The cooperative forces of the internet and a golden age of home video have put the idea of filmmakers known for one film to bed. Carol Reed was one such director. He was celebrated for the Third Man but with the strength of the Blu-ray market, the likes of Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out have gained a great deal more contemporary relevance than they had in the decades that proceeded their re-release. Joining that illustrious company is The Man Between, a Berlin-set post-war noir thriller.
Claire Bloom’s Susanne Mallison visits Berlin to see her Brother who works with the British military, upon arriving she meets his wife, Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Being a native Berliner, Bettina is mixed up with both the eastern and western halves of the then divided city. Part of that Eastern half is Ivo Kern (James Mason), who meets Susanne by happenstance, this sets off a volatile back and forth between the political forces of each half of the city with the naive Londoner at the center of it all. Ivo is the titular man between, he is neither of the west nor the east and with the help (or hindrance) of Susanne, a hornet’s nest gets kicked instigating a kidnapping and a final third which sees both Mason and Bloom trapped in the eastern half of the city with the military hunting them down.
One of the main takeaways of Reed’s legendary (and significantly over-valued) Third Man is its setting of Vienna, battered by the ravages of war. The Man Between has Berlin and while the locations aren’t as choice, it does make full use of what is available to express what a broken city the German capital has become. Susanne’s brother, Martin’s (Geoffrey Toone) house, is the perfect summation of the lay of the land. What used to be a residential street has since become a wasteland of collapsed houses and scorched land, yet sat among that is a large house. Perhaps it was rebuilt, perhaps it remains untouched by the most extreme serendipity, in spite of reasoning, it tells of a city coming to terms with the fallout of war even with signs of their defeat being inescapable and ubiquitous.
The cold war is one of the scariest times of recent history with the threat of nuclear annihilation looming over the world, and cinema replicated that by either getting lost in that threat or looking at the dizzying political landscape. Reed’s Man Between engages in the politics almost exclusively in the middle third and twin that with the quick delivery of the dialogue and the natural result is a film that is hard to keep up with. Yet at the same time, those with the existing interest and knowledge of this coarse era of post-war Europe will find themselves at home – and to its credit, those of us who aren’t as au fait will be a lot less battered than they would with some other harder films of the era. Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay may lose some momentum in its swan-dive into the heady unstable politics of the time, yet it still has the narrative elegance found elsewhere in the 1953 film to ensure it remains within touching distance to accessibility.
The first third does an impressive job of introducing this landscape through the naivete of its female lead. Reed deliberately drip feeds the paranoia akin the larger political and social picture that was unavoidable till the wall that divided the city was torn down in 1989. The cold war was defined less by guns being fired than it was the act of information was exchanged and manipulation, after all.
Beginning with the usual parade of dinner and drinks (featuring the most alarming cross edit to a grinning clown) only with the sly figures skirting around seeking out Bettina, or later Ivo. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a nail-bitingly tense finale that sees both Ivo and Susanne develop a connection while the east Berlin military is hunting them down. The threat is real and the numbers that pursue the two aren’t to be scoffed at. Perhaps this isn’t the first instance of behind enemy lines in cinema, but to see it within the relative confines of bombed out suburbia sees the Man Between function as the prototype for one of the most consistently entertaining types of action cinema. Perhaps the melodramatic climax may be a bit too trite for some, but on the evidence of the film to that point – it is earned melodrama.
Within the haunting confines of a destroyed city, Studio Canal’s release of The Man Between is a celebration of the home video format. There is no way that a lesser known film such as this would ever be seen without its home video release, especially with a mastering of the film that makes it look so lively. At its worst, Carol Reed’s film is convoluted and at its best, it’s a passionately acted (by Mason and Bloom) film that forged the very DNA of the lo-fi spy pictures that has since brought us classics in the tradition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Three days of the Condor.