The Third Man ends with rejection, physical and emotional death, a descent into a sewer, a walk through a graveyard and cold silence. The ruins of Vienna come to symbolize Holly’s own ruined world – innocence gone, friendship gone, employment opportunity gone. . . . Casablanca, by contrast, ends with friendship, a new beginning, reassuring words, and an ascent into the clouds. Here – and it’s part of the film’s basic optimism – forgiveness is possible.
* * *
Both Casablanca (1942) and The Third Man (1949) are set in, as well as the products of, a new global order created by World War II and specifically a greatly strengthened relationship between the United States and Europe. But the two films offer strongly contrasting takes on that transatlantic connection: one contributed to its creation amid a heady rush of newfound patriotism, while the other cast doubt on the connection amid worries about the start of a new war and the rise of a new superpower. Yet The Third Man’s similarities to Casablanca are a tacit acknowledgment that it can no more escape the influence of the earlier film than Europeans have been able to escape American military, financial, and cultural might, even if they have resented it.
Given that “isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” as Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) says, it is fitting that both films were transatlantic productions: Casablanca had a Hungarian, Michael Curtiz, directing a Hollywood cast filled with actors born outside the United States, including refugees used as extras. In the case of The Third Man, a Hungarian, Alexander Korda, served as a producer along with an American, David O. Selznick. A Brit, Carrol Reed, working in Vienna and England, directed a cast made up, again, almost entirely of non-Americans. Both films also form part of a tradition of narratives about Americans traveling and living abroad that looks back to the work of writers such as Henry James and Mark Twain and ahead to Patricia Highsmith’s globe-trotting moochers and murderers. Both films present two value systems, one based on money, the other based on loyalty, whether in the form of friendship or patriotism. Both Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Harry Lime (Orson Welles) are expatriate businessmen who have prospered in enterprises that are dubious at best; each has a close friend, also an American, and both pairs are surrounded by non-Americans. Both protagonists are mysterious, having left the United States for reasons that are never explained or, as Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) puts it, “a little vague.” (Rick’s explanation for being in Casablanca – seeking “the waters” in a desert because “I was misinformed” – is immortal dialogue but tells us nothing.) And all four American protagonists have European literary antecedents: Harry and Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) recall, to an extent, Kurtz and Marlow in Heart of Darkness, while Rick and Sam (Arthur “Dooley” Wilson) can be traced back to Lear and Gloucester – another case of a man in exile with his devoted servant. Or perhaps Sam is Sancho Panza to Rick’s embittered Don Quixote – one who is no longer tilting at the windmills of lost causes and whose love interest is more fantasy than reality.
In most other ways, however, the two films sharply diverge, starting with how each presents its protagonist. Harry gets a long buildup, beginning with a strange voice-over that manages to be simultaneously personal and impersonal. The narrator never explains who he is beyond implying that he’s a black marketeer – “we’d run anything” – yet is clearly intended to be a distinct person – the first word he says is “I” – with a distinct way of talking. His entire narrative resembles a tale told to drinking buddies who are starting to get impatient and trying to move on to a different subject even as the narrator asks for indulgence: “I was going to tell you – wait, I was going to tell you.” Only then, and almost as an afterthought, does he get to Harry and Holly, and without ever explicitly identifying Harry as a black marketeer despite having earlier explained the black market. Is he Harry’s friend and trying to protect him? Harry’s enemy and trying to distance himself from Harry, implying that his own black market activities, in contrast to Harry’s, never involved killing anyone? Perhaps the narrator heard of Harry’s exploits but never knew him. In any case, the mystery and evasion are fitting given the kind of man Harry is. After the voice-over, Harry becomes an almost constant topic of conversation, but – the scene on the bridge, in long shot, notwithstanding – we don’t see him clearly until late in the film, and then as a creature of the night: all in black, standing in a dark doorway and alone except for a cat, like a witch’s familiar spirit. His smile recalls Hamlet’s line about the smiling villain. Seemingly having come from nowhere, he lives for a few moments in a spotlight, then vanishes, leaving the audience still almost entirely in the dark about him. (Harry’s later use of the word “limelight” may be a reference to that scene, besides being a play on his name.)
In Casablanca, the introductory voice-over, like the one in The Third Man, gives viewers necessary background but is otherwise quite different. Reminiscent of a newsreel and intended to be straightforward, impersonal, factual, objective, and sincere, lending something of a documentary aura to a studio-bound production, Casablanca’s voice-over does not mention Rick by name; only later do we realize that he was one of the many who fled Paris. Once the story begins, Rick gets a brief buildup – a few mentions of his name, a few glimpses of his cafe – before we first see him, some nine minutes in. Unlike Harry’s introduction, Rick’s provides insight into who and what he is. Before moving to his face, the camera lingers on a tableau – cigarette, drinking glass, chessboard, pen, and authorization for a thousand-franc advance – that alludes to his occupation, dissipation, intelligence, and cunning. (Bogart, in real life, was a superb chess player.) Rick, playing against himself, is internally conflicted and will soon take part in the plot’s metaphorical chess match. Like Harry in his introduction, Rick is by himself, indicating aloofness, but in his case, other people are nearby, and the scene, well-lit and sustained, puts Rick into social context.
Sam, perhaps partly because of the racism of the period, gets little character development (and is blithely abandoned by Rick at the end of the film!), but at least both he and Rick have a legitimate, if shady, place in Casablanca – they belong and are accepted by both the authorities and the criminal element. “Everybody comes to Rick’s,” putting the cafe at the center of a community, and the locals treat Rick himself with a mixture of affection, respect, and suspicion. In The Third Man, on the other hand, neither Harry nor Holly fully belongs in Vienna. Harry seems to be the head of the black market and in that sense fits in, but he’s also a wanted man. Holly, for his part, is an ignorant newcomer. Strasser’s line in Casablanca about “just another blundering American” may not fit Rick, but as a description of Holly, it could hardly be bettered in so few words – Calloway even accuses Holly of blundering. He is utterly out of his depth, knowing no German and struggling to converse with the porter (Paul Hörbiger), Dr. Winkle’s maid (Jenny Werner), a landlady (Hedwig Bleibtreu), and a bartender (Leo Bieber) at the Casanova Club; even a play script defeats Holly. The Casanova, The Third Man’s closest equivalent to Rick’s, has something of the intrigue of the Casablanca cafe but none of its sense of community. The possibility of community anywhere in a shattered city seems remote, except for the cooperation of the occupying powers.
In tone as well, the two movies are far apart. There’s no shortage of cynicism in Casablanca, but it tends toward the jovial and is restricted to only a few characters. Ferrari sees people as Casablanca’s “leading commodity,” while Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), besides professing shock over gambling, claims to be “only a poor corrupt official” who enjoys the thought of Rick having killed a man: “It’s the romantic in me.” Rick himself is the film’s main source of cynicism. In his first scene, he implies agreement with an observation by Ugarte (Peter Lorre) that “you are a very cynical person.” Later, as if to confirm the point, Rick concedes to being “a little more impressed” with Ugarte after realizing that he’s a murderer, not just a black marketeer.
Ilsa Lund’s betrayal has left Rick not just cynical but bitter. Emotionally dead, he apparently wouldn’t mind being physically dead as well, even inviting Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) to shoot him: “You’ll be doing me a favor.” In his bitterness, Rick has walled himself off. He discards Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau) without a second thought and even refuses to drink with customers, at least before Ilsa re-enters his life. When Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) tries to get the letters of transit, Rick informs him that “the problems of the world are not in my department”; when Ilsa tries the same thing, Rick still won’t hear of it: “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” He also insists more than once that “I stick my neck out for nobody.” And he doesn’t – at least not for Ugarte, a “cut-rate” parasite. But he is willing to take a big risk when it counts. Rick turns out to be basically a decent person, louche rather than criminal, resolutely keeping clear of the black market despite Ferrari’s urging. Finally overcoming his bitterness, he is redeemed. And the whole film’s cynicism is just a facade for its overall optimism, perhaps reflecting the hopes of Europeans involved in making Casablanca over U.S. entry into the war. Because wartime conditions had simplified the calculus of right and wrong, Casablanca also offers moral clarity. The correct path for Rick to follow – nobility and self-sacrifice – is never in doubt. Even Rick seems to understand it; the only question is when and how he will act.
The Third Man’s cynicism, by contrast, is not only more pervasive but also more corrosive, bordering on nihilism. It starts with the voice-over, which pairs the phrase “stay the course like a professional” with footage of a floating corpse (presumably an amateur black marketeer) and “bombed about a bit” with footage of heavily damaged buildings. The porter feels sorry for the gravediggers – “hard work in this frost” – but not for the person they’re burying. The sinister Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) tells Holly, “You know what Harry was,” understanding perfectly that Holly has no idea. Crabbin (Wilfrid Hyde-White) calls Harry’s death “awkward,” taking Holly aback, and the oily and murderous Popescu (Siegfried Breuer) insists that “you have to break the rules sometimes” because “humanity is a duty.” Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who, like Rick, has lost (so she thinks) the person she loves, echoes Rick’s sentiment – “I want to be dead too” – before offering Holly more tea. Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) refers to World War II as “the business” and tells Holly, “Death’s at the bottom of everything. Leave death to the professionals,” besides warning Holly that “you were born to be murdered.” Nor does Calloway care how Harry was killed – “the only important thing is that he’s dead.” Even Holly finally edges toward cynicism as he snaps at Calloway: “I’m only a little fool. I’m an amateur at it. You’re a professional.”
Harry, however, is the main source of cynicism in The Third Man, as Rick is in Casablanca, but Harry’s is far more savage. For him, people are dots: that’s how he sees them on the Ferris wheel and probably how he thinks of them all the time, including those who died from or were injured by his black-market penicillin. When Holly talks of victims, Harry accuses him of being “melodramatic” and asks Holly whether he would feel pity “if one of those dots stopped moving forever,” implying that Harry would not. And while Rick’s cynicism masks his nobility, Harry’s hints at the essentially evil man he is or has become. Perhaps he wasn’t always so selfish, cruel and vicious: Holly firmly rejects the idea of Harry’s criminality until confronted with clear evidence of it. Maybe, like some of Henry James’s characters, Harry was corrupted by Europeans. In any case, though he’s head of the black market in Vienna, his crimes are far worse than Ferrari’s. Harry never says “I stick my neck out for nobody,” but – with his betrayal of Anna and readiness to kill Holly – embodies the sentiment much better than Rick does. Unlike Rick, Harry is beyond redemption, and The Third Man seems to ask how, or whether, the world can be redeemed after such a global calamity.
Besides being more cynical than Casablanca, The Third Man is also more complex. In its topsy-turvy world, the porter confuses heaven and hell, and Anna tells Calloway that he’s “got everything upside down.” Moral clarity gives way to deep-shadowed moral ambiguity and divided loyalties in a divided city. For Holly, there is no clearly right or wrong path, because every option open to him involves a betrayal of someone, whether Anna, Harry, or Harry’s victims. In The Third Man, Holly is the one who has been “misinformed” – about Harry and much else. He’s as much out of his depth morally as he in every other way. The simplistic, black-and-white, good-guys-vs.-bad-guys morality of the pulp westerns that he writes has left him utterly unprepared for what he encounters in Vienna, especially the fictions that Harry has woven around himself and that Holly could not have dreamed up. Worldliness, however, offers no insulation from moral difficulty. What are we to make of Anna’s choice – her devotion to a dead lover who perpetrated horrible crimes and never repented (very different from Ilsa’s devotion to Victor, who fights Nazis)? Anna thus disregards Harry’s victims and rejects Holly, either because he showed Anna the kind of person Harry was, because he betrayed and killed Harry, or for both reasons. What are we to make of Holly’s choice to betray and kill Harry, though “twenty years is a long time”? And what are we to make of Harry? Though reprehensible, he cannot easily be dismissed. His speech on the Ferris wheel is a shrewd commentary on World War II, more interesting and pointed, if less famous, than the cuckoo-clock concoction, written by Welles, not Graham Greene, on whose novel The Third Man was based. Though cynical, it also emphasizes the general dehumanization of the war. “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings,” Harry says. “Governments don’t; why should we?” Children on a merry-go-round may be just dots as far as Harry is concerned, but during the war, dots were also the way people appeared to bombers, when the people were visible at all, and cities and other bombing targets were dots on maps. Harry’s work is as much “the business” for him as World War II was for Calloway – surely a matter of leaving “death to the professionals” if anything is. Harry’s assertion to Holly that “the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories” is a rebuke not only to Holly’s simplistic morality but also, perhaps, to Rick’s and Victor’s heroics. Harry’s attempt to justify his actions could have come right out of Monsieur Verdoux, released a few years before The Third Man: Harry’s crimes are insignificant next to the immeasurable atrocity of the war. What do a few more deaths matter, in other words, compared with what governments have perpetrated? The film even hints at the possibility that in a city where fragmented political authority symbolizes fragmented moral authority, Harry may be as “right,” in his own way, as Holly and Calloway are in theirs, or at least that Harry’s point has some validity.
