The Third man

Is The Third Man the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

What’s your favorite movie? Think about it for a second, not just what it is but why it occupies that space for you. Is it a comedy you love or a love story you identify with or a drama that shocked you so much that it stuck with you forever? I have found it’s a difficult question that gets marginally easier if you give people multiple answers. If you have room for a few you can cover all kinds of bases, but what if you have to pick just one?

If you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said The Killing, but today my answer is The Third Man. It’s a big thing to say something is your favorite movie. Maybe it isn’t to everyone, but when I started this I asked a dozen people to tell me their absolute favorite one. Most people can’t really do it, they need to tell you a few. I am going to spend five minutes of your day to make the case for Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Carol Reed is perhaps best known for Oliver!, which won him an Oscar, but The Third Man is hardly unknown. It’s frequently listed among the greatest films of all time, which I of course take no issue with. What makes it astounding is hard to pinpoint. Most people call out Orson Welles, because it’s very hard to ignore him no matter what his involvement looks like, but you really do have to start with Reed. History remembers Welles, the director, and thus it’s easy to assume that a movie he acted in was “his,” but the style is so important here. There’s so much more going on here.

The film opens with a monologue from Reed himself, explaining the state of the world and the centrality of counterfeit as a reality of post-war Europe. “I never knew the old Vienna before the war,” Reed tells us casually, but he also says of the world “a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but you know they can’t stay the course like a professional.” This gives way to a straightforward lead in for Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten’s bumbling American who has been invited to Vienna on pretense of a job but finds his friend Harry Lime (Welles) has recently died.

It is not really a spoiler to say that Harry Lime is not really dead, but watching Joseph Cotten loudly, absurdly wander his way through an unfamiliar world as he tries to discover the truth is an astounding thing to behold. Cotten plays Martins as an idiot, but not in the way you’d expect. He does not know this world and isn’t really interested in learning it, insisting on his native tongue and barging his way through even government or military controlled areas. It’s undeniably a statement about the American disposition, but we don’t have enough time to focus on that as we wonder the same thing he does: What happened to Harry Lime?

Welles gives the performance of a lifetime when he finally appears. It’s shockingly late in the film, of course, but the ghost of Harry Lime is all through the narrative. Martins keeps finding people who tell him versions of the story, including his girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli, haunting and distant, always unclear about her true motives even as more is revealed) and his associates. On rewatches, these characters really pop, especially the “Baron” Kurtz and the Romanian Popescu. What do these people want? What do they stand to gain? Why do they want to help Holly Martins, even obliquely?

This is why I love The Third Man. The story itself is fairly simple, but the complicating elements make it so worthy of further thought. If that’s all it was, it would be a marvel, but it also has so much damn style. The score is done on a zither, which makes it hyper-specific but undeniable. The cinematography is disorienting to match Martins’ confusing journey. The supporting cast again and again reinforces that there is a world to figure out here, but Martins just is unwilling and unable to do so. The more you watch it the further it gets away from feeling like a mystery. The real picture here is always available, but Martins as a force changes the alchemy of how people work and what they try to accomplish. It’s an incredible statement about America without feeling preachy or obvious.

The most famous bit of The Third Man comes during a speech Welles gives to Cotten as their characters finally reunite on a Ferris wheel. The scene deserves to be seen, but in summary it is a discussion of morality and how much of your personal faith you’d be willing to put aside to get ahead. It recalls Reed’s original monologue and takes it drastically further. It’s unlikely you’ll agree with Harry Lime here and you’re not intended to, but the choice to give him space to make his case is a fascinating one. The choice to have it steal the show, well, that’s what makes it a masterpiece.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Titane has soured even more with distance for me, and while I am still in awe of the risk, I just didn’t like the result.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, I think so. It feels a little like cheating to pick my favorite film, but a reproduction played at the theater near our house and I was struck by it once again. Welles steals the show and typically gets (maybe too much) credit for The Third Man, but I really loved Cotten’s performance this time. It only works if he feels like a buffoon but also oddly capable, which comes through when you’ve seen the film enough to really pay attention. This is a true masterpiece, worthy not only of your time but also of deeper consideration. Persona is excellent and I’m glad to have seen it and considered it so many weeks in a row, but now I want something to really change my mind and surprise me. What do you suggest?

You can watch The Third Man on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.