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Between Two Worlds (1944)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Between Two Worlds (1944), directed by Edward A. Blatt, follows a group of people who find themselves on a mysterious ocean liner, bound for who knows where, in the midst of a perpetual fog. Although they don’t know it yet, they’re all dead; failed pianist Henry Bergner (Paul Henreid) and wife Ann (Eleanor Parker) realize this first, because they have committed suicide together in their small London flat. The others – tough guy reporter Tom Prior (John Garfield), Lingley, a brutal industrialist (George Coulouris), grasping socialite Genevieve Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom) and her docile husband Benjamin Cliveden-Banks (Gilbert Emory), the meek Reverend William Duke (Dennis King), merchant seaman Pete Musick (George Tobias), would-be actress Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson), along with other passengers, have all been killed by a Nazi Blitz bomb in a taxi, and have yet to discover the truth of their current situation. One by one, they realize that they’re now in limbo, attended to by the servile Scrubby (Edmund Gwenn), as they wait for judgment from the Examiner, the now deceased Reverend Frank Thompson (Sydney Greenstreet), who is one of many heavenly judges who rule on each person’s final destination – heaven or hell, in a very literal sense.

Based on the 1924 novel by Sutton Vane, Outward Bound, which was filmed in 1930 under director Robert Milton, starring Leslie Howard, Helen Chandler, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Between Two Worlds is an odd wartime project to say the least, even if in the end, it has a somewhat positive narrative conclusion. Many have remarked on Blatt’s curiously flat staging of the project, and indeed, he only directed two more films after this, before returning to his regular job of dialogue director, but when I caught the last 50 minutes of the film this morning on TCM – I’ve seen it many times before – I was struck by the simplicity and sincerity of Blatt’s work on the project, which seems deeply felt, even impassioned. The movie’s main interest seems to reside in offering moral instruction for the audience, of a very direct kind, rather than escapist entertainment – something that Warner Bros. didn’t usually engage in.  It’s an odd, moody film, one that has unexpected power that gathers over the film’s running time, and exerts a hold on one’s imagination, even as it seems still and unhurried – but then again, the characters are in limbo, and so, for the duration of the film, are we.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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