Carol Reed, James Mason, and the Great Divide.
DIRECTED BY CAROL REED/1953
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 5, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
There’s no reason that we not regard The Man Between as a fully accomplished, even great work. Directed by the celebrated British director Carol Reed, the film has the pointed distinction of coming on the heels of his seminal The Third Man (1949). While it cannot be inaccurate to say that The Man Between likely wouldn’t exist were it not for that prior masterwork- certainly not the way it exists- the chronic dismissal of the film (even by Reed himself, it turns out) must be one of most shortsighted ongoing shuns in all of British cinema.
Whatever anyone says – and people have apparently said plenty – The Man Between stands ripe for (re)discovery. Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray edition is an experience second only to seeing such a beautifully restored print in the theater. The vibrant cinematography of the great Desmond Dickinson takes on a particularly brilliant luster, simultaneously complementing the rampant rubble and destruction of all of Berlin, yet also imbuing an enigmatic flourish to the entirety of the film. Reed’s use of actual exterior location- a Berlin divided of east and west, but yet to be walled off- is a timely get in way that they couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Eight years later, the imposing cement monstrosity of the Berlin Wall would be erected, and the reality of the great once-and-future singular city would be all the worse.
James Mason spares none of his charismatic intensity nor erudite charm as the titular man, Ivo Kern, forever caught between not just “side communist” and “side non-communist”, but seemingly between the very poles of basic human morality. At least, that’s the character’s reputation. Having worked with Reed before in 1947’s Odd Man Out, his demeanor is one of positively swaggering comfort. Not once is the gravitas and focus that the story places upon Ivo thrust into question. While it’s true that Reed ultimately owns this film, he likely wouldn’t wield such ownership were it not for Mason owning it first.
The Man Between’s alternate title, Berlin Story, is better in every way. The postwar years in Germany’s vivisected capital were never short of complexity, and Reed does a stellar job of capturing the vibe throughout. For the film, West Berlin had to double for the East, as the real place was, of course, off limits for shooting. The art department obviously kept busy plastering areas with large Stalin posters and assorted Soviet Union decoration. Meanwhile, nearly a decade on from the war, real debris heaps remain everywhere, slowly being worked through. That’s one thing the sides have in common circa 1953, whether one’s Berlin story is real or cinematic.
The Man Between feels knottier than its story actually is, which is to its uneasy credit. Ivo, doing a sort of grey-area penance for his wartime Nazi atrocities, is now in the precarious business of selling information to the East in order to smuggle people into the West. As such, he’s made no shortage of enemies on both sides. He’s taken the precaution of hiring an admiring kid with a bike to more or less run point for him, but it’s still no kind of ordinary life.
Ivo’s loyalties are as murky as his past. When the young and naive Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) arrives in West Berlin, a non-starter love triangle of sorts emerges between the two of them and his abandoned wife, the jaded and frigid Bettina Mallison (Hildegard Neff). The twist is that, though he has guilt over the way he’s had to treat both of them in the face of his work, he states repeatedly that he’s only out for himself. This, though, doesn’t stop Susanne from falling in love with him. Not even being made to betray him nor being mistakenly drawn into one of his kidnapping schemes, resulting in her being held prisoner in the Eastern Bloc, nullifies her swelling feelings. Late in the film, as she must disguise herself as a prostitute in his presence, it’s almost adorable how she takes to the come-hither nature of the role. By the end, his torn morality is his own cross to bear, and burden to resolve.
This KL Studio Classics special edition Blu-ray release has several bonus features, each substantial. There is an extended postmortem British vintage television segment on Carol Reed, and his career, his accomplishments, and the clout it brought him. Additionally, there’s a nearly hour-long audio interview with James Mason that was recorded live in 1967. It gives way to a good-natured open Q&A in which he discusses his work on Lolita with Kubrick and his approaches to performing, among other things.
The newly recorded audio commentary track is a mixed bag. Film historian and author Simon Abrams has a lot of research at his fingertips and knows and appreciates the key aspects of the film well enough, though too often he comes off as disorganized and unrehearsed. Besides that, it sounds as though the track was recorded in a busy loading dock what with the frequent backup alerts and loud motor rumbles. It betrays the necessitated amateur-recording nature of so many such DIY commentary tracks these days. Gone are the days when audio studios and professional sound recordist were employed to ensure a clean product.
The Man Between, itself forever caught between classic film loftiness and forgotten Cold War relic, is as divided in its reputation as its main character is. Its nature, though, is that of a neglected masterwork, albeit one in multiple careers adorned with more notable masterworks. Kudos to Kino Lorber for taking care to present The Man Between with proper class.