private agendas. Holly has to work out who is doing what to whom, and where the real truth lies.
The story, brilliantly scripted by Graham Greene, has the precision of clockwork, and includes a host of immortal lines and scenes. It uses Viennese locations brilliantly – a Ferris wheel, the faded grandeur of a cemetery, the city’s sewers.
Its menacing atmosphere of light and shade is enhanced by the extraordinary skill of Robert Krasker (who won an Oscar) and directed by Reed with remarkable artistry. The subject matter touches on grim themes, but at the heart of its darkness there’s also a delightful touch of wit.
This glorious restoration begs to be seen; even on a smaller screen at home, it looks terrific. No serious movie lover would want to be without it.
The Third Man is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 20.