The Man Between (Carol Reed, 1953)
Carol Reed was a master of the noirish thriller. All the Graham Greene adaptations/collaborations have led him to be associated with profundity and acerbic, cutting dialogue, but to watch his films is also to see that he knows how to keep the viewer entertained and put moral dilemmas into the service of an exciting adventure story.
So often his protagonists are cast into a foreign, alien environment, almost dreamlike and even Kafkaesque in its mystery and unknowability. When they think they’ve sussed the place out, invariably they discover that things are not as they seem, there are layers upon layers of secrets to penetrate. People cannot be judged in black and white because they are all faced with difficult decisions (the terrible thing is that, to paraphrase Renoir, everyone has his reasons).
It’s a world of tall shadows, raincoats, and footsteps in alleyways. A secretive world where people will smile sweetly and change the subject without comment if you ask the wrong sort of question. It’s a world that was perfected in The Third Man. This particular film has a lot in common with its more illustrious predecessor and I think it’s fair to say that its predecessor is more illustrious for a reason.
For post-war Vienna (or the pre-Troubles Northern Ireland of Odd Man Out), we have post-war Berlin; again flooded with waifs, strays and the destitute, again split into Western and Soviet sectors. For Joseph Cotten’s Holly read Claire Bloom’s Suzanne, the prim and naive English girl who arrives in this strange city and finds herself drawn into intrigue. There are echoes of other Reed films too; Horst, the lonely, hero-worshipping Milkybar kid with a mop of blonde hair recalls dear Bobby Henrey from The Fallen Idol.
The dominant performance is that of James Mason, doing his best to pull off a German accent as Ivo Kern (I am no expert of the Teutonic tongue but it’s got to be less silly than his Irish accents in Odd Man Out and Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment). His character is the most complex and he gets most of the best lines. As Ivo and Suzanne await a hazardous rendezvous at the end of an opera show, he deftly punctures the tension by remarking, “Seemed unusually long tonight, didn’t it?”. It’s the way he tells them.
He’s playing much the same type here as he does in that latter film; that of the good-hearted villian who has fallen into criminality through circumstance or weakness (“I didn’t have the stamina or the courage to live decently”), and who can only attain redemption by sacrificing his life for that of the good woman who has touched his conscience. A bit preachy perhaps, but dramatically speaking it makes for a neat ending.
The story. Credits roll over an aerial view of Berlin and a dramatic Romantic orchestra. We see Bettina (Neff), a glamorous blonde gal in furs downing aspirin as she waits at the airport. Soon she meets her sister-in-law Suzanne. So sorry your brother couldn’t get away from work. Into a cab, blonde boy on bicycle tailing them all the way.
After leaving the grand boulevards, we see that most of Berlin is still rubble, Bettina’s house the only intact buliding in sight. Bettina tries to play the good host but she’s plainly on edge, dismissing a phone call by hissing “I can’t” into the receiver. When her husband Martin comes back from his shift as an army doctor, he’s a jolly well-mannered and upstanding English officer of the type you get in Powell & Pressburger. Agitated violins and cut to a close-up of a clown’s manic grin.
It’s a night out im kabaret. Like Berlin itself, Bettina is doing a very bad job of hiding her misery. She spills a drink over herself and wanders off to talk to a stranger whilst weeping. She feels ill and wants to leave the brother and sister to it; they insist on taking her home. On the way they witness a car chase and Michael touches a nerve by saying it must be “someone who’s wanted in the East”. In the middle of the night Suzanne sees Bettina get up and receive a letter from the blonde boy. What’s her game?
Followed by the boy, the two girls go an excursion into East Berlin. Billboards of Stalin’s face everywhere, women breaking rocks and bricklaying; all fairly grim. As they sit in a café, James Mason makes his first appearance. Viewed from the other end of the street, he strides towards the lens purposefully until he fills it. Bettina introduces Ivo, who starts talking politics almost immediately. Bettina’s not in the mood, and he seems bitter and sarky. “Friends can disgaree over little trifling things like war, peace, the division of our country”.
Suzanne goes to see Martin at work; his office looks down on a warehouse floor flooded with hundreds of ragged refugees. You work too hard, she tells him, you leave your wife on her own too often. He doesn’t take the hint and Suzanne returns to find Ivo and Bettina fighting. The look in their eyes as they say goodbye confirms that there’s something afoot.
Ivo takes Suzanne out. As they walk past a gothic cathedral, Suzanne urges him to stay away from Bettina. Ivo puts her in a taxi and heads back to see a man in the club. But the next morning he sends the little boy to fetch Suzanne for him. We see Ivo in a bar, chewing his nails and downing schnapps as he waits. His message is that on reflection, Suzanne is right. He’s going to leave Berlin. Back at home Martin is bandaging up the wounds of Kastner, a Western spy.
Suzanne and Ivo have another rendezvous, and Bettina some words of warning (“Don’t get too fond of Berlin”). We see her upset as she watches them leave from her window. They’re larking about on an ice rink, watched by the little boy and Halendar- the man from last night. As Mason skates, Halendar shouts to him across the ice; Kastner is stealing our best people and our secret documents. Work with us to catch him or we’ll keep you in the East. Seems a trifle indiscreet.
