Director-producer Carol Reed's The Man Between (1953) seems to be up to something similar, in this case vainly trying to repeat his earlier success with The Third Man (1949), one of the greatest movies of all-time. That thriller moodily captured the dangerous tensions of early postwar Vienna, with its multinational presence of occupiers and delineated zones. Its hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), was a na´ve American who stumbles into a plot involving murderous black marketeers, getting in way over his head. In The Man Between, Claire Bloom plays a similarly na´ve young English woman in postwar Berlin who blunders upon a kidnapping ring smuggling victims from West to East in those pre-Wall days.
As with Passage to Marseilles, The Man Between looks great and has many fine aspects, but overall doesn't remotely measure up, even though the cinematography and Reed's use of Berlin's streets is at times nearly identical to his look for Vienna in The Third Man. It's just not a very good movie.
The picture starts well, with Susanne Mallison (Bloom, then just 21 years old) flying into Berlin to visit her older brother, Martin (Geoffrey Toone), an army officer overseeing the massive refugee problem. Too busy to meet Susanne at the airport, Martin's German wife, Bettina (Hildegard Knef), greets her instead. (Knef at this point in her career resembled a young Ginger Rogers.)
The intriguing first act is told from Susanne's point-of-view, she gradually aware of Bettina's troubled mood and strange behavior: receiving a cryptic telephone call, a middle-of-the-night message passed to Bettina by a boy on a bicycle who always seems nearby, more mood shifts and strange behavior at a nightclub, surreptitiously observed by Susanne in a mirror. Susanne gets to know Bettina's friend Ivo Kern (James Mason), who shows her around the city, both East and West. He acts suspiciously, too, at times, especially when he bumps into a man named Halendar (Aribert Wńscher). Later on another German, Olaf Kestner (Ernst Schr÷der) figures into the story. Despite the growing danger and Kern's myriad deceptions, Susanne can't help but fall in love with him.
In The Third Man, one of the many roadblocks inhibiting Martins's efforts to find out what happened to his old friend Harry Lime is that he spoke no German, and in the movie there's lots of German dialogue that goes untranslated, forcing the viewer to pay close attention. In The Man Between, not only does emphatically English actor Mason speak English with an German accent (the other German characters are all played by Germans), in scenes where only Germans are around they often speak English also. This isn't believable, nor does Mason ever once convince us that he's German and not English. While Mason had played Rommel in the Fox hit The Desert Fox (1951), I don't recall if he affected a German accent for that or not. Regardless, here his accent isn't convincing, try as he might.
The other big suspension of disbelief Reed can't quite pull off is Susanne's behavior, which seems extraordinarily foolhardy throughout, and often quite unbelievable. In The Third Man, Holly Martins's behavior is driven by the fact that a) he's broke, b) his old chum who'd promised him a job has died under increasingly suspicious circumstances, and c) he's already rather despondent and aimless when the story begins. He's also middle-aged, and though na´ve old enough to understand that risks he takes. In The Man Between, Susanne doesn't inform her husband of Bettina's strange behavior until it's too late, and socializes with Ivor and other characters even after she realizes they're lying to her about all kinds of things, and possibly involved in dangerous stuff. She's barely in her twenties, can't speak a lick of German, and seems never have traveled abroad before in her life.
Reed, Mason, and others seemed well aware of the script's problems, the director rewriting some of it during production, while there's also evidence of postproduction tinkering. Where it tries to compensate is the picture's excellent location photography of Berlin, with entire city blocks still little more than enormous piles of rubble, Susanne's brother living in a damaged large house, the lone survivor of their block. Scenes set in East Berlin were presumably recreated in the West, with communist signage everywhere, including a huge poster of Stalin several storeys high that gets reused several times in the picture. (To no avail, as it turns out; Stalin was dead by the time the movie came out.)
There's a long, protracted chase that consumes the last half-hour or so of the picture, an attempt to top the sewer-chase climax in The Third Man. In goes on far too long, but is visually impressive with interesting locations and situations, but also too imitative with lighting and oblique camera angles straight out of The Third Man.
Video & Audio
Licensed from the British Film Institute, The Man Between is presented in black-and-white and its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The image looks great throughout, even traveling matte shots and other optical effects look good. The mono audio is supported by optional English subtitles and the disc is Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include an audio commentary track by film critic Simon Abrams; an interview with Claire Bloom running 10 minutes; a 1967 interview with James Mason running 40 minutes; a nearly 45-minute documentary on Carol Reed called "The Gentle Eye"; and a trailer.
Disappointing but still visually impressive, The Man Between falls short but is still Recommended.