Critics compare this sophisticated spy thriller to Carol Reed’s earlier Triumph set in Vienna with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles — but it’s a different story altogether, not about black-market evil but the perils of moral compromise in a divided Berlin. James Mason and Claire Bloom are stunningly good together, in a moody suspense that’s completely serious — no comic relief or ‘fun’ jeopardy to distract from the fascinating, you-are-there setting, a Berlin trying to rebuild itself. With Hildegard Knef, and an extended, beautifully filmed nighttime chase that seals an unlikely romance.
The Man Between
KL Studio Classics
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 102 min. / Street Date November 5, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: James Mason, Claire Bloom, Hildegard Knef, Geoffrey Toone, Aribert Wäscher, Ernst Schróder, Dieter Krause, Hilde Sessak, Karl John, Ljuba Welitsch, Reinhard Kolldehoff.
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Film Editor: Bert Bates
Original Music: John Addison
Written by Harry Kurnitz, Eric Linklater original story by Walter Ebert
Produced and Directed by Carol Reed
It’s likely that nobody has yet topped Carol Reed’s The Third Man for melancholy romance amid the general disillusion of postwar Europe. That movie is packed with comic bits, and it’s still a perfect bittersweet downer. I used my 2007 Blu-ray review to suggest that The Third Man is the pessimistic flip side of the optimistic Casablanca, a wartime picture that found hope and courage amid romantic failure and regret. The tale of the lovable loser Holly Martins was the capper in a trio of successes that elevated Carol Reed to directing pre-eminence, settling in alongside David Lean. Free to do something personal and big, Reed chose Joseph Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands. But audiences didn’t embrace the equally accomplished classic — its finale is a really grim downer. Few directors have found success adapting Conrad to film — it took everything Francis Coppola had to pull Apocalypse Now out of the fire.
1953’s The Man Between returns to a situation somewhat similar to The Third Man — more sordid activities in another divided postwar city. Berlin hadn’t spelled big success for George Seaton (The Big Lift) or for Billy Wilder, whose classic romantic comedy A Foreign Affair was set against a sobering backdrop of ruins and hardship — and likely depressed people by making them think too much of grim political issues. The Man Between didn’t get a tenth the attention of Third Man, with critics faulting its screenplay as humorless. Yet it’s an excellent, adult look at people tangled in the border tensions between East and West Germany. Following up on his great performance in Reed’s Odd Man Out, James Mason gives us a corrupt, compromised German less easy to condemn than the child-murderer Harry Lime. Following up on her publicized (as opposed to actual) film debut in Chaplin’s Limelight, young Claire Bloom has one of her very best roles as a vacationing schoolteacher who dares to try her hand at romantic adventure. The German cast is excellent, but poor Hildegard Knef hadn’t been treated well by Hollywood — the stunning star of The Murderers Are Among Us was frequently reviewed as an ice queen, ‘too Teutonic’ in her good performances in Decision Before Dawn, Diplomatic Courier and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Returning to Germany, she played the ultimate heartless female opposite Erich von Stroheim in the weird (and sick) sci-fi throwback Alraune. The Man Between somehow sees Knef’s character as undeserving, representing some kind of national flaw.
Pauline Kael later came to Knef’s defense, calling her character the most interesting in the movie. Kael slammed writer Harry Kurnitz, and called James Mason’s character a cross between Welles’ Harry Lime and his own Johnny McQueen in Odd Man Out.
Seven years after the surrender, nothing feels settled in West Berlin. Hardship is at an all time high, as is hostility with the East. Susanne (Claire Bloom) comes from England to visit her bother Martin (Geoffrey Toone of Terror of the Tongs), a military official doing social work. She and is met by her sister-in-law Bettina (Hildegard Knef). The observant Susanne soon figures out that Bettina is communicating with an unseen man, and that a young boy named Horst on a bicycle (Dieter Krause) is passing messages for the man. Then the mystery man is revealed as Ivo Kern (James Mason), Bettina’s apparent lover, and assumption that proves inaccurate. and Susanne finds herself attracted to Ivo and hearing more about his shady business with people in East Berlin. The green, fresh-faced Susanne is fascinated by this man, and sees in him an excitement missing in her own life.’
