March 3, 2010

This Week's Classic Cinema Obsession: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Edward A Blatt, 1944)

In honor of John Garfield's birthday, TCM is running his movies all day Thursday, March 4th.

As far as I'm concerned, any movie with John Garfield is worth watching. But the one I'm most looking forward to is an underrated gem of a movie that really affected me the first time I saw it and it continues to move me each time I've seen it since.

It's BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, playing on Thursday, March 4, on TCM at 3:30 PM EST. It's a strange sort of film that is part angsty-doomed romance, part metaphysical morality play, and part film blanc with a dash of film noir. It's about a group of passengers on an eerie ocean steam ship who think they are traveling across the Atlantic from war-torn Britain to America. But where they're really headed is the eternal destination, either Heaven or Hell. These folks are dead and they're all passengers on the ship "between two worlds," the in-between ship that traverses the divide between the world of the living and the world of the dead. It's the ship that sails an ocean limbo, shrouded in mist, somewhere between life and afterlife.

The film has a great cast: John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, Paul Henreid, Edmund Gwenn, George Tobias, Faye Emerson, Sara Allgood, and the inimitable Sydney Greenstreet in a delicious bit of casting as the "Examiner," the man who gets to decide the eternal fates of these dead passengers. Think about it: It's Sydney Greenstreet sending people either to Heaven of Hell. That right there is enough to make this movie awesome.

Add John Garfield in one of his trademark cynical, wise-cracking, crushed idealist, tough-guy-with-a-sensitive-heart roles; Paul Henreid all doomed, depressed, and European sexy; Faye Emerson as an ambitious small-time actress who just never caught the breaks; character actors George Tobias, Sara Allgood, and Edmund Gwenn doing their typically awesome character actor-y things; and Eleanor Parker, gorgeous and dewy, and so sweet and true in her love for Henreid's character that it breaks your heart.

As I was thinking about BETWEEN TWO WORLDS the other day, I wondered if anyone else out there in blogland noticed some of the Film Noir elements (both stylistically and thematically) going on in the movie. I googled it, of course, but instead of coming up with a connection to Film Noir, I was introduced to the term "Film Blanc," a term I'd never encountered before.

Film Blanc is a term used to describe films that deal with the supernatural and life after death in a relatively light-hearted/whimsical/fantastical manner. Often in such films a character dies, goes to some sort of afterlife, and then gets a second chance or some kind of opportunity to return to earth and right whatever wrongs/finish any unfinished business they left there before they died. Think: HERE COMES MISTER JORDAN or A GUY NAMED JOE.

Sometimes a film blanc doesn't involve the main character dying, but instead a visit from some supernatural being (angel or demon) who influences the main character to change his ways or shows him what his life could be like if circumstances had been different.

These films are usually light-hearted and uplifting, and some are even out-right comedies (think: BEDAZZLED). They are optimistic about life and often sunny, good-natured affairs, eschewing truly dark subject matter by making the afterlife and the supernatural comical or cartoonish. They are "films white" because they end happily and encourage the audience to look on the sunny side of life. They are films blanc, the opposite of the dark, cynical, deadly "films noir."

And that's why I think BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is so strange and haunting. I suppose technically it's a film blanc: A story with a supernatural setting where recently deceased people must face the consequences of their earthly lives and await their final destinations; some for Heaven and others, perhaps, for Hell. It's got many of the elements, including the afterlife "waiting room;" the supernatural guides who try to help the main characters; the fantastical/whimsical characterization of the afterlife (the film imagines the afterlife limbo as a luxury ocean liner afterall); and finally, the touching, almost uplifting resolutions to many of the story threads. If there's one thing almost all films blanc share in common, it's the uplifting resolution that's supposed to make the audience feel good and want to embrace life to the fullest. BETWEEN TWO WORLDS has this. There are moments in this film where my heart was deeply touched and I felt a real desire to try and be a better person.

But there's darkness creeping around the corners of the brightly lit, white-walled dining rooms and drawing rooms of the afterlife ocean liner in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. There's a cynicism, a darkness of mood that seems at odds with the typical film blanc. There's a decidedly noir-ish element to the film that makes it a kind of "in-between film," neither true film blanc, nor true film noir. It exists somewhere in-between, borrowing elements from both, just as the ship in the film is somewhere in-between, somewhere between the afterlife and life on earth.

The film noir elements of BETWEEN TWO WORLDS are both stylistic and thematic. But even before getting to these elements, what makes the movie "noir-ish" is the cast. John Garfield and Sydney Greenstreet are practically film noir icons. Having them in this film immediately adds elements of danger, cynicism, doom, and death. Having them star in a mid-40s movie together is a signal to the audience: This Film is Gonna Be Noir-ish.

