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The Man Between
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The Man Between

The cold war proved such a hot setting for Carol Reed's brilliant continental thriller The Third Man (1949) that he made a return visit to the territory in The Man Between (1953). Instead of a Vienna carved up by the Allies, this film takes us to Berlin of the early fifties, a city divided into West and Soviet-controlled East Berlin with checkpoints and security stations. Our introduction to this post-World War II Berlin is much like that of our heroine, Susanne (Claire Bloom), a decisive young British woman who flies to Germany to visit her brother, Martin (Geoffrey Toone), and his German wife, Bettina (Hildegarde Neff). Susanne is whisked from the international modernity of the airport to the quaint beauty of old Berlin, a tourist vision of Bavarian charm that Susanne finds enchanting. It's Bettina's way of showing this impressionable young woman the best of her home before taking her to the reality of the rest of the war-ravaged city.

From the opening scenes, Reed establishes a tension: strangers ominously eye their movements through the airport and a young boy on a bicycle, an otherwise unobtrusive figure of innocence playing in the streets, tails their taxi and makes lazy figure-eights outside their home, a lone building jutting out of the rubble and ruins of their sector of the city. Bettina is nervous and agitated and a night on the town does nothing to ease her disposition; she slips out for a surreptitious meeting that only jangles her nerves more. Susanne finally sees the mystery man on a day trip to East Berlin. As they settle in for tea at a café, the figure (guided by the boy on a bicycle, keeping up his dogged surveillance) steps into the room and over to their table like an old friend. James Mason is the smoothly shady and romantically sinister Ivo Kern, an acquaintance - and surely much more - of Bettina. Susanne is instantly fascinated and an odd kind of courtship begins between the impressionable but headstrong young woman and the older man with an ulterior motive, one that inevitably draws her into the political intrigue of citizens fleeing the East for the West and the espionage by agents no better than mercenary thugs attempting to staunch the flow. "He's not the government and neither am I," the weary skeptic Ivo confesses to Bettina after she's snatched from the streets of West Berlin by an East German agent. "He's just a gangster trying to get what he can."

Mason had starred in Reed's Odd Man Out (1947), playing an Irish nationalist in one of Reed's greatest critical triumphs, but was no stranger to taking on German characters. He played Field Marshall Erwin Rommel twice on screen and plays shady East Berlin agent Ivo Kern with a dancing lilt that is more intriguing than convincing. Claire Bloom was a pretty and talented young stage actress relatively new to the screen (her breakthrough role in Chaplin's Limelight (1952, was yet to be seen) when Reed cast her as the impressionable romantic lead, and Hildegarde Neff was a veteran of the stage and screen with a career that straddled Germany and Hollywood. The rest of the film was cast locally on location where possible.

Shooting on location in Berlin, Reed makes evocative use of the city. The despair of the defeated nation is felt in every bombed-out cityscape and chilly street scene, and the bustle of West Berlin's downtown is shown in sharp contrast to the shuffling citizens and empty public spaces of East Berlin. Reed was unable to shoot in the Eastern sectors but found effective stand-ins on the western side close to the border, which he dressed up with banners of Stalin and actors in East German uniforms. An escape from East German agents and the border cops takes Susanne and Ivo into a construction site at night, where the skeleton frame lit by stark spotlights creates a shadowy web of light and shadow through which they duck and scurry. Reed also gave the film distinctive character by working memorable Berlin landmarks into The Man Between. A night on the town takes them to the Resi Restaurant, where a system of telephones at every table invites patrons to call one another across the room. It becomes an effective way for black market operators and agents to make connections.

Unfortunately, Reed is hampered by an uneven script. The wit and wile of Graham Greene filled The Third Man with vivid characters and dramatic turns. For The Man Between, based on the novel Susanne in Berlin by Lothar Schuler (a nom de plume for Walter Ebert), Reed and producer Alexander Korda turned to Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, a screenwriter of such light fare as The Inspector General (1949) and a couple of Thin Man sequels. Reed found the collaboration trying at best. He was unable to work on the script directly with the writer (as he had with Greene) and, constrained by time and budget and actors' schedules, was forced to begin production with a first draft he found unsatisfactory. Kurnitz rewrote as the production traveled to Berlin for the location shooting. Budget cuts only made the tensions greater while Reed insisted on shooting all the location footage himself. According to Reed biographer Nicholas Wapshott, Reed was "haggard, harassed and tired" by the time his stars, James Mason and Claire Bloom, arrived for their scenes. Upon returning to Britain for the studio scenes, Kurnitz made himself unavailable and Reed turned to Graham Greene and a young British playwright named Janet Green for advice. They were forthright in their criticism of Kurnitz's script ("The whole business of spying by means of one bicycle ridden by a boy seems to be too childish and fantastic," wrote Greene in a note to Reed) and Reed finally hired a script doctor to rewrite what he could salvage.

The Man Between was inevitably compared to The Third Man and it suffered in the comparison, due in large part to the convoluted plotting and pedestrian dialogue. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther complained: "If this is nothing like the picture that The Third Man or Odd Man Out was, it occasionally gives a vain illusion of being as formidable as either of those films." Reed himself was sanguine about the production. "It wasn't a particularly good story, but I liked the atmosphere of Berlin after the war, and I wanted to work again with James Mason." Nevertheless, Reed creates a vivid backdrop for The Man Between and a rich atmosphere of cold war intrigue with his location shooting and stark visual style. It makes for a unique snapshot of Berlin rebuilding from the devastation of World War II, a look at the city before the blockade and The Wall (the defining symbol of the Iron Curtain) where the population is caught between the political gamesmanship between East and West.

Producer: Carol Reed
Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Harry Kurnitz; Walter Ebert (story); Eric Linklater (uncredited)
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction: Andre Andrejew
Music: John Addison
Film Editing: A.S. Bates
Cast: James Mason (Ivo Kern), Claire Bloom (Susanne Mallison), Hildegarde Neff (Bettina Mallison), Geoffrey Toone (Martin Mallison), Aribert Waescher (Halendar), Ernst Schroeder (Olaf Kastner), Dieter Krause (Horst), Hilde Sessak (Lizzi), Karl John (Inspector Kleiber), Ljuba Welitsch (opera singer, Salome).
BW-100m.

by Sean Axmaker

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