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Sutton Vane's Outward Bound is a fantasy stage play about a group of people on a mysterious ocean voyage, who only slowly realize that they're really on their way to judgment in the next world. It was adapted for the screen in 1930, to become an early example of the film blanc fantasy subgenre. That picture marked the screen debut of actor Leslie Howard, who had also played in the stage version. The play was revived on Broadway in 1938, directed by Otto Preminger, and finally remade in 1944 as the film Between Two Worlds, updated to the height of the London Blitz.
It should be mentioned that wartime audiences were accustomed to afterlife stories that weren't exactly Sunday-school reverent: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Cabin in the Sky. Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait disposed of 'holy-holy' attitudes with a framing story set in a reception office in Hell. When an irritating woman enters demanding special treatment, The Devil dispatches her to a fiery pit by opening a trap door at her feet. The original Sutton Vane play needed work to avoid being laughed off the screen by 1944's less poetically inclined audiences.Writer Daniel Fuchs roughed up some of the dialogue so as to better accommodate actors like John Garfield, one of Warners' most popular tough guys of the time.
As air raids threaten London a group of passengers are America-bound on a steamship. They're quickly established as to type: the cynical newsman Tom Prior (Garfield), aggressive actress Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson), merchant marine Peter Musick (George Tobias), the insufferably snobby socialite Genevieve Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom), her quiet husband Benjamin (Gilbert Emery), optimistic Reverend Duke (Dennis King), sweet working class woman Mrs. Midget (Sara Allgood) and the haughty industrialst & war profiteer Mr Lingley (George Coulouris). Also on board are Henry and Ann Bergner (Paul Henreid & Eleanor Parker), European refugees that carried out a suicide pact because they were refused passage. The Bergners soon figure out what's going on: everyone on board is dead, and the ship is taking them to the afterlife. The only crewmember is a kindly bartender, Scrubby (Edmund Gwenn), who tries his best to keep the passengers pleasantly ignorant of their situation. But the Bergners spill the beans, leading to outbursts of protest and denial. All Scrubby will tell them is that a mysterious man known as "The Examiner" will be coming on board, and each of the passengers must meet him in turn.
Between Two Worlds presents an old fashioned and moralistic afterlife fantasy, and its schematic collection of humans are easily sorted into those heaven-bound and those going you-know-where. The original play is said to enforce an ethereal mood, with characters apt to break out into 'meaningful' soliloquies at any moment. It's not difficult to picture an anemic Leslie Howard prattling wistful poetry about the human spirit. As described, the first film version may now seem a dated if interesting fossil, like Death Takes a Holiday with its precious speeches and heavy-breathing spirituality.
Between Two Worlds lends some of the characters thoroughly modern cynical attitudes. Tom Prior thinks everything about people is rotten, and takes it in stride when the greedy actress wanna-be Maxine turns down his marriage proposal. Social harpy Genevieve rolls her eyes as she patronizes the lower-class Mrs. Midget and the working-stiff Pete Musik, who in turn behave so submissively that they would seem to invite the snub. The Reverend appears to be on board to assure us that Christian values haven't been left behind -- we aren't sailing to a Buddhist heaven -- while the nasty Mr. Lingley is a knave on all counts. He's using the war to make money, he has enough enemies to need armed bodyguards and he proposes to buy Maxine's hand in marriage as a cold business deal. For her part, Maxine seems perfectly willing to go along, as Lingley possesses the connections that can secure a theatrical career.
Between Two Worlds generates considerable interest, if only to find out how it can possibly conclude ... will the passengers arrive at a cosmic junction, with an elevator that goes up and a chute that goes down? In terms of style, director Edward A. Blatt keeps things rather flat for a movie about a ghost ship cruising through an unusually cloudy outer space. Blatt was dialogue director on a number of big Warners efforts, including two recent Paul Henried pictures that may have provided the connection that allowed him to jump to the director's chair. With much of the play's wistful mood thrown out, the film falls back on a beautiful music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which provides all the ethereal atmosphere one could hope for. The underscore flatters the sometimes overplayed dramatic scenes. The delicate main theme peeks through at carefully chosen moments, such as whenever anyone mentions the coming of The Examiner.
