Friday, 10 August 2018

Between Two Worlds (1944)

I've gone right back in time for this one, a Warner Bros. feature made during World War 2, and with a distinctly wartime vibe. Check out the trailer above - it is of its period, rather wonderfully so.

Between Two Worlds begins in the offices of the Great White Shipping Line (a made-up name that now seems slightly unfortunate). A quick establishing sequence makes it clear that this is a contemporary story, with a tannoy announcement warning passengers to obey orders. Posters highlighting the danger of spies and traitors are conspicuous, and no destinations are listed publicly.

A motley assortment of passengers are waiting to be taken to their liner by car. An unpleasant businessman, Lingley, tries to boss an official around, only to be told to shut up and sit down. A journalist, Prior, cracks wise with an actress, Maxine Russell. A posh, elderly couple, an American merchant sailor, an older Irish woman, and a parish priest are also waiting. Meanwhile, at the desk, Henry is failing to get a permit to join the liner. Henry (Paul Henreid) leaves in despair. The clerks chat reveals that Henry, a peacetime concert pianist, has been wounded in action and can no longer play...

The car arrives for the passengers just as Henry's wife Ann arrives, frantically searching for him. She assumes he is on his way to the liner and tries to get into the car, but Lingley shoves her away. Seconds later the car is hit by a bomb. Ann returns to Henry's flat to find that he is set on suicide, by gas. The lovers collapse in one another's arms - and find themselves on board a mystery liner with the passengers who were killed earlier. And thus the scene is set.

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Steward Scrubby (Edward Gwenn) and the rich bastard Lingley (George Colouris)
Henry and Ann realise that they are all dead, but Scrubby the amiable steward urges them not to tell the others. At first the passengers behave normally, but all realise at some level that things have changed. Then Prior the drunken reporter (John Garfield) overhears Henry and Ann talking and reveals all the to the rest. This is a pleasant enough sequence, though the movie often betrays its origins as a play and Prior is one of those wisecracking cynics I never really take to. 

By the halfway mark the true purpose of the voyage is revealed - the destination is heaven or hell, each outcome carefully tailored to the individual. The Examiner will come aboard to pass judgement on everyone. Sydney Greenstreet duly arrives in a white suit, looking a bit Chestertonian (as in The Man Who Was Thursday) and delivering lines that are a bit J.B. Priestley. One by one the characters are judged, with various degrees of dramatic success. 

First up is Lingley, who condemns himself at once by trying to bully and/or bribe his way out of trouble. The treatment of Lingley the self-made tycoon is most telling, and helps explain why voters opted so strongly for Labour in 1945. The point is hammered home that there are no class distinctions on this ship, and that Lingley's profit-driven ways are 'organised thuggery' deserving no praise. The profiteer is sent to his own hell of selfish futility.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the judgement of Maxine the 'loose woman'. It may not be accidental that in passing his verdict on her Greenstreet delivers the one unclear line of the movie - 'You have muddied yourself, my child'. The condemnation of a woman who did not know her place by prissy 1944 standards is hard to take. The way in which Maxine dresses in a modest black outfit and talks about her childhood innocence is guaranteed to raise hackles, and rightly so. The rich socialite gets similar treatment, sent to a personal hell for adultery. This makes Greenstreet's status as a former clergyman even harder to take - many of us would deny religious leaders have any special right to judge anyone.

Even more difficult is the treatment of suicide. Like Priestley in Dangerous Corner playwright Sutton Vane condemns 'self-murder' - it emerges that Scrubby is condemned to serve forever on the ship because he took his own life. By contrast the treatment of boozy hack Prior seems benign and offers a clever, if sentimental, twist. Equally good is the verdict on jovial regular guy Musick, who only wants to go home to the wife, and the baby he has not even seen. The Examiner points out that the deaths of good people, however unfair it seems, is inevitable given the greater struggle against evil. 

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Henry, Ann, and PeteMusick (George Tobias)

All in all I enjoyed this movie far more than I expected. Yes, it is stagey, wordy, and dubious in its treatment of women. The latter hints at the post-war backlash against women in the workplace and much else besides. But it is also a prime example of how a good ensemble cast and solid direction can overcome the limitations of studio-bound productions under wartime restrictions. There's a lot to enjoy here, and a great deal to think about. I have only scratched the surface in this review. 


Tina Rath said...

Ah yes, the original play was 'Outward Bound' referenced in 'The Dresser':
" We’d been together in Outward Bound,the Number Three tour, helped with wardrobe I did, understudied Scrubby, the steward. That’s all aboard a ship, you know. Lovely first act. “We’re all dead, aren’t we?” And I say, “Yes, Sir, we’re all dead. Quite
dead.” And he says, “How long have you been – you been– oh you know?” “Me, Sir? Oh, I was lost young.” And he says, “Where – where are we sailing for?” And I say, “Heaven, Sir. And hell, too. It’s the same place, you see.” Lovely."
When I was (much) younger I would frequently run into someone who'd played Scrubby in some tour. 'Lovely.'

Tina Rath said...