Everybody's got their personal list of great movies, and I'm no exception, although I confess to being a bit more of a nitpicker than most. For example, although I love "revenge" films, I don't consider any of them to be great movies. Also, taking another example, just because a movie makes me cry like a baby doesn't automatically mean I admire it.
Indeed, when I get all weepy at a movie, it's usually because I have been effectively "manipulated" by it. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, only that such a device is properly defined as artifice rather than "art." In truth, I cry fairly easily, so I'm an easy mark. Watching news footage of starving families in Africa will always bring a tear to my eye, but that doesn't mean that those shattering images in any way constitute "art."
That said, there is one movie that I would argue is the most "perfect" film ever made. How does it achieve perfection? It does so by possessing every component necessary. It was based on a great novel, written by a brilliant novelist (Graham Greene), who also wrote the screenplay. It has a significant and contemporary (for its time) setting: post-war Vienna, with that historical city now split into sectors, each of which is controlled by one of the allies.
It has a great cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard, among others. It has humor, pathos, intrigue, violence and romance. It has one of the greatest musical scores ever written (composed by Anton Karas and played on the zither by Karas himself). And, arguably, this movie's ending is the most heart-breakingly poignant, yet understated, denouement in film history. I've seen the movie a dozen times, and that ending--the way it contradicts expectations--still blows me away.
Of course, the film I'm referring to is The Third Man, made in 1949, and directed by Carol Reed.
Because I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't yet seen it, I am not going to give away the story, other than to say that it centers around American pulp fiction writer Joseph Cotton (as Holly Martins) visiting Vienna at the invitation of his boyhood friend, the shady and charismatic Orson Welles (as Harry Lime). Alida Vallie plays Welles' girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, Trevor Howard plays Major Calloway, and Bernard Lee (best known as "M" in the early James Bond films) plays Sgt. Paine.
There's a famous bit of dialogue in this movie that I'm about to quote, but I urge the reader not to proceed any further if you haven't seen the film because the quote is going to give away a plot point.
This is Harry Lime speaking to a thoroughly disillusioned Holly Martins: "Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly."
This is a movie you definitely want to see.
David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"). He can be reached at Dmacaray@yahoo.com