Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Man Between (1953)

Carol Reed’s 1953 thriller The Man Between is sometimes seen as a kind of companion piece to his earlier masterpiece The Third Man, with both films dealing with war-torn central European cities and the aftermath of the war. It won’t do to push the comparison too far however. Carol Reed was not the man to make the same film twice. James Mason (who’d given a fine performance for Reed in Odd Man Out) stars.

Susanne (played by a very young Claire Bloom) arrives in Berlin to stay for a few days with her brother Martin, a British officer, and Martin’s wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Martin and Bettina live in a large house surrounded by rubble, not far from the frontier with the Eastern Sector. Bettina is obviously very ill at ease and she seems to be hiding something. Martin seems completely oblivious to this. Susanne however has certainly noticed.

Reed starts building the suspense right from the start. Nothing has actually happened but we feel certain that something mysterious and dangerous is going on and the fact that we have no idea what it might be makes it all the more unsettling.

Susanne meets Bettina’s friend Ivo (James Mason). Ivo is German, an East Berliner who spends much of his time in the British and American sectors (travel between the western and eastern sectors being no particular difficulty in 1953). Ivo is charming but there’s an edge to his charm, and he’s clearly a man who is involved in activities of a slightly questionable nature. Is he a Harry Lime character, essentially a crook? Or is he political? Both explanations seem plausible. If he’s political, where do his loyalties lie?

And who is the small boy on the bicycle who keeps popping up everywhere in a rather furtive manner?

Susanne hears Ivo and Bettina arguing frequently but since Susanne speaks no German she has no idea what they are arguing about. Ivo tells Susanne that he and Bettina have been having a bit of a romantic dalliance but that he intends to put an end to it before it becomes serious. Susanne is innocent but not quite innocent enough to be convinced by that story.

Ivo is certainly involved in something political but that does not imply that he has any political loyalties or convictions. Perhaps he does. Perhaps he simply sees opportunities.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because I think it’s better for Ivo’s actions to remain mysterious and for the viewer to put the pieces together gradually the way Susanne does. Suffice to say that the core of the movie is a series of extended chase scenes in East Berlin as circumstances continually thwart every attempt to escape from the eastern sector.

James Mason is excellent as always. He really makes us work trying to figure out what makes Ivo tick. We don’t know whether or not to like Ivo, whether or not to trust him, whether or not to approve of him. It’s the sort of ambiguous rôle Mason always played supremely well.

Hildegard Knef, a very fine actress, plays Bettina as a woman who is just as ambiguous as Ivo. She’s a sympathetic character but we’re not sure we can trust her and we’re definitely not sure that Susanne should trust her. Berlin is a complicated place (just as Vienna was a complicated place in The Third Man) and one needs to be careful and flexible in order to survive. Getting into trouble is very easy.

Claire Bloom is very good as the naïve but far from stupid Susanne. She and Mason certainly have the right chemistry.

Carol Reed directs this movie is a less flamboyant manner than The Third Man but there’s still plenty of style and plenty of beautifully framed shots. And yes, there are plenty of tilted camera angles. The suspense builds and builds as the two escapees find one escape route after another closed off to them. I don’t think any other director could have improved on these sequences. Despite the brilliance of the chase sequences this is also very much a love story and it’s a love complicated by questions of loyalty and betrayal, and deception.

The problem for Reed at this stage of his career is that he’d made three masterpieces in a vey short space of time - Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. People expected his subsequent movies to be masterpieces as well. The Man Between is a fine film but it’s not quite a masterpiece and as such it has been somewhat dismissed. The fact that it sounded superficially similar to The Third Man only made things worse. The setting is similar and Berlin is used just as effectively as a backdrop as Vienna in The Third Man (with some great location shooting) but it’s not The Third Man. The Man Between can stand up very well on its own merits and needs to be judged as such.

Kino Lorber’s DVD offers an excellent transfer. There are numerous extras including an audio commentary.

The Man Between is a taut tense Cold War spy thriller combined with a troubled love story. It’s not top-tier Carol Reed but those chase sequences and the performances of Mason and Bloom are enough to earn it a highly recommended rating.


  1. I really like this film, it stuck in my mind ever since I first caught it on TV long ago, and I wrote about it myself some years ago -
    Looking back, I wish I'd said more about the positives, but you've covered it pretty well here. I love that scene on the rooftop with Addison's wintry score providing a melancholy backdrop for Mason's philosophical musings and the simple adoration of the boy. Then the finale next morning, so beautifully shot with Bloom so achingly smitten and Mason starting to sense something growing within him, and of course that abrupt and poignant ending.
    It's just superb stuff.

    1. Carol Reed made some interesting movies in the 50s. Have you seen TRAPEZE? I was pleasantly surprised by that one.
      A 1950s Carol Reed movie that I haven't seen but would like to see is THE KEY. A bit pricey but I'm tempted by it.

  2. I have seen, albeit a while back now, and also quite liked Trapeze. I know I have a DVD of The Key somewhere but it's one of those films I have neglected or forgotten about - I must try to dig it out and watch it.

    1. I would definitely grab a copy of THE KEY but it's horribly expensive (over $50) and appears to be a pan-and-scan release.

    2. Ah, well forget about that. I know the old UK DVD I have is in the correct ratio and I don't think I paid much at all for it years ago. I suggest keeping an eye out online as I'm pretty sure a good copy (maybe HD) appears on YT from time to time.