BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944)
Starring: John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sidney Greenstreet and Eleanor Parker
Directed by Edward A. Blatt
The following contains some spoilers.
An unusual film with unusual themes for its time, Between Two Worlds is set in WWII and deals with a set of characters who, after dying in an air raid, find themselves on a mysterious ship that will lead them to the afterlife. The film is a remake of the 1930 film Outward Bound (the screen debut of Leslie Howard), which in turn was based on a play. Between Two Worlds shows its stage roots by very sparse settings and being virtually free of action, placing the emphasis on dialogue.
From the moment the characters die, it is made clear to the audience that, while some characters are aware of it and others are not, these souls are no longer earthbound and have passed on. A bold choice. Much dramatic revelation could have been spun from the 'reveal' that these people are, in fact, dead. But maybe that's too modern a thought, the result of seeing too many current movies with a plot twist, a la The Sixth Sense. No, the dramatic focus is laid on how these people deal with the lives they have lived and the choices they made that brought them to the point where they are now. Thanks to the engaging writing and excellent cast, this provides plenty to enjoy - despite the stereotypes chosen in this ensemble piece.
Reverend Thompson or, as he is also known, The Examiner (Sydney Greenstreet), takes these passengers on one by one and their fate is decided. The words 'heaven' or 'hell' are never uttered - but it's clear the final destination is either one or the other. In this sense, the film is quite predictable in who goes where (the 'bad' unfaithful wife, the greedy rich guy, etc.), and maybe the plot could have benefitted from less unambiguous characters. The moralistic tone of the story may not sit too well with modern audiences and it's best to keep in mind the times in which this film was made.
A special mention must be made about the film's splendid score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His most famous scores are The Adventures of Robin Hood, Juarez, The Sea Hawk and Of Human Bondage. The otherwordly, ethereal music does much to enhance the mystery and supernatural theme of Between Two Worlds.
I won't reveal more details about the fates of all the characters - apart from Garfield's - because it's quite enjoyable to see them yourself, and it would be a shame to give it all away here. That said, I did not like the resolution of two characters in particular who got a get-out-of-jail-free card. That's about all I'll say about that!
Tom Prior, the character played by John Garfield, is a hardened, cynical, seen-it-all newsman, fond of gambling and card-playing. The character was 'toughened up' in the script to suit the audience's expectations of what a John Garfield character should look and sound like. Garfield does what he does best: being the tough guy with a soft center. Prior is one of the first of the passengers to find out the truth about their fate: "Gin. Rummy. The end of the game. Pick a card, Prior." His sad smile belie his cynical words.
Asked not to reveal what he has just learned, ofcourse Prior goes right ahead and does it anyway - after a theatrical magic show during which he burns one passenger's money and shoots another point blank with a loaded gun: "Yer dead, ya boobs!". It's a great moment.
Prior's fate at the end is perhaps the only one that isn't too predictable, and it does include a nice little twist as well, though it's a little far-fetched.
Out of all the cast, Garfield's character is the most engaging one, and, at least for me, the one easiest to identify with. His is the role with the juiciest lines and most grandstanding centre-stage scenes, and Garfield plays them all with relish. It's an accomplishment to stand out in an ensemble cast of quite prestigious proportions, the way he does here. It might go too far to say he holds the whole thing together but in the hands of a lesser actor (and apparently, this is demonstrated by Leslie Nielsen in the same part in the previous version) Tom Prior would be little more than a cypher. As it stands now, Garfield gives the part his particular brand of toughguy/charismatic loser and his antihero is the most memorable in an already memorable cast.