The whole point of the story is that human fate is pre-ordained by a Christian cosmos. Some films blanc become offensive when they limit salvation to a certain race or even nationality. The highly popular but conceptually rancid A Guy Named Joe imagines heaven as an extension of the Allied War effort, with nobody from enemy countries allowed. The lack of a social conscience usually doesn't do damage because the average film blanc is too simplistic to deal with such things anyway. Their whimsical escapism proposes an afterlife of harmony and order away from real-life injustice and political discord.(spoilers from here on out)
We're not at all surprised when The Examiner (Sidney Greenstreet) turns out to be an ex-clergyman. Judgment is conducted by the men (apparently Protestants) we should have been seeing every Sunday. Every passenger receives a personal hearing (and a showcase acting moment) with the portly emissary in the white suit. The first thing The Examiner does is to give the Reverend Duke a free pass. Mr. Lingley predictably tries to take control of the proceedings the way he would a company boardroom. Oddly, although The Examiner prepares for private interviews, most passengers barge in before they're called demanding or pleading to be heard right away. The Examiner listens to the "nice" people with kindly eyes, but gives the sinners the withering Greenstreet glare reserved for his bad-guy roles in Warners thrillers. The outcomes are fairly predictable, except when special wishes are granted to the most deserving humans. We aren't supposed to mind that the 'goody-goods' are all docile and submissive types. The redeemable people we like (Garfield's cynic; Emerson's misguided gold digger) look as if they're in for a period of atonement.
Sidestepping any resemblance to actual Bible predictions, Between Two Worlds preaches that when we puny Earthlings die, we'll just go on as we did before ... that we make our own Heaven and Hell on Earth. That plan sounds okay, but the film doesn't bear it out. Revealed as a scheming monster, Genevieve seems bound for some kind of unpleasant castle where she'll be forced to live in isolation. Mr. Moneybags Lingley shouts and protests before caving in and slinking off to some undisclosed fate. Sure, he's a jerk, but how does Heaven discriminate between him and a 'righteous' citizen that has the same proclivities but not the opportunities Lingley had? And for that matter, what exact function does The Examiner perform, besides encouraging the passengers to make emotional speeches? The only purpose for the examination seems to be to demonstrate that guys with backwards collars are in charge. It's a bit like a totalitarian show trial, where the guilty are encouraged to confess before their crimes are discussed.
Screenwriter Daniel Fuchs would later work a different kind of ironic Fate into his excellent screenplays for films noir, such as Criss Cross. But even he couldn't do much with the play's theme of suicide, one of those thorny real-world issues normally disapproved by the Production Code. In 1944 suicide was simply not allowed to happen to 'nice' characters in movies. Henry and Ann Bergner spend most of Between Two Worlds hugging each other, only to discover that the rules will separate them forever. (special spoiler) We also discover that the lovable crew bartender Scrubby is spending eternity shuttling souls to the next world because he is guilty of the same crime that Henry and Ann have committed. The Examiner simply turns his back on the pair and leaves them behind on the lonely, fog-bound ghost ship. But Between Two Worlds quickly concocts a workaround for the suicide taboo, one that provides the needed happy ending.
The movie feels like a filmed play, which accounts for the theatrical pitch to most of the performances. Isobel Elsom, Sara Allgood, Faye Emerson and especially Edmund Gwenn excel in this context, with their little standout speeches that might as well be performed under a spotlight on an empty stage. George Coulouris and Sydney Greenstreet do their usual characters without much effort, while John Garfield must push himself a bit too strongly to make Tom Prior stand out. Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker's loving couple express well the fear that they're already in limbo.
Between Two Worlds begins with an alarmingly violent scene that works against the play's concept. Most of what I've written above is not a spoiler because the audience is let in on the purpose of the ghost ship from nearly the beginning of the show. I would hope that the original play and movie found a way to hide these things so that they could be revealed to the characters and the audience at the same time. If one loosens one's cynical defenses a notch or two, some passages in this odd story can be very compelling.
Between Two Worlds is a fascinating look at a popular fantasy from an earlier era. Today we have many 'big concept' fantasies that try (and mostly fail) to fool the audience with hoary narrative tricks seemingly escaped from old episodes of The Twilight Zone. Writer-Director M. Night Shyamalan pulled off one such shaggy dog story ("I see dead people") but fell on his face with a series of ever-more laughable Big Concept thrillers. It's high time for somebody to sweep away these pretenders and make another ethereal Film Blanc masterpiece. The last one I can recall is Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Between Two Worlds looks and sounds fine. The picture is sharp in the interior scenes, and somewhat less so on the deck of the boat, where heavy fog and diffusion filters were used to soften the image. On video, these scenes sometimes translate as a bit grainy. Classic film score fans will be happy to know that the Korngold score is strongly represented. The music is so pleasant that I'll probably run the disc while working, just to have that score in the background.
An original trailer plays up the mysterioso aspect of the story, making the movie look like a horror item, or something titled Ship of Very Agitated People.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Between Two Worlds rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.