' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Man Between (1953)

Friday, June 07, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Man Between (1953)

“The Man Between” opens with Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) taking a plane from London to Berlin to visit her brother, British Major Martin (Geoffrey Tune), picked up at the airport by his new German wife Bettine (Hildegarde Neff), and driven home in a spot-on sequence making the audience feel like wide-eyed tourists as much as Susanne, familiar scenic sites quickly giving way to the reality of so much rubble and, eventually, the grim circumstances of the communist controlled East. Yet even if director Carol Reed waits to pull back the social mask, he nevertheless instantly conveys the East vs. West reality anyway upon Susanne’s arrival as we see the eye of a young boy with a bicycle just outside the airport peering through a window at Susanne, less an emblem of voyeurism than surveillance. Indeed, he seems to follow her everywhere she goes, the frequent side shots reminding us he lurks nearby, setting the visual tone, characters repeatedly peering out windows and from behind doors opened just a crack, evincing how everyone is being watched and how much here remains behind closed doors, waiting to erupt into the open, all of which Susanne gradually determines and then becomes swept up in. Not for nothing is the most intimate moment one Susanne shares with a man from the East, Ivo Kern (James Mason), during a snowy chase sequence in which they hide from their pursuers, as if Cold War Berlin only allows for intimacy in secrecy.

Though the prologue on the plane into Berlin suggests the rollercoaster to come, with a passenger gesturing at Susanne to buckle her seatbelt, simultaneously telling us to fasten ours, her lack of guile, conveyed in Bloom’s wide eyes, does not immediately grasp the dangerous situation into which she enters. As such, Reed waits to break out those “Third Man”-ish askew angles until much later when she’s knee-deep in the espionage muck. No, initially Susanne is all smiles, like an indelible nightclub scene where she catches Bettine suddenly turning sorrowful from something seemingly deep within. When Bettine notices Susanne, however, she twists her lips into a broad, forced grin, an indelible close-up cluing us and Susanne into the fact that something is rotten in the state of Berlin. What, exactly, Susanne doesn’t know, and if initially she suspects something romantically nefarious, the near constant presence of the boy with the bike, not to mention the general vibe “The Man Between” emits, it is never not clear Bettine’s secrets are something more, making Susanne’s haughtiness at sticking up for her brother feel like an elongated punchline. This marks the early pleasures of “The Man Between” as akin to John Le Carre, the narrative continually re-shaping, with Susanne thinking she knows what’s going on only to be told by whomever she’s called on the carpet that, no, she doesn’t know what’s going on and then after being told what’s going on comes to realize that she has no idea what’s going on still.

The who’s-it-what’s-it gradually gains focus as the action moves from west to east, where Bettine takes Susanne at her sister-in-law’s request, which is where they encounter Ivo, who seems attracted to this young Englishwoman. That attraction, alas, masks a dubious existence, one that involves kidnapping westerners and smuggling them to the east. When Susanne realizes she’s been duped, she aids West German intelligence in trying to nab Ivo, though it their ruse fails when Ivo gets tipped off, and she winds up kidnapped, albeit on accident, with Bettine the intended target at East German request. If it sounds terrifying, the way Bloom plays this kidnapping aftermath, however, does not suggest fear so much as intrigue, like the virginal character is sort of getting off on this cloak-and-dagger, which is as interesting at the film gets again.

That’s because as “The Man Between” makes it true transition from west to east and the city’s atmosphere grows that much gloomier, the narrative lets in just a little more sunshine as Susanne, in attempting to escape back to the city’s other side with Ivo’s help, falls in love with her helper. This love stems from her seeing the good in him, though that is merely said aloud by Susanne since neither the film nor Mason nor Bloom lend the idea much credence. Mason’s character helps her because he thinks overseeing a kidnapping going the opposite way over the wall will grant him full-time passage to the west, a devious motivation that Mason keeps playing to even as they are supposed to be falling in love, while the emergent kicks that Bloom’s character seems to be getting as she is pulled into the mystery deeper just evaporate, rendering a tonal paradox that Reed can’t overcome and leaving the conclusion with none of the tragic gloom the impressive location work otherwise imparts.

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