Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Favorite Film: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944) starring John Garfield, Sidney Greenstreet and Eleanor Parker

Okay, the truth is that one of my least favorite actors also stars in this one: Paul Henreid. How did this happen? Well you may ask. The answer is: I don't know. Coincidence!

I love this film directed by Edward Blatt from a screenplay by Daniel Fuchs. Though I haven't seen it in ages and I am writing most of this from memory with the help of internet movie database and wikipedia for character names and such. This is the sort of movie they don't make anymore or if they did they'd schmaltz it up with computer gimmickry when, after all, it is a fairly simple story.

It is WWII. A ship is leaving war-torn London for the United States. Various Americans have booked passage. But on their way to the docks, their car is blown up by an aerial bomb. Also in London, eager to get away, are Paul Henreid and his wife Eleanor Parker. (She has witnessed the passengers' car blown up.) She comes home to discover that Henreid is about to commit suicide. He is an Austrian and cannot get an exit visa. She convinces him she cannot live without him and will die with him.

When all these various people next wake up, they are on board a fog enclosed, curiously empty ship. Naturally, they think that somehow they made their way on board and are happily (if a bit mystified) on their way to their original destination.

But Eleanor Parker (who is wonderful in the role), playing Ann Bergner to Paul Henreid's Henry Bergner, notices that the other people on board the mysterious ship are the same people who were in the car that was blown up. They could NOT have survived. She realizes that they are all dead.

There is a just one ship's 'officer' on board, his name is Scrubby (played by Edmund Gwenn) and he is more like a general factotum. He asks Ann and her husband not to let the others know the truth - to let them discover it themselves. It makes for an easier transition.

But Tom Prior (played by John Garfield), a cynical newspaperman, overhears them talking. Then one by one the others find out and each acts out his or her shock in keeping with their own personalities. This part of the film is very well done. As they all must face facts and the idea that an examiner is on board to determine their individual fates in the hereafter. The ship is just an interim measure - a kind of temporary purgatory, so to speak.

The examiner turns out to be none other than Sidney Greenstreet in one of his most intimidating roles. He is superb as the Reverend Tim Thompson, the final judge and jury.

Each passenger, according to who they were in life, how they behaved, what they did, what they aspired to, must face the Reverend. He holds their eternal fates in his implacable hands.

But it is in the devising of this heaven or hell that the story excels. Each of these characters' fates is not generalized, it is individualized to that person's personality and character. It is this part of the story that I love, that I found so touching and even, a bit frightening. This is the kind of hereafter that makes some sense to me. Well, at least it does to my romantic soul.

I am going to reveal some SPOILERS here, the fates of a few of the characters.

One of the couples on board are an elderly man and his status seeking wife. They are played by Isobel Elsom and Gilbert Emory and their fate never fails to move me. She is a shallow, vain woman who all her life has cared for nothing but wealth and possessions and has made her gentle husband's life a living hell with her infidelities and her social climbing. He is happy to find out that he has been given a choice. He can either stay with his wife or he can go on to his eternity meeting up with his old chums, friends he'd missed over the years. He will spend eternity puttering about with his old friends, maybe playing a game or two of golf. He chooses his friends to the chagrin of his wife who expected him to stay by her side as he'd done so meekly in life.

Her fate is the one that moves me most in the film. She is condemned to spend eternity in a gorgeous home, filled with wonderful possessions and every convenience. But she will be there alone, never seeing another soul, unable to show off her lifestyle and wealth to anyone ever again It is a hideous fate for a woman of this sort. As she takes in the verdict, she turns to Greenstreet and says, "You swine." Then she walks off to meet her destiny. A woman doomed by her own inability to find her own humanity. I always think of her as being 'marooned' on a desert island without being able to look forward to death. She is played to perfection by Elsom. This is my favorite scene in the film.

The others all receive their individual fates in turn. Including one loathesome man played by the ever cringingly loathsome George Coulouris. He is a wealthy black market financier who we are led to understand is going straight to his own hell. He cannot buy his way out of this one - though he tries to bribe the Reverend.

John Garfield's character will spend his eternity unable to hide from who he is, all defenses down. He must face the weaknesses that turned him into a hardened cynic without honor, unable to find love or value in his own life. There is a twist at the end though and I won't reveal it. But it's a good one. I don't want to give every single thing away.

When it comes to the end. Henry Bergner (Paul Henreid) is made to understand that since he is a suicide he cannot leave the ship. Scrubby is revealed to have been a suicide and that is why he is meant to spend eternity on board, ushering in all the new souls as they arrive. Henry will be given a ship and he will never see his wife Ann again. She will be allowed to find her eternity without him since she is considered a victim and not an active suicide.

Scrubby moved by their plight begs the Reverend Thompson to change the rules this one time. But he seems unmoved.

All of a sudden, Henry hears the faint sound of breaking glass. He goes on deck to think things through and disappears. Ann is frantic searching for him on board. Then we see their apartment. A baseball has broken a glass window, air is allowed to enter and Henry and Ann are saved from death. They have been given a second chance.

This is such an unique film. I truly do urge you to see it if you ever get a chance.

6 comments:

  1. Wow, you are right. If this movie was made now, they would either turn it into a dumb comedy or make it too sentimental and over the top.

    You have convinced me to see this one. It helps that I love Sidney Greenstreet.

    Thank you for the recomendation. :-)

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  2. Ryan: This is such a special movie. If you can find it. I think the dvd is available, but not on Netflix. (I so wish it were!) Let me know when and if you're able to see this.

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  3. I agree with you that "Between Two Worlds" a good film. I couldn't stand Paul Henreid myself. Mainly due I think to the Victor Laszlo character. My opinion changed though soon as I saw him opposite Betty Davis in Now Voyager! Have you seen that one?
    Anyway main point was that Between Two Worlds though rare today is not so unique. Its actually a remake of Outward Bound starring Leslie Howard & Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Have you seen this older version?

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  4. Savonista: Hi, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

    I've seen NOW, VOYAGER but it didn't do much to change my opinion of Henreid. I'm just not a fan. :)

    I'll have to track down that OUTWARD BOUND film. Don't think I've ever heard of it. Thanks for the info.

    I love Leslie Howard, especially.

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  5. Hopng this Link is allowed because it takes you directly to the film:

    http://stagevu.com/video/myyeijhkfmyo

    Here are my comments on Stagevu.com:
    Everyone gets what they ask for with thought, word and deed. Everyone needs to see what they actually are, not what they think they are otherwise chaos would ensue. Theres no way out of here without seeing clearly however long its postponed or ignored. Reality is immutable and our free will is a path to heaven or hell (a myth of the mind) and it is entirely of our own making. Taking real responsibility for the gift of my life is so freeing, liberating. So there is a deep rewarding sense to this pantomime.
    A BEAUTIFUL AND PROFOUND ALLEGORY: The curriculum of life.
    Saw this on German public tv in 1998 and wrote detailed notes, captivated and spellbound as I was by the intense urgency in those in denial til the last hour. A jewel of a film imho. Anyone here with a classical education who knows which historic/clasical literature/philosophy form the skeleton of this film? Love to know. Orpheus? Enjoy.

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