Director Carol Reed
Starring James Mason, Claire Bloom, Hildegarde Neff
Released 2nd January 2017
When you’ve made a film that’s been a critical and popular success – The Third Man was the most popular film in the UK in 1949 as well as winning an Oscar, two BAFTAs and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes – what do you do next? In the case of director Carol Reed, he made Outcast Of The Islands (1951), set in the exotic South Seas, a far cry from post-war Vienna. But two years later he was back on familiar territory in what’s regarded as a companion piece to his spectacular masterpiece.
And that means the bar is set almost impossibly high for The Man Between (1953), set in post-war and newly divided Berlin. Susanne (Claire Bloom) arrives for a visit with her elder brother and his German-born wife but soon becomes entangled with black marketeer Ivo (James Mason), who lives in the Eastern sector. Kidnapped by mistake, and then used by racketeers as bait to catch one of their enemies, Susanne is desperate to escape and her only hope turns out to be Ivo.
With all its similarities to The Third Man, it’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a companion piece. The shattered post-war city, the dangerous border into the Eastern sector, the ingénue thrust into the middle of the realities of surviving in a city full of corruption and crime, the smooth talking black marketeer …… the list goes on. Yet, despite all those parallels, it struggles to get anywhere near its illustrious predecessor.
I’ll avoid the obvious comparisons. The story, based on the novel Susanne In Berlin by Walter Ebert, isn’t especially strong, partly because it’s obvious right from the first moment we see Susanne’s sister-in-law Bettina (Hildegarde Neff) that she’s nursing a dark secret. Amazingly, nobody else has noticed it, yet the naïve Susanne picks up on it almost straight away. That naivete is, in itself, something of an irritant: despite growing up during the war, she’s decidedly drippy, which makes caring about her predicament harder than it should be.
Reed is noticeably unadventurous in the way he approaches the story. Shooting nearly all the locations face on, either in the daylight or dark but with little in the way of shadows either way, means that the necessary suspense is hardly ever there. There’s times when it looks like he’s trying to reproduce scenes from The Third Man – the escape over the rooftops is reminiscent of the chase in the Vienna sewers – but they’re nothing but imitations. And actors of the calibre of Mason and Bloom (the film was released the year after her breakthrough role in Chaplin’s Limelight) have little to get their teeth into. All Bloom has to do is smile sweetly or look vulnerable, while Mason, in his second collaboration with Reed (their first was Odd Man Out in 1947) displays, yet again, that accents other than RP really weren’t his strong point. And despite his efforts to introduce a haunted quality to his character, he still remains disappointingly two-dimensional.
This restoration and release on DVD, Blu-Ray and EST for the first time provides an opportunity to re-assess the film. As post-war thrillers go, it’s competent enough but doesn’t stand up especially well against Reed’s masterpiece. What film would? If anything, it’s constantly haunted by it and The Man Between seems destined to remain forever in its shadow.
The Man Between is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday, 2 January 2017 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 5 January 2017.