Why it’s time for Carol Reed’s Berlin-set thriller The Man Between to come out of the shadow of The Third Man.
- Starring James Mason and Claire Bloom, the film captures many scenes of post-war Berlin.
The Man Between (1953)?
When reviewing Carol Reed’s postwar thrillers, it’s usual to dismiss The Man Between (1953) as the poor relation of Odd Man Out(1947) and The Third Man(1949).
Watching the newly released 2K restoration, however, a different impression emerges.
- The plot centers on a British woman’s (Claire Bloom) trip to Berlin to visit her doctor brother (Geoffrey Toone) and his German wife (Hildegard Neff), but she is waylaid by her involvement with a charming rogue (James Mason) and a plot to lure a pimpernelish agent into East Berlin.
- As he did with Dublin (Odd Man Out) and Vienna (The Third Man), Reed again demonstrates his genius for conveying the sinister side of an iconic city. But he also contrasts the complacency of the victor with the cynicism of the vanquished and, thus, captures the excruciating everyday reality of life in a country with a shameful past and a daunting future.
Here are five reasons to add it to your watchlist…
1. The European influence
Reed had been using expressionistic lighting and oblique camera angles to create an air of unease since Night Train to Munich (1940).
- But, rather than anticipating film noir, he was most likely emulating the 1930s French trend for poetic realism. It’s intriguing to note, for example, that when Mason and Bloom are hiding in prostitute Hilde Sessak’s bedsit they are framed in the window like Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan in Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938).
- Elsewhere, the presence of 12-year-old Dieter Krause as Mason’s bicycling lookout allowed Reed to recall similarly lost boys in Italian neorealist films such as Paisà (1946), Germany Year Zero (1948) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), as well as Ivan Jandl in the Germany-set Hollywood film The Search (1948). But Reed was most indebted to Trümmerfilme (or ‘rubble films’) like Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are among Us (1946), in which Neff had played a concentration camp survivor.
- Cinema in the rubble: movies made in the ruins of postwar Germany
2. Shades of Graham Greene
Although Reed collaborated with Graham Greene on The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man and Our Man in Havana(1959), the novelist was a reluctant screenwriter and expressed no interest in adapting Susanne in Berlin, which pulp writer Walter Ebert had penned under the pseudonym, Lothar Schuler.
- However, Reed and co-producer Alexander Korda were unimpressed by the draft submitted by Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, and, after what had proved to be an unsatisfactory location shoot, Reed was forced to hire the versatile Eric Linklater to polish the script for the Shepperton studio scenes.
- He also consulted Greene and clearly borrowed the idea of the boy betraying his father figure from ‘The Basement Room’ (the short story source for The Fallen Idol) and Bloom’s kidnap from the original treatment of The Third Man that formed the basis of the 1950 novella.
3. Ruins, shadows, and snow
Deprived of the services of German-trained cinematographer Robert Krasker, Reed turned to Desmond Dickinson, whose experience shooting wartime documentaries enabled him to contrast the reconstruction of Berlin’s commercial center with the devastation that still existed around the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.
- Abetted by the expressive authenticity of André Andrejew’s interiors, Dickinson was able to achieve Reed’s patented brand of noirish neorealism that made the divided city as central a character as Vienna had been in The Third Man.
- Exploiting the blanket of snow coating the ruins, Reed demonstrated the difficulty of keeping secrets amid the demoralization and mistrust that undermined the optimism implied by the floodlit building site in which Mason and Bloom take refuge.
4. The estimable German ensemble cast
All but three of the credited cast were German. The initial focus falls on Hildegard Neff, the poised sister-in-law whose increasingly erratic behavior convinces Bloom she’s having an affair with the mysterious Mason.
- But the truth is much more complicated and the manner in which Neff slips from being haughty to haunted poignantly encapsulates the pain many ordinary Germans endured after the collapse of the Third Reich.
- By contrast, gangster Aribert Wäscher resembles Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca (1942) in seeking to exploit the chaos of conflict for his own ends, unlike the selfless Ernst Schröder, who risks himself to save Bloom after she is abducted instead of Neff.
5. An atmospheric chase sequence… with added eroticism
The final third is dominated by a trademark Reedian chase through the eastern sector after Mason and Bloom give Waescher the slip at the opera. Reed makes evocative use of the rain-glistened streets, the bustling train station and the illuminated construction site. He even perches Mason on a high ledge with enemy agents milling below.
- But the real fascination lies in the flirtatious exchange between the fugitives on Sessak’s bed. Indifferent to Mason’s (mis)deeds as a soldier and a criminal, Bloom makes her attraction plain while complaining of cold feet.
- Her coquettish come-on contrasts with his effort to summon the depleted decency that mirrors the tragic romanticism of Jean Gabin’s doomed antiheroes.
- The scene crackles with sly wit, moral ambiguity, and sexual tension.
Author’s Note: While still in school, I met James Mason on the set of North By Northwest, where my uncle was MGM supervising Set Decorator and was Oscar-nominated for Alfred Hitchcock’s superb thriller. I had the chance to briefly discuss with Mr. Mason as an eager young filmmaker, The Man Between. He told me filming in the ruins of Berlin was chilling and stayed with him as a testament to the horrors of war.
The film is available on the following streaming services: