Having successfully treated audiences to the story of an innocent abroad in a war ravaged European city in The Third Man, director Carol Reed attempted to recapture some of that magic four years later with The Man Between (1953). That he didn’t quite manage to do so shouldn’t be seen as too harsh a criticism; while this film never achieves the consistency of style or suspense of his earlier work it still rates as a very fine movie.
Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) arrives in a devastated post-war Berlin to visit her brother Martin, a British army officer, and his new German wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Right from the beginning there is a sense that something is not quite right in this relationship, although the overworked husband appears blissfully unaware of any problems. With Bettina receiving mysterious telephone calls and messages Susanne’s suspicions are aroused. When the two women take in a visit to the Eastern zone (this was in the days before the wall went up), and just happen to run into an old acquaintance of Bettina’s, Susanne becomes convinced that her sister in law is having an affair. Ivo Kern (James Mason) is a charming yet ambiguous figure who has emerged from Bettina’s past and threatens to sabotage her future. However, despite early indications, the story is not some hackneyed love triangle with Ivo as the man between Bettina and her husband. That somewhat slow and predictable build-up is swept aside when the altogether more stylish second half of the film reveals itself to be a tense Cold War thriller that had merely been lurking in the shadows. As we learn who and what Ivo really is the movie develops into a cat and mouse chase through a bleak and menacing East Berlin.
Carol Reed had just made two bona fide masterpieces in Odd Man Out and The Third Man prior to The Man Between. The fact that this film featured the star of the former and a theme and setting similar to the latter often lead to its being judged more harshly than might normally be the case. Placed next to those two great works it does pale, but then most movies would. However, taken on its own terms, this film has much to recommend it. All the way through there is the distinctive visual style of Reed – tilted angles and deep shadow. The second half in particular takes the viewer on a tour of the city at night, a dark, dangerous place where friends are few and those deceptively close border crossings are always just out of reach. What saves the film from growing moribund in the first half, and adds to the tension and poignancy of the second half, are the performances of the two leads. Mason was a pastmaster at playing flawed and tarnished heroes, and his Ivo Kern is a fine creation. He is a man caught between past and present, East and West, self interest and honour. Claire Bloom, in a very early role, takes a character who starts out as a portrait of middle class primness and gradually develops her into a young woman on the cusp of maturity, learning bit by bit that her preconceptions about both herself and the world around her might not be as clear cut as they first appear. I’d also like to give a mention to the frankly excellent score by John Addison; it has a melancholy romanticism that lingers long in the memory.
If you’re looking to find The Man Between on DVD there are two choices available at the moment. I have the German edition from Kinowelt and it provides a very good transfer with optional subs that are removable via the main menu. The print is in fine condition with good contrast and blacks and no noticeable damage. The film is presented in Academy ratio and, although I’m certainly no expert on such matters, that looks correct to me. I mention this because the other option is the edition available in the UK from Optimum in their James Mason Icons set. While I don’t own that disc I do know that it presents the film in widescreen format, and I’m not convinced that that’s how it should be seen. It is notoriously difficult to pin down the correct aspect ratio for British films of this vintage as the UK wasn’t quite up to speed with the US in adopting widescreen. Apart from that, the framing on the German DVD just looks right, with no apparent cropping at the sides and no extraneous space at the top or bottom. Looked at in context, The Man Between is lesser Reed but, if you can put aside comparisons with his more celebrated works, it still makes for entertaining and rewarding viewing.