That’s as close as I want to get to the events of The Man Between, not because other things are necessarily spoilers, but because in this show, the reveal of new information is just as important as what happens. In this guilty city, human interaction expects one not to ask too many questions. Deceptions involving crime and politics are just slight extensions of personal, intimate deceptions. Screenwriters Harry Kurnitz and Eric Linklater fashion a smart script, in which the answers to simple aspects of ‘what’s going on?’ are often delayed by a minute or two, keeping us nicely off balance. The ex-attorney Ivo Kern has fallen far from grace. Under these cynical circumstances he doubts that he can straighten his record with the western authorities. He doesn’t want to hurt Susanne, but he’s not above using her. James Mason has always been good at cutting character guilt and malice into fine slices; he’s fascinating to watch. After hiding Ivo from view, Reed gives his entrance a bit of a Harry Lime flavor, striding out of the sunlight toward the camera.
Although Pauline Kael wasn’t impressed, Claire Bloom is just as captivating. Without even snooping, Susanne becomes of the strange marital mess with her slippery sister-in-law. She eventually learns a thing or two about Ivo Kern’s guilt and self-loathing. To the young bicycle messenger Horst Ivo can do no wrong; he follows his boss all over West Berlin to deliver personal reports that help Ivo avoid capture. Ivo’s shady political dealings inadvertently cause trouble for Susanne — when she’s mistaken for Bettina in a kidnap-shakedown scheme, Ivo suddenly sees a solution for his dilemma. But first he has to smuggle Susanne back from East Berlin, with a whole group of enemy agents looking for them.
The Man Between doesn’t celebrate sensual decadence as does The Third Man — Berlin ’52 isn’t Vienna ’49, a city that looks beautiful even as it rots with corruption. The naïve outsider Susanne has a bit more common sense than Joseph Cotten’s naïve outsider Holly. The associates of her brother Martin are doing good work in West Berlin, especially an agent named Kastner (Ernst Schröder), a prime target for ‘free agent criminals’ that would like to deliver him to East German intelligence. But the film is much deeper than standard checkpoint thrillers. In Nunnally Johnson’s Night People, the West is unequivocally good and the East irredeemably bad. The movie feels honest about the political situation in Berlin; the one concession to not directly indicting the East German STASI may be the use of those middleman gangsters to do the dirty work.
This time out Reed doesn’t lean on the stylish flourishes, going instead for more of a docu literalism. We hear no intoxicating zither music, and no impish Orson Welles confounds us with devilish moral double-talk. The one extended action set-piece takes place in a large construction site at night, with Ivo using all of his wiles to evade his crooked East German employers and protect Susanne. The best moment shows that Susanne impressing Ivo with her own daredevil instincts — hiding out in a prostitute’s room, she assumes the role of a fallen women with both credibility and elan. Is she already trying to seduce him?
John Addison’s classy music score doesn’t dominate as did Anton Karas’ zither. Carol Reed uses only a few canted ‘Dutch’ camera angles; whenever a critic felt let down by a Carol Reed picture, the first criticism would hold that any cockeyed camera angles were evidence of a failed attempt to revive the flair of The Third Man. One of Reed’s scene transitions is a dissolve from Bettina’s smiling face, to that of a nightclub entertainer in clown makeup. Since Bettina isn’t revealed to be any more of a fool than any other character, the dissolve feels a little mysterious.
The intelligent and absorbing The Man Between has its own docu-like feeling of veracity — we see several areas in the Western Sector. Through Martin’s social work get a hint of what life might like for some of the new arrivals from the East. Martin and Bettina’s house is a lone structure in an bombed-out space that eight years before was surely packed with row houses; the bricks have been picked up but Berlin doesn’t look all that better than it did in 1948, in Wilder’s A Foreign Affair and Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero. The Brandenberg Gate is still a mess, and it now has a militarized checkpoint.
