Between Two Worlds directed by Edward A. Blatt
Featuring a raft of experienced Warner Brothers lead and character actors as well as one up-and-coming future starlet, 1944’s Between Two Worlds reveals itself to be a pleasing supernatural fantasy, indeed, and one that should hold up very well for modern audiences, now almost 75 years since its release. The film was based on the 1923 play Outward Bound by British playwright Sutton Vane, which had been adapted to film once before, as an early-sound vehicle for Leslie Howard, under that original title, in 1930. I have not seen that first version — it does not seem to be screened very often — but can say that the remake is a most interesting offering, with many eerie touches and some wonderful thesping by one and all.
In the film, a disparate group is shown about to board an ocean liner in London, bound for New York. But just as the group departs via auto to their ship, a German aerial bombing results in their vehicle bursting into flames. At the same time, we meet a young Austrian ex-soldier, who is attempting to leave the country via that same ship. He is played by Paul Henreid, and the fact that he is having a rough time obtaining his “exit permit” from a war-torn country forcibly brings to mind his similar quandary in the classic Casablanca. When his permit is denied, he decides to commit suicide by turning on the gas line in his flat’s apartment, only to be discovered by his wife (Eleanor Parker, looking very beautiful and offering up a wonderful performance in this, her 4th film, and at the onset of one of Hollywood’s great careers). She decides to join him in death rather than be left alone without him, and before the two of them know what is happening, they find themselves on that selfsame ocean liner on which they had intended to depart.
They soon realize the truth: They are dead, this is the afterlife, and their ship is bound for … is it Heaven or Hell? And the other folks that had been blasted out of existence are there also, but unaware of the truth. They consist of a cynical and wisecracking newspaper reporter (expertly portrayed by John Garfield, here almost at the midpoint of his career); a sailor who is returning home to his wife and kids (the great character actor George Tobias, who provides much of the film’s humor); an aloof and domineering manufacturing exec (George Coulouris); a sweet English biddy spinster (Sara “The Spiral Staircase” Allgood); a down-on-her-luck actress (Faye Emerson); a reverend who has decided to go out into the world for the first time and do his best to help others (Dennis King); an unhappily married, mismatched couple (Isobel Elsom and Gilbert Emery); and Scrubby, the only crewman/porter on the entire ship (Edmund “Them!” Gwenn). We do get to know all these characters in some depth as the film proceeds, and are thus prepared when they are ultimately sentenced to their eternal fate by The Examiner, who comes on board late in the film (and played by the great Sydney Greenstreet).
Between Two Worlds was directed by someone named Edward A. Blatt, a Russian ex-stage director who, it seems, only directed two other films after this one. But he does a nice job here, and incorporates some interesting touches (I love the hissing gas vent that segues into the ship’s whistle) into his picture. The musical score for the film, by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is not nearly as rousing and memorable as had been his contributions to such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk (two of this viewer’s all-time faves), but does still go far in engendering an otherworldly mood. The film has a literate and adult script, provided by Daniel Fuchs (who would go on to pen two great film noirs, Criss Cross and Panic in the Streets), and many of the characters get to deliver lines that carry great weight. My favorite comes from The Examiner himself, in speaking of the afterlife:
Death … people have all sorts of notions. It’s really very simple. You make your Heaven and Hell for yourselves on Earth; you only bring it with you here. Some people waste it tragically; others toss it aside…
All the actors in the film get their moment to shine, but I would especially like to say a word about young Eleanor here. She is just luminous in this early role of hers, easily matching the talents of her more experienced costars although just 21 at the time. No wonder Warners put her on the fast track to stardom. And yet, it would take another 15 months for her to really break through … oddly enough, in another film costarring John Garfield, Pride of the Marines. Her performance here was worth the price of admission alone for this viewer, although this is very much an ensemble work by that great cast of pros. This film comes highly recommended by yours truly. Consider it a bucket-list item that you should see before your own ship sets sail…