Directed and produced by Carol Reed
The Man Between has certain similarities (aside from ‘man’ being in all the titles) to director Reed’s other, better known, films The Third Man and Odd Man Out. James Mason plays the male lead in the latter, and former takes place in a divided city at the beginnings of the Cold War, as does The Man Between. But unlike its older sibling, The Man Between goes farther into the tense confrontation between the free West and the Communist east, and the latent battle between the two forces is more prominent.
The plot concerns a young woman (Claire Bloom) visiting her brother (Geoffrey Toone), a British Army doctor, and his wife (Hildegard Knef), who live in Berlin. It’s her first time in the city, now split in two, but not yet sliced by the notorious wall, which would be built ten years later. People - refugees, officials, criminals and spies - cross the border with enough facility to make a journey easy, and with enough scrutiny to make it exciting. Bloom meets Mason, a German with a shady past who is somehow connected to her sister-in-law, and who would become involved much more with Bloom herself.
I can see why The Man Between is not as popular as the other Reed movies mentioned. It is not based on a famous novel, the story is not straightforward, even the atmosphere veers somewhat from thriller to crime-story to light-hearted adventure. But there is much to recommend it.
Firstly, Mason and Bloom’s performances are excellent, and the two of them have chemistry that works. Mason, in keeping with his looks, plays a dark, cynical man who has seen much and given up much, too much, he thinks, to worry about ‘western luxuries’ such as hope and compassion. His explanation for his current shady dealings is simple and thought-provoking: a new lawyer when the Nazis took power, he watched legality and justice disappear virtually over-night, and saw little point in observing dead letters. He represents the Germans who simply went along with the flow and did as they were told. His contempt for the excuse that he was ‘following orders’ shows how worthless such reasoning is, and how many people accept it.
Bloom is young and innocent, but is certainly no fool. The trouble she finds herself in is not of her making, and she sees through others’ schemes without much difficulty - though this doesn’t always help her. Nor is she naive: she doesn’t trust for no reason. The fact that neither her character nor Mason’s is two-dimensional creates good interaction between the pair, and makes their mutual attraction credible.
While the story’s feel is rather inconsistent, the inconsistency does follow the events, which can take a sudden turn toward fearsome as much as toward comedy (in the way real-life can be funny, rather than in a cinematic manner). The use of post-war Berlin as a setting is skillful, the city and its times becoming more of a character than is Vienna in The Third Man, I would venture. It’s interesting that official cloak-and-dagger is on the tale’s periphery; the action depends upon low-level criminals and loners, playing their own games. Aribert Wäscher plays a local gangster who is uncomfortably caught up in the mesh of east-west intrigue as much as is Bloom and Mason. Ernst Schröder is a smuggler, working for the west but on his own terms. In the twilight world of thievery, espionage and black marketeering that thrives in a half-ruined society, these characters, settings and actions strike me as more personal and believable than government spies vying for Earth-shaking stakes.
The Man Between is what many would probably think of as an ‘unknown gem’ or a ‘happy discovery’: a film over-shadowed by more famous works, skillfully directed and acted, though flawed in comparison to other films. But it stands on its own as an example of parts working together to create, if not a superb whole, then certainly a satisfying one.