Carol Reed’s many scenes in the nighttime streets and the chase through the giant construction site are masterfully shot and directed. When Ivo Kant must climb onto a window ledge to hide from the police, it doesn’t feel like the usual Hitchcockian escapism: it’s cold out there. I love the way Ivo matter-of-factly tosses handfuls of tire-ripping nails out a car window during one pursuit. The negative reviews fault the picture for not repeating The Third Man’s the comedy touches and colorful supporting characters. The main East German operative Halendar (Aribert Wäscher) is a humorless worry-wart, unlike that twinkly-eyed Viennese crook with his beggar’s violin. Berlin isn’t bathed in charming music that made Vienna seem a cinematic Disneyland. Even the night shadows were entertaining, when they hid a smirking Harry Lime. In The Man Between Berlin is just bleak and unwelcoming — a place too grim to support a bittersweet finale.
Among the German cast, Reinhard (sometimes billed as René) Kolldehoff will be a familiar face to viewers of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange. Ernst Shröder has a big part in George Seaton’s The Counterfeit Traitor. Karl John shows up both in Peter Lorre’s Der Verlorene and many years later, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Man Between is greatly appreciated — I’d previously seen it only on TCM, in a print that had been adapted for widescreen.* It really wants to be 1:37 flat. Once again a movie transports us to a specific past, like a time machine — Reed really makes us feel we are there in real Berlin locations. He frequently uses shots that tie interiors and exteriors together. The cold weather and snow looks genuinely fierce. As with other films that straddle the East/West divide, the East Berlin scenes had to be mocked up in the West, adding giant portraits of Stalin, etc.
The main extra is an off-the-cuff commentary by Simon Abrams, who offers good information. He reads many anecdotes about James Mason, Claire Bloom, Carol Reed, etc, directly from various biographies. He spends a lot of time on Mason’s marriage issues with his wife, Pamela. He recites information about West Germany’s efforts to receive East German asylum seekers, and even talks about some real spy activities in Berlin around this time. Abrams points out that Claire Bloom was still only 22 years old when The Man Between was filmed. So much of the show is Susanne’s subjective experience, that it’s my favorite of her films — she comes off as supremely intelligent and emotionally transparent.
Kino also includes an audio interview with James Mason from 1967. After a slow beginning Mason charms the audience with his observations about acting. He’s pretty hilarious when he gets around to talking about Michelangelo Antonioni (around 38 minutes in). Ms. Bloom also appears in a ten-minute video interview, fielding questions. A 45-minute documentary Carol Reed: A Gentle Eye (2016) is a thorough and thoughtful look at his career illustrated with hundreds of interesting, unusual stills. It’s hosted by John Boorman, has input from a score of key personalities (Guy Hamilton, Bryan Forbes, Angela Allan, Stephen Frears) and is directed by Andy Kelleher. It isn’t in the IMDB, but it may be a longer cut of Kelleher’s 25-minute ‘A Sense of Carol Reed’ from 2006.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Man Between
Supplements: Audio commentary by Simon Abrams, interview with Claire Bloom; documentary Carol Reed: A Gentle Eye; 1967 audio interview with James Mason.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2019
* That TCM cablecast of The Man Between taught me another lesson about aspect ratios: some flat-Academy films, when reissued after 1953, were reformatted for widescreen cropping. Another picture I noticed treated this way is The Thing from Another World — the picture remained the same, but an optical adjustment reframed the main titles for the widescreen shape. TCM may still be showing it that way. I thought for years that The Man Between was widescreen because I first saw it reframed on TCM — the print they sourced had re-composited the main titles, squashing them vertically to fit the wider shape. The rest of the scan favored the top of the frame, perhaps losing nothing essential but surely doing the original compositions no favors.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson