Saturday, December 12, 2009


In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
So long, Holly.

- Harry Lime, "The Third Man."

Orson Wells, as Harry Lime

It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return you gotta go bettin' on chance, and then you're back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of the breakdown of ethics. That's why ethics is important. It's the grease makes us get along, what separates us from the animals, beasts a' burden,
beasts a' prey.

- Johnny Caspar, "Miller's Crossing."

Jon Polito, as Johnny Caspar

Watching "The Third Man" recently, I was struck by its relationships with "Miller's Crossing," which I watched a few weeks ago. The Third Man is a 1950 movie starring Orson Wells. Miller's Crossing is a 1991 movie by the Coen brothers. The similarities and contrasts were no doubt deliberate.

The Coen Brothers

The two movies feature almost incomprehensibly devious plots involving intricate deceits and betrayals. The plots serve as exposition and symbol of the lot of humankind, with its capacity for love and hellishness bound up in the same heart. In The Third Man, Holly Martin, an alcoholic writer of pulp Westerns, travels to Vienna to work for his old friend, Harry Lime, only to be confronted with the fact of Lime's recent "death." The truth about Lime's fraud scheme and faked death is slowly forced on Martin, until he decides to shoot Lime in the movie's climactic scene.

In Miller's Crossing, Tom Reagan advises his mob boss, Leo, to permit Johnny Caspar, another mobster who pays tribute, to kill Bernie Bernbaum, a bookie who has "cheated" Caspar by trading on inside information on a fixed fight. Leo rejects both Tom's advice, and Tom himself, after Tom confronts Leo with the news that Tom's been "cheating" with Leo's mistress, Verna Bernbaum (the bookie's sister). Tom, out in the cold, falls in with Caspar's gang, and is asked to "whack" Bernbaum as his initiation. Tom manages to fake Bernbaum's death in the lonely woods of Miller's Crossing. Bernbaum, ever the con, turns on Tom and blackmails him. Tom manages to survive, double crossing both Caspar and Bernbaum in the process, and in the movie's climactic scene, he executes Bernbaum.

Both movies proceed by the plot device of a "death" that is in reality a con. The slow moving camera in each film deliberately contrasts its visual calm with the feverish plot twists and moral dilemmas driving the characters. Each movie is set in a weirdly empty city: post-war Vienna, in The Third Man, and Prohibition New Orleans, in Miller's Crossing. In each case the oddly empty cities evoke the essential loneliness of the moral choices faced by the protagonists, Tom Reagan (in Miller's Crossing) and Holly Martin (in The Third Man).

The ominously deserted Ferris wheel, from The Third Man.

The ominously empty woods in Miller's Crossing.

Both movies culminate with the main character choosing to execute a scoundrel, a fraud and murderer, who has up until that point been the object of undeserved pity and mercy by the main character. In each scene the scoundrel is on the verge of once again evading responsibility for his crimes. Bernie Bernbaum, in Miller's Crossing, has just killed Johnny Caspar, his nemesis. Harry Lime, in The Third Man, has just evaded the police and is about to climb out of the sewers which have been his refuge throughout the movie.

In each movie the execution takes place despite the scoundrel's desperate plea for life. In Miller's Crossing Bernie Bernbaum pleads to Tom Reagan to "look inside your heart!" In The Third Man Harry Lime gives a beatifically lit, pleading backward look to his old friend, Holly Martin, as Lime desperately pushes against the sewer grate, moments from his escape. Both protagonists lose a part of their innocence and humanity, however misshapen, when they choose to execute the scoundrel. In each movie the protagonist's execution of the scoundrel is also a knowing renunciation of the possibility of love with the woman attached fervently to the scoundrel: Verna Bernbaum (in Miller's Crossing) and Anna Schmidt (in The Third Man).

Both executions are very personal, conducted in a claustrophobic one-on-one scene with no other witness present, driving home the point that moral choices are intensely individual, yet are always fraught with social consequences.

Of the two movies The Third Man is superficially the bleaker. It is shot in black and white, and much of it occurs at night and in the sewers beneath post-war Vienna. Miller's Crossing is shot in a strange, stylised color, heavy in browns and deep reds, in a New Orleans winter.

Harry Lime fleeing through Vienna's Sewers, from The Third Man.

Tom Reagan and Verna Bernbaum, in a scene from Miller's Crossing.

But the soul of Miller's Crossing is in fact the bleaker of the two. Holly Martin, in The Third Man, executes Harry Lime because he must, in order to affirm a rule of law in a lawless place. In the process Martin nobly sacrifices his own friendship and love.

By contrast Tom Reagan, in Miller's Crossing, kills Bernie Bernbaum at exactly the moment he no longer needs to, as an act of personal vengeance for a personal betrayal by Bernbaum. Bernbaum pleads with Reagan to "look inside your heart!" As Tom pulls the trigger, he responds "What heart?" Reagan's murder does nothing to affirm a rule of law. There is no rule of law in Miller's Crossing, only competing lawlessness and corruption, in the form of two opposing criminal organizations. Tom's ambivalent and hopeless self-assessment, at the end of the movie, says it all: "Do you always know why you do things, Leo?" We are left with no such doubt at the end of The Third Man, however painful the choice has been.

The difference in tone and moral conviction is marked by the last scene of each movie. In The Third Man, Holly Martin stops the car driven by the symbol of weary but determined morality, a military policeman. Martin gets out to stand and watch, silently, while Anna Schmidt, his lost love, walks toward the camera, on a dirt lane lined with barren trees. The policeman waits for Martin as he stands, a symbol of a muted and weary, but very much alive, moral code.

In Miller's Crossing Verna Bernbaum, Reagan's love, tells Reagan to "drop dead" as she walks from Bernie's grave. The camera follows as she drives away, down a dirt lane lined with barren trees. A few moments later Leo, the gangster for whom Tom held some shred of loyalty, walks away from the camera down the same lane, Tom having rejected Leo's offer to return and work for him. There is no car waiting for Tom Reagan. He is utterly alone as the credits roll.

The two movies are an insight into the great moral chasm we have crossed in a generation. The Third Man, in the shadow of WWII, was still able to affirm a morally correct choice, no matter how crippled the characters and how agonizing the choice. Holly Martin chose to sacrifice his own attachments for a higher good. Miller's Crossing, released in 1991, is only able to look on helplessly while competing criminals destroy themselves and murder one another to satisfy their personal lusts and sensibilities. Tom Reagan chooses, at the end, to deny any human connection at all, his hopeless and silent comment on the universal corruption of humanity.

The chasm between these two movies is the chasm between my parents' generation and my own.

The next generation - my children's generation - has a choice between these two opposing visions: God and the demands of objective morality, however painful, or the seductive worship of self, in all its loveless and sterile futility. I wonder how they will choose?


  1. Really thought provoking, i would agree with 90% of what you said. Interesting to note the similiarities between the two female characters and their lovers (eventhough Bernie was her brother, Vera tried to reach him a thing or two in the bedroom). Both men used the women in their lives to leep out of trouble, with Harry actually selling his girl out. And rhe funeral scenes are very similar too. Even down to the jewish ceremony.

  2. Hmm... Interesting thoughts here. Was just writing up a double feature post about these two films and found this old post.

    I think I feel differently about why Tom makes the decisions he does, particularly in the end. You see nihilism, I see regret and self-denunciation. Tom leaves Leo because he lost control of his ethics (his hat) doing what he set out to do. He may have succeeded in his plans, but the cost was too high.

    In Miller's Crossing, the roles get reversed. Leo is like Holly, wanting romance where there is only battered morality to be found. Tom is like Anna, smart enough to keep walking.