The Third Man ends with rejection, physical and emotional death, a descent into a sewer, a walk through a graveyard and cold silence. The ruins of Vienna come to symbolize Holly’s own ruined world – innocence gone, friendship gone, employment opportunity gone (Harry’s job offer apparently fell through). In a perverse echo of the Charles Kane-Jedediah Leland relationship from Citizen Kane, the two friends have a falling-out, though over something more serious than a negative review, and this time, Cotten does the firing, in a more literal sense of the word. Betrayal, in The Third Man, is unforgivable: Holly never forgives Harry, nor vice versa: the nod that Harry gives Holly just before being killed seems to signal not forgiveness but permission to put Harry out of his misery. Nor does Anna ever forgive Holly; his hopes of having her die, appropriately enough, in the middle of a cemetery. Casablanca, by contrast, ends with friendship, a new beginning, reassuring words, and an ascent into the clouds. Here – and it’s part of the film’s basic optimism – forgiveness is possible. Rick not only puts aside his bitterness but also gets involved in a cause other than himself. It seems that the “problems of the world” are worth his attention after all.
The U.S. had reached the same conclusion by the time of Casablanca’s release, and its generally positive view of Americans in the context of narrative that is finally redeeming and uplifting (literally so for Ilsa and Victor) contributed to the triumphalist narrative of U.S. intervention in the war, though the contribution was unintentional and happened well before the effectiveness of that intervention became clear. When Victor tells Rick, “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win,” audiences at the time could have been excused for taking it as nothing more than hopeful bravado, given that no one on “our side” could have known any such thing. In retrospect, however, and given the outcome, Casablanca posits Americans as “saving the world” and once again rescuing Europeans from another fine mess that they had gotten themselves into – the triumphalist narrative Americans have liked to tell themselves and one another ever since.
The narrative is accurate up to a point – U.S. entry into the war probably did turn the tide in Europe and destroyed the Pacific empire that Japan was determined to expand – but overlooks the fact that other people did the vast majority of the war’s fighting and dying. However grateful Europeans were for American aid, they also worried about the emergence of a new superpower, about Soviet intentions toward Western Europe and about the Cold War that was taking shape. Shot in late 1948 and early 1949, The Third Man reflects a particular moment of that new conflict: the Truman Doctrine had recently been announced, the United Nations was in its infancy, NATO had not yet been founded, and the Marshall Plan was just getting started. In other words, it was unclear whether American power would do Europe more good than harm or more harm than good. In the context of a narrative that, unlike Casablanca’s, plumbs the depths of cynicism and despair, The Third Man presents Americans as heartless villains or helpless naifs, reflecting Europe’s post-war chaos and European fears that they would be taken advantage of by the U.S. or that the U.S. was out of its depth – not up to the challenge of being a superpower or confronting the Soviet Union. Graham Greene’s well-known anti-Americanism may also help explain the characterizations. In addition, Greene may have been trying to cut the U.S. down to size. The only American exceptionalism on view in the film, for example, is exceptional wickedness or exceptional cluelessness. Everyone in Vienna is corrupt, the film seems to say, but if an American takes part in – even leads – that corruption, then how special can Americans be?
Yet whatever Greene or anyone else thought of Americans in general and Americans abroad in particular, the fact remains that since, and because of, World War II, the U.S. has been more involved with the rest of the world than it ever had been before. The hugely complex question of what that involvement can or should entail, however, remains unsettled and probably always will, though both Casablanca and The Third Man address the question, each in a different way. They offer perspectives from opposite ends of a decade in which the outcome and aftermath of the most horrific war in human history seemed to depend on the answer.