Back at home, Bettina and Suzanne clash again and the moment of revelation arrives. In a twist pinched from Casablanca, Ivo is Bettina’s husband. He went missing in the war, presumed dead, and by the time he’d resurfaced Bettina was shacked up with Martin. Bettina kept it secret “to protect” her innocent English sweetheart. Ivo is wanted by the authorities and Suzanne is asked to lure him with a phone call. She is happy to comply, but Ivo is tipped off and does not show.
Only now does the plot spring into action mode. Berlin is caked in snow and a wheezing Eastern car splutters through the heavy snowfall, to tail and eventually abduct Suzanne- it’s sinister and tense to watch. Cut to James Mason laughing like a maniac. Halendar meant to kidnap Bettina but has ended up with the wrong woman. However, he intends to make the best of things.
Suzanne is being held in a dark room filled with junk, lit by harsh bare bulbs. Halendar instructs her to ask Martin’s friend Kastner to pick her up outside that night’s opera concert. She sees through it and refuses, leaving Ivo to intervene. Call Kastner, he says, and I’ll speak to him afterwards and tell him not to come. I’m in trouble with the Western police and I need to get you out of this to prove I’m kosher.
Warbling and torch-bearers at the opera; Suzanne and Ivo are in a box when they receive the summons to descend. Outside the palatial lobby lurk shadowy men in raincoats. Tension mounts. There’s a well-handled crowd scene when the opera empties. Ivo uses the dense crowd to get them into their car, and the Easterners give chase in theirs. The car chase we saw on Suzanne’s night was a premonition.
We’re cooking on gas now; Bettina and Martin are out of the picture and it’s all about this pair. The chase scenes have got that fantastic noir look Carol Reed does so well; silhouettes, shadows in doorways, sharp camera angles, brilliantly lit and almost expressionistic.
They lose the Eastern car but find that every border checkpoint is closed off. Ivo arouses the suspicion of the guards, who shoot and wound one of the drivers. Ivo and Suzanne wander through the rubble to catch the cross-city tram, but it’s full of Stasi checking people’s papers. The blonde boy hides them on a building site and they find time for some tender chit-chat. Suzanne would like to see Ivo again. “No, I’m going to prison… I was born to hang”. Love, Ivo says, is another “Western luxury”.
The pair get to a tenement rooftop and Ivo says goodbye to young Horst, showing a sentimental side; it’s very important that Horst starts going to school. When the police flood the building, the two offer an ageing whore 500DM (the next morning) to let them hide in her rooms. Ivo climbs out the window when the police come in to check- Suzanne lets down her hair, lights a cigarette and poses as a whore. The bumbling Halendar doesn’t recognise her.
The gentlemanly Ivo sleeps in a chair, but Suzanne beckons him towards the bed. She wants to know Ivo’s story. He studied to become a liberal lawyer, but was called up to fight in WWII. “Whatever orders were given to me, I carried out.” Ivo doesn’t see how he can go back to practising law after the things he did in the war. Lugubrious strings kick in as Suzanne tries to console Ivo, and refuses to be pushed away (“I’m not a child”). They kiss, with passion.
The next morning, Suzanne lies on the bed looking blissed out. Ivo is agitated and waiting for Kastner’s van to turn up. Kastner is punctual and hides them in the back of a laundry van. Little Horst is dejected to lose Ivo and follows on his bike. In the van, Suzanne is talking of their honeymoon and Ivo still trying to push her away. Wines get better with age but men cannot, apparently.
“You know nothing about men, about wine, about life. You know nothing.”
“I know what I like.”
At the border, they are waved through when the van’s engine cuts out. It restarts after an agonising wait, but too late. One of the guards has clocked Horst’s bike and wants to look inside the van. To allow Suzanne and Kastner to get away, Ivo bails out and leads the guards on a chase. When he tries to jump back into the van, he is gunned down. It’s a little gut-wrenching that the boy should be the one to give him away.
The astonishing final shot, an inversion of Mason’s first scene, shows Suzanne’s view from the back of the truck. Ivo’s body lies in the snow, getting smaller and smaller, alsatians running over to sniff. The barricade to the West is lowered behind the van and Western troops look on as the scene recedes and a saxophone doodles. It’s as memorable as the closing shot of The Third Man, when Holly is knocked back by Anna and has to walk back out of the cemetery.
It’s a good film that’s well worth your time, but for obvious reasons it will get compared to The Third Man at every turn and mostly fall short. It suffers from a slow first half, takes far too long for the meat of the action to get under way. The melodramatic score doesn’t have the surreal cheekiness of the zither, the script can’t manage the bite of Graham Greene (that line about wines is one a few that jar), and through no fault of Mason’s Ivo Kern is not as magical a creation as Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.
Lime is like something from Shakespeare; his sins are far worse but because of his worldview, he has no scruples and will mock the scrupulous with impunity. Which makes him thrilling to watch! This film replaces Lime, and all the attendant issues he poses to an audience, with a love story. A well-handled and well-acted love story, as the protagonists move from hate to love in this shattered city of dual halves, but a love story that I for one have seen many times before.