The greatest movie of all time? Why a black and white “comedy thriller” and love story from 1949 will stir your emotions again and again.
A man stands halfway along a long, deserted alleyway. Autumn leaves blow in the wind. A woman approaches, walking slowly.
Will she stop? Or will she carry on, and walk past him?
The original trailer for the Third Man is dated but – unlike later versions, and like this review – contains no spoilers
If you have seen the cult 1949 film The Third Man, you will know the answer to this question. If, like me, you think this is the greatest movie of all time, merely to think of this scene and its resolution will send a pleasurable frisson down your spine.
What makes “The Third Man” the greatest movie of all time?
Is the fact that many of the “Top films of all times” named by film buffs tend to be black and white classics based on the intrinsic quality of those films? Or is it nostalgia, like presidents? Those in the past seem wise, intellectual colossi compared with their contemporary successors. Or your mum’s apple pie – surely that was tastier than anything available today?
Seven outstanding features
Nope. I think the veneration of movie classics is based on quality. When I watch The Third Man for the 23rd time, for example, I see the following outstanding features.
(i) The characters are complex, developed and drive the story. It is decisions taken by the hero, Holly Martins, by the tragic mourning lover, Anna, or by certain other key figures, based on their personalities and back stories, which determine how the plot develops.
Ambiguous and realistic
(ii) Those characters are ambiguous and realistic. Martins is a bit of a waster; Anna is beautiful and romantic (see her wear the dressing gown of her lost lover!) but maddeningly obstinate. The most charismatic character is a monster who you find charming despite your better judgement.
A fascinating setting
(iii) The historical setting, displayed elegantly, again drives the story. Shortages in post-war Vienna play a role, as do the division of the city into zones controlled by the US, UK, France and Soviets. The pressure on citizens to return to their “home” territories, often against their will, adds drama.
What’s a “comedy thriller”?
(iv) The action is leavened with humour. The irritation of Major Calloway when Holly explains a wound by saying (truthfully) that he has been bitten by a parrot; the panic of Holly when he thinks he has been kidnapped; or the old landlady who grumbles (in German, with no translation): “I had imagined the liberation would be quite different” as military police tramp up her stairs, offer light relief which makes the main story all the more dramatic.
(v) The cinematography is striking. This is true of many movies, including some true turkeys. But countless scenes in The Third Man, from the cat playing around a man’s ankles to the Ferris Wheel ride, or the sewer chase, are a wonder to behold.
Music and themes
(vi) The music is magnificent, including recurrent character-related themes. In fact, once you recognise the themes you begin to realise what is likely to happen next. Since I started writing this blog I’ve been unable to get the main theme tune out of my mind (an Ohrwurm, or ear-worm, in German).
(vii) The story involves existential questions: what is friendship? Where – if ever – does it end? Can love survive betrayal – or should it? Can a small evil be justified to prevent a greater one? And of course: would you mind if someone you never knew were to die in order that you became rich? All built seamlessly into that exquisite, compelling story.
The greatest movie of all time
I’ll stop there. If you are lucky enough never to have seen The Third Man, enjoy. But make sure you read nothing about it in advance. Sadly, as so often with classics, many reviews – or even, for example, the recent new trailer for the 4K digital re-release, beautiful as it is – give away key plot twists. I envy anyone seeing The Third Man for the first time.
P.S. I hope you have enjoyed this post explaining why I think “The Third Man” is the greatest movie of all time. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish). Or I would be delighted if you would like to follow me on Facebook.
P.P.S. if you want to see my location photos from The Third Man (still no spoilers), showing key locations from the movie as they are today, see my earlier blog.