Garfield's character in particular is straight out of Noir/Hard-boiled storytelling. He's a newspaper man, ruined by drink and cynicism; his own crushed ideals have turned him rotten inside. He cracks wise, he's hard-edged. He's in love with Faye Emerson's out-of-work actress -- herself a very noir-ish character, the glamor girl who is used up and wised up and looking to get ahead anyway she knows how -- but she's looking for bigger things and he's too bitter to ever make a real relationship work. He's your typical Noir loser, the guy with the chip on his shoulder who never catches the breaks.

Garfield and Emerson's characters also share quite a bit of hard-nosed dialogue that add a noir feel to things and I wonder if this dialogue is new for the film or retained from the original stage play.

I should point out at this point that BETWEEN TWO WORLDS was actually a remake of a 1930 film called OUTWARD BOUND, itself based on a 1923 stage play of the same name. While BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is essentially a remake of the earlier film, it adds some new elements that I think highlight the film's noir-ish sensibilities.

For instance, Faye Emerson's character is a new character added to the 1944 film that was not in the original play or 1930 film. And she's straight out of central casting for the part of "hard-edged dame, down on her luck, looking to get ahead by seducing a man." She's not quite a femme fatale (she's got too much of a heart for that bad business), but she's certainly the kind of ambitious woman who would use sex to get what she wants.

Perhaps the biggest change of all is the change of time and place. The 1944 film -- produced by Warner Brothers amidst the ongoing world war -- is set in "current day," 1944 and the whole world's at war. The original play and the 1930 film were not set during wartime.

The wartime setting impacts how the characters die and end up on the ship between worlds. It's WWII Britain and the characters are all trying to get on board a ship sailing for America. When their convoy car is blown up by an air raid bomb, they all die and end up on the supernatural ship sailing toward the afterlife.

In the stage play and the 1930 film, there is also a young couple amongst the dead who have committed suicide because the woman is unable to get a divorce from her current husband and they would rather die together than live apart.

But in the 1944 film, because of the WWII setting, the young lovers are changed to a young married couple -- played by Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker -- who end up committing suicide together because the husband feels he's useless thanks to injuries he suffered fighting in the war. His wife, loving her husband more than anything, cannot bear to be parted from him and so she joins him in his suicide.

In the 1944 version, Henry is a concert pianist from Vienna who fought with the Free French and then moved to England. Because of his activities in the war, he lost the ability to play the piano and feels useless and unworthy of life. Because of the injuries he suffered in the war, in other words, he's suicidal. This element of the story -- added to the 1944 version -- gives the film an extra element of angst, a tragic element that is the direct result of the wartime setting. This is the devastation of war: It has destroyed a man's abilities, taken away his natural talents, reduced him to a useless nothing who would rather kill himself than keep living a half-life.

Unlike the earlier versions of the story (without the war setting), the 1944 film brings the angst of war directly into the story. Henry kills himself because the war has destroyed his ability to play music.

Another character -- a new one who was not in the original play, played by George Tobias -- is a sailor who survived three torpedo attacks during the war but is ultimately killed in the air raid that opens the film.

He starts off the film as a happy-go-lucky, good-natured guy with a wife and newborn daughter waiting for him at home. But when his character eventually finds out he's dead, he is crushed. He turns cynical and sour and bitter after finding out about his own death. It's a dark picture of a soldier who risked his life for a better world only to see that world snatched away from him, seemingly forever. Is this not the very anxiety that the returning soldier felt as he came back from Europe and the Pacific to find America so changed? Is this not the very existential anxiety that many of the great films noir tapped into?

Finally, beyond these thematic Noir elements, the film makes some interesting stylistic choices that seem influenced by the expressionistic cinematography that was popular in the mid-to-late 1940s and that was key to the classic Film Noir style.

The film utilizes the black and white cinematography to establish different moods at different points in the story. It also uses the black and white scheme to reinforce character and setting. This use of black and white is a little simplistic at times (the good "heavenly" people wear white; most of the dead passengers on the ship are in black; the young, pure innocent -- Eleanor Parker's character -- wears a white blouse, indicating her goodness). But the film also utilizes black and white in more subtle ways.

In the two sections which bookend the film -- the sections taking place in the "real world" and not the supernatural afterlife -- there is a definite drabness and darkness to the setting. This is the real world, the living world, but it is characterized by dark objects and heavy uses of black. Henry and Ann's apartment in particular has dark, blackish furniture and decor. The car that the group of ocean liner passengers are in when they are killed is black. And the clothing of most of the characters is black or gray as well (the notable exceptions being Eleanor Parker's "Ann," and Faye Emerson's "Maxine," both in white/light colors).

