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The Third Man (DVD)

A sharp, exciting thriller that beautifully captures a dispirited Europe nowhere near recovered from WWII, Carol Reed's The Third Man is one of those miraculous films that work on every level. Written by Graham Greene, it stars Joseph Cotten as an American writer of cowboy stories who, with a head full of cowboy idealism, travels to Vienna to take a job offer from old friend Orson Welles. Once there, he finds that Welles has been killed, but suspects things aren't quite as they seem. Setting out to investigate matters, Cotten finds himself hindered by language, Vienna's division among four controlling nations, a worldly British policeman (Trevor Howard) who knows more than he's willing to reveal, and his growing affection for Welles' lover (Alida Valli). The Third Man presents an abundance of riches: Greene's world-weary but humanistic screenplay, Reed's crisp direction, Robert Krasker's artfully off-kilter cinematography, Anton Karas' zither score, and the performances of Cotten, Valli, and Howard. But the film's two most memorable elements are also those most confined to the background: Welles and post-war Vienna itself, the former a conjunction of impishness and evil, the latter the sort of arena in which such characters thrive by exploiting human weakness with no greater ideology in mind than the bottom line. For its 50th anniversary, The Third Man has been meticulously restored, the process all such films deserve and not enough receive. This DVD offers a wealth of supplementary materials, including the alternate U.S. opening, a reading of Greene's prose treatment (he knew no better way to write a film than to write a novel of it first) that can be played in conjunction with the movie, a radio production of the film starring Cotten, and an episode of the radio show The Lives Of Harry Lime starring Welles in a reprisal of his film character. Part of The Third Man's odd afterlife, Lives made Welles' dandified underworld character a hero, a fact worth pondering in light of The Third Man's famous (and Welles-penned) cuckoo-clock speech.

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