Carol Reed’s noir drama is set in post war Berlin, where the east and west parts of the city are already forming uncertain divides between those who were once allies, and where former relationships are about to take dark and unexpected turns. As with The Third Man (1949), arguably Reed’s most famous film,The Man Between (1953) opens with the geographical vision of the city in stunningly restored crisp black and white cinematography, which places it in a visual context and immerses the viewer in the actuality of life in a city recovering from recent horrors. The contrast between those parts of the city being reconstructed and those which remain destroyed is reflected in a society that loves opera and fine dining as many others struggle to survive in the ramshackle rubble, fearing reprisals and crime, even from those apparently there to protect them.
Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) travels to Berlin to visit her brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone) and his new wife Bettina (Hildegarde Neff), who are living in her plush residence which overlooks the ruins of part of the city. Martin is a doctor undertaking military service and uses his skills and long hours treating those in need. Bettina’s wealthy background is shown not just in the house she owns but with the lavish jewellery that she wears. Susanne is given a warm welcome but observes that Bettina seems to be hiding something. From strange letters received at night, meetings with shadowy characters and the frequent presence of a small boy, Horst (Dieter Krause), who has taken to following her on a bike whatever district she is in, Susanne becomes increasingly concerned but Bettina seems to have reasonable answers to every query. When her sister-in-law meets with another man she becomes worried for her brother too. But Bettina introduces this stranger as long-term friend Ivo Kern (James Mason), whose polite manner and exceptional English lead to Susanne accepting him as her Berlin city guide and she enjoys skating and dancing with him. But the city is in great turmoil not just because of the past but also its current cross-cultural, cross-political divide. Old times are hard to forget and new times offer new, as yet unclear issues between former enemies and new allies. So who are the people Susanne meets and what are their motives?
Very much a film of its time, The Man Between offers a fascinating tension in its narrative that reflects the relationships and politics it depicts and it sets these up in such a way that acknowledges how the past has irrevocably tainted the present. This is achieved in the context of the time and location but also in the characterisation and subterfuge, where lovers and enemies simultaneously work together and against each other, sometimes without an awareness about the other’s true intentions, emotions or plans. The bike boy Horst appears right at the opening as a background figure, his role unclear: could he be a suspicious worker for a rival faction or merely trying to survive a dreadful socio-economic situation that has seen enormous upheaval for much of the populace? It is interesting that the film was made before the Berlin wall was constructed so the modern day viewer has the benefit of historical hindsight which adds another dimension to the story.
James Mason’s starring role is a perfect mix of kindness and suspicion, the outward perceptions of his character crossing with the similarly varied inner issues, surely a dry-run to his role in North By NorthWest (1959). But the film is centred on Claire Bloom’s character Susanne, who is naïve and yet cautious, and is led unwittingly into a dangerous web of lies and deceit.
Overall The Man Between is highly recommended as a thoroughly engaging post-war political noir drama that makes full use of its location and direction to drive the narrative to its thrilling conclusion. A welcome extra on the DVD features a recent interview with Bloom.