Greatness often isn’t recognized in its own time. Think of all the memorable films that didn’t even garner an Oscar nomination while the Best Picture winner languished in obscurity after a couple of years*.
Other films (the same can be said of books, of course) are slow-burning, becoming classics long after their first run bombed or otherwise made little impact. A literary example illustrates this beautifully: HP Lovecraft. He was a minor writer in the literary landscape of the 1920s and 30s, who was recognized after his death as the unrivalled master of a particular brand of fiction. Hell, as a writer, I’m not entirely certain if we’re allowed to write the word “eldritch” unless we’re doing a Lovecraft pastiche.
But some just hit you between the eyes and you have no question that it’s a great one. In the Noir Era, The Big Sleep is one that stands out. There is no doubt that, perhaps without breaking any new ground, it brings a certain type of film to a supremely high level. I have yet to watch one that I think is better.
Today’s subject is one of those.
Brilliant from the outset, The Third Man is an atmospheric study of postwar morality and the awful realities of a terrible time but, unlike The Bicycle Thief, it treats the subject matter as a way to tell a great story as opposed to using it as a political canvas.
And the story holds up its side of the film. This isn’t just an atmospheric crime movie–and it most definitely isn’t noir–but a well-blended mix of high-quality ingredients. Acting, setting, story and darkness combine to put you in Vienna in 1947. It is utterly perfect, and quite possibly the film that best uses the fact that it’s black and white… ever–I still have a few of the greats to watch, but color was making strong inroads by the time this one was released in 1949–because it is one of those movies which would have lost a lot if they’d been in color.
So everything comes together beautifully, and the semi-twist ending (I won’t give any spoilers here, even though both film and book are well known, as many people will have forgotten how it ends), as well as Orson Welles’ few onscreen minutes, almost, if not quite, a cameo, make it about as close to the perfect movie as I’ve ever seen.
Also, the book is quite good as well, if I remember correctly (it was assigned reading in the eighth grade, so it’s probably high time I reread that one). A Graham Greene Classic.
If I had to watch one movie from the forties, and one movie dealing with the effects of WW2, I admit I’d probably go with Casablanca over and over again.
But this one comes dangerously close.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror (just released–you could be one of the first readers!). You can buy it here.
*Which, in the current “politics matter more than quality” climate, will actually happen more often. I shudder to think of how future generations will laugh at the current Oscar dynamics.