Once on the ship between worlds, the contrasting black and white color scheme begins to become more evident.

Edmund Gwenn's character, "The Steward," wears white.

He is one of the "supernatural characters" typical of a film blanc and so he is set apart by his white attire (technically he's just a dead person too, but he functions on the ship as a kind of "supernatural" guide who helps the newly deceased characters on their journey, so his white clothing is appropriate).

Beyond the costuming, there is also the white coloring used in set design of the ship's dining room and drawing room. These two rooms -- the main rooms of the film where most of the action takes place -- are brightly lit and the furniture is often strikingly white, i.e.: the piano that Henry discovers when he and Ann first arrive on the ship (contrast this with the piano in Henry and Ann's apartment, which is black).

But outside of these rooms, out on deck, the lighting and color scheme change. Once on the deck, it becomes apparent that they are sailing through a strange, murky darkness. Nothing can be seen beyond the edge of the ship except a thick white mist and blackness beyond that. The deck is dimly lit, with lots of shadow mixed with fog. On the deck, we can see just what this in-between world is that the dead characters are sailing through: A mixture of shadow and mist, of black and white.

It is here out on deck that we get some of the more noir-ish shots of the film, with shadows falling across the characters, with railings and ladders that remind one of the venetian blinds of typical noir.

And like any good noir, there's even a gun.

But once the ship arrives at its destination, i.e.: Heaven/Hell/the Afterlife, the color/lighting scheme on the deck changes from a mixture of shadow and fog to a scheme of bright whiteness. When it is time for the Examination and Sydney Greenstreet's "Examiner" arrives (dressed in a white sport jacket, of course), the coloring of the film becomes predominately white, with the only major black/dark objects in sight are our dead characters who are awaiting their examinations.

But it would be a mistake to identify black with "badness" and white with "goodness." Instead, black in this context seems to indicate simply "death," a death before the final judgment and the glories of Heaven or the torments of Hell. Because these characters are still in a sort of limbo, they remain in their black clothing.

Perhaps it might even indicate a sign of penance, or a desire for forgiveness, as in Faye Emerson's character who comes down for her examination dressed in a very conservative, almost contrite, black dress -- a change from the gaudy and sparkling white evening gown she wears earlier in the film. She feels bad about the life she's lived and the change of clothes is an indication of her change of heart.

Once the business of examinations are done and the ship returns back to the misty, black sea between the two worlds, the coloring and lighting out on deck changes back again to that mixture of black and white. Again, in the world between worlds, things are neither all black nor all white, but a mixture of the two; an uneasy pairing of two opposing states of being, life and death. Again, shadow and fog.

The noir elements return at this point, with heavy shadow, mysterious fog, and canted angles. Having left the whiteness of the heavenly world, we are back in the in-between world where things are murky and uncertain.

At this point it seems clear that white is the color of the afterlife, of Heaven. White is the color of "death." Black, in the context of the film, is the color more associated with the real world, with "life." But this is an uneasy and unsettling symbolism. Traditionally, we associate black with death and yet in the context of the film, black is the color of the living world, or at least of the people who have only just recently died, who still cling desperately to the plans and ambitions of their former lives.

Like a typical film blanc, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS ends with a message meant to inspire the audience to go out and live life fully and cherish it and work for love instead of for material possessions. But what is this world of the living that we are returning to? Is it not a black world filled with war and destruction? Is this not a black world filled with evil and pain? Though the film ends on an uplifting and hopeful note, it also ends visually with an image of a dark-hued room. We've gone from the white, otherwordly light of Sydney Greenstreet's afterlife to the drab, dark light of the living world. While the story ends on a note of uplift and hope, the visuals remain dark and shadowy.

This is the strange hybrid that is BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. It is a film blanc with a film noir sensibility. It's message is ultimately an uplifting one, but it cannot escape the darkness and the cynicism which permeates from the war-torn world of its setting. Justice is meted out, forgiveness is granted, love saves the day -- but yet there's something unsettled and unfinished about the film, as if, despite its happy ending, there are still shadows and fog lurking at the edges, waiting to close in and possibly bring everything to ruin. For the dead, they have gotten their reward; they have entered into the heavenly light. But for the living, there's uncertainty and the threat of darkness ever present. Things end well in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, but in another few years, as the noir sensibility seeps evermore into the films of the late 1940s, it's going to be harder and harder to make that journey to the white, bright side of things.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS hints at this growing darkness without ever fully succumbing to it. It's a wonderfully acted film with a powerful story, occasionally great dialogue, and some interesting visual choices that hint at both film noir and film blanc. And at the end of the day, it's simply a moving and deeply affecting film. That's why it's my classic cinema obsession of the week.

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