The 100 best British films

Time Out counts down the best British films, as chosen by the film industry

By Dave Calhoun, Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins, with Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Adam Lee Davies, Gareth Evans, Paul Fairclough and Wally Hammond. Explore the individual top tens of every contributor.

The Third Man The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)

Dir Carol Reed (Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alide Valli)

Join the dots

It swooped in at number one on the BFI’s 1999 British cinema poll, but here, Carol Reed’s The Third Man’ will have to settle for second spot. But, hey: it’s still a masterpiece. The genius at the core of this superlative, bible-black Euro noir is the way it teases you in to thinking that you’re watching a disposable pulp yarn about an honest schlub who touches down in a crumbling, post-war Vienna and won’t rest until he uncovers a conspiracy concerning the death of an old pal.

Our hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), is a writer of dimestore westerns. His pal is Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a bootlegger whose latest grift has landed him in an early grave, or so it seems. The further down the rabbit hole Holly ventures, the more it becomes clear that Reed’s glibness is mere cover for a bleak lament to a world tainted by corruption and evil. Replace Vienna with Los Angeles, and it’s basically ‘Chinatown’.

Inventive and exhilarating though the story is, its beauty lies in its flawlessly judged and occasionally eccentric construction: Robert Krasker’s high-contrast cinematography; Anton Karas’s eerily chipper zither score; and the depiction of a world so divided by politics, religion, gender and language, that you begin to understand why compassion would loose its appeal to these characters. ‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?’ asks Harry Lime. It’s a chilling conundrum that rings with truth and despair, and one of which politicians, businessmen and, well, everyone, should continually be wary. DJ