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The Forgotten: Europe After the Rain

A naive young girl falls into the schemes of her sister-in-law's previous husband, long thought dead, in post-war Berlin.
The Man Between

"What a pity that one ever has to come out of doors. Inside, with the curtains closed, it's possible to forget the present, turn your back to the future and face the past with hope and confidence."

The familiar post-war Berlin ruins—hollowed-out buildings like melting fudge dripping up into the sky. But what makes the shot is the tiny foreground pair, man and boy, setting off the desolation with a spark of humanity. Life goes on, but interrupted: for the man walks very slowly, a grandfather not a father. There's a whole missing generation in between.

A shot like this displays the artistry of Carol Reed in a film that's not quite able to contain it. The Man Between (1952) is all too self-consciously an attempt to re-bottle the lightning of Odd Man Out and The Third Man, the first of a series of attempts in this line: Our Man in Havana and The Running Man would follow.

The Man Between

This outing lacks Graham Greene to transmute thriller mechanics into sardonic wit, romance and morality play, and the substitution of pre-Wall Berlin for Vienna is an insufficient alteration to freshen the formula. When the protagonist arrives at the airport in scene one and her brother isn't there to meet her, it seems a rather too dutiful duplication of Joseph Cotten's train disembarkation in The Third Man.

The innocent abroad is Claire Bloom, and James Mason plays a mysterious stranger, saddled with an unsustainable German accent, and there's Hildegarde Neff shooting meaningful glances and with an anxious smile that's too quick to fade... Alas, asides from these three, the film lacks colorful characters of the kind who enlivened the earlier Mittel-European noir. But before the story comes out and declares itself, there plenty of mysterioso signs and portents to intrigue: a small boy on a bike spies on everything; the film is full of wide, youthful eyes, either his or Bloom's, peering from behind door jambs, and the counter-shot, a slow, creeping POV winding past obstacles to see what occluded schemer lies behind them...

The Man Between

"First, I wanted the ruins, which are mainly in the Russian zone. Secondly, I hoped to convey something that is not visual, the jittery feeling that pervades the area. I wanted our actors to feel it. They did."

—Carol Reed, quoted in Nicholas Wapshott's biography.

So atmosphere, including even some sinister canted angles in The Third Man's manner, predominates. Mason can do this in his sleep: his early Brit films cast him as villains undone by a fatal dash of decency in their character: depraved nobles and romantically rapey highwaymen. This post-war variation is more authentic, more tainted by real-world malaise, seeping into the movie from the real streets and remains of streets. The plot plods, and abrupt gear-shifts between the perspective of the innocent girl and the mysterious intriguer create an awkwardness altogether avoided in Reed's conspiratorial classics.

The Man Between

The real model for Reed's best work may be The Fallen Idol, which somehow presents its entire narrative from two perspectives at once, that of the innocent and that of the schemer: the audience sees all and shares its sympathies with both halves. Reed bemoaned the lack of humor in The Man Between, but perhaps there simply aren't many opportunities for irony when we're forever tied to one POV or the other. Still, last-minute re-writing sneaks some wit in: when Bloom invites Mason to England, the former German soldier muses "I nearly did visit England once. Our plans were changed."

If the narrative doesn't grip, the central relationship still has legs (Bloom would return to Berlin after the wall went up and the stakes were raised, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, perhaps her best film and performance) and Mason is moving as a man caught between East and West, good and evil, life and death. The final stretch, a headlong descent into the battle-torn city of dreadful night, benefits from Reed's genuine feeling for stripped and shattered architecture, blasted structures inexplicably floodlit, nocturnal denizens of ragged appearance and uncertain motives, on tilted thoroughfares slip-sliding towards consuming darkness.

The Man Between

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.  

Hold on a tic. Did you just suggest that Our Man in Havana is also too self-conscious or doesn’t quite work? Aw, I hope not, I really think Our Man is pretty great. A little more directly comedic at first, but gets sufficiently bleak and properly cynical by the end. Of course as it is difficult for me to imagine Alec Guiness, Ernie Kovacs, or Burl Ives doing too much wrong on screen, I just might be a little biased. Oh, aside from that, another swell article on a movie I feel bad about not having seen. You’re almost too damn dependable in that…
No, that one’s very good. It just got lumped in there as an example of Reed trying to recapture past glories with films with “Man” in the title. But it benefits from a tone that’s quite a departure from earlier works. I’d say it’s his best late film that I’ve seen. Oh, just watched The Key, which had a lot of interesting stuff, a stronger ending would have raised it to a new level.
Ah, that is another of his films I’ve yet to see. I wish someone would make more of his films available here in the US as all of them I’ve seen are at least interesting, and usually something a bit more than that. I was caught off-guard by A Kid for Two Farthings, for example, not a great film perhaps, but it really had a lovely atmosphere and wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It seemed strangely unEnglish and slightly ahead of its time somehow.
That is an odd one. Wolf Mankiewicz brought a lovely Eastern European Jewish feeling to his work, when permitted to do so.
Hildegard Knef distinguished her scenes with a personal sadness that resonated.
She’s pretty excellent. Apparently Diane Kruger used her as a role model for Inglourious Basterds, for whatever that’s worth.
I finally had the opportunity to see this recently, someone I knew had pulled a showing from TCM. It doesn’t engage the way The Third Man and Odd Man Out does, there’s a flow and vitality in the two earlier films that The Man Between lacks. Still, I found much to like about it. Hildegard Knef didn’t have a whole lot to do here, but for those who are interested The Murderers Are Among Us, made in war-torn Germany just after WWII, contains one of her finest screen performances. A film with a very noirish look and feel, one that few people know or have seen. I recommend it.
The Murderers Are Among Us was the first film to address German’s war guilt, and is a hugely significant movie for that reason. It’s also very powerful and strikingly made in the noir style.

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