Each era of British cinema has a film that resonates – one you can pitch as the greatest example of the national cinema. Worthy contenders include the very best of the Powell and Pressburger collaboration (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes were all produced in a three year period), Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Shane Meadows’ This Is England and Ealing Studio’s The Ladykillers (a comedy so brilliant, not even the combined talent of Tom Hanks and the Coen Brothers could match it).
And while each of these has a place in our nation’s cinematic canon, the film that resonates for me as the greatest piece of British cinema is The Third Man.
It’s set in a post-war Vienna, still ravaged by the conflict that engulfed it, steeped in corruption and divided between the four allies. A pulp writer comes to the city with the offer from work but finds his friend, Harry Limes, dead. From this revelation, he goes on a journey to find the truth behind his friend’s death.
From the first note of Anton Karas’ score, performed on the zither and producing one of the most iconic themes in cinema, you can tell that The Third Man is something special. Having previously directed the terrific (if bleakly downbeat), Odd Man Out, director Carol Reed was experienced at shaping a thriller and here all the pieces fall into place magnificently.
Graham Green’s script is an acidic joy, packed with gallows humour and producing one of the great cinematic soliloquies of the era. Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography is a masterclass of expressionism, adopting harsh lighting and canted (Dutch) angles to create a disorientating, evocative portrayal of Vienna. Everything marries together beautifully to make this Carol Reed’s best work.
Orson Welles dominates the film, producing perhaps his most iconic performance. Absent for much of the run time, the mystery around him is built up throughout to a crescendo of a screen introduction. To delve more into his role in the film would be to ruin the surprises in the final act. (It’s odd to consider spoilers for a work celebrating its 70th Anniversary but, The Third Man holds a power that shouldn’t be spoilt).
There are other cracking performances in the film, with Bernard Lee (better known as M in many James Bond films) and Trevor Howard both eking out a dark laugh or two to lighten the mood. Alida Valli gives a wonderful turn as a possible love interest, drenched in the pain of Vienna’s situation. And Joseph Cotton brings some sympathy to a lead role that requires a degree of foolishness on his character’s part.
Whereas other films of the era, say Brief Encounter or Passport to Pimlico, increasingly creak and show signs of their age, The Third Man feels more potent than ever. Beyond being a darn good noir thriller, it seems to speak to us, its cynicism and shattering of heroic narratives feels daring even today.
Our hero is a useful idiot to many, the friend he seeks is a dubious charlatan and the romance that he becomes embroiled in isn’t what he believes it is. We’re Holly Martins, in a world we don’t quite understand, shaped by the narratives of cultural artefacts we embrace and, in the end, not the hero of the story we’re part of. This genius keeps The Third Man as bleakly relevant as ever, right down to its final shot.
Where other works age and fall into obscurity, The Third Man‘s potency grows stronger year by year. Carol Reed produced a technical marvel with it that seemingly speaks to each generation who sees it. On its 70th Anniversary, revisit this classic. But be warned, the theme song will linger in your head long after the credits have rolled.