Between Two Worlds (1944)

Passengers on an ocean liner can’t recall how they got on board or where they are going yet, oddly enough, it soon becomes apparent that they all have something in common.   (They are all dead! ).

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This is a remake of the 1930 early-talkie “Outward Bound”, which was based on the hit 1925 stage play. This version updates the period from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, and incorporates WW II elements into the story—a totally unnecessary tactic; the original play was quite good on its own and didn’t need to have topical elements awkwardly sandwiched in. In fact,one of its strengths was that the entire unworldly experience seemed to take place in an unspecified time.

But this film has a very realistic beginning to it, and a war-related incident sets the plot in motion. The film’s only serious blunder—though one that does not fatally affect it—-is that we are tipped off as to what is really going on much too early in the film, in comparison to the 1930 film version, in which the characters realized their true situation at the same time as the audience did.

Aside from those objections, though, this is one of the few remakes which tops the original in nearly every department. Without exception, the actors in this version outdo the stiff, primitive early-talkie performances of their predecessors, and this may well be the only film in which Paul Henreid, normally not the most charismatic actor, gives a finer performance than the then-awkward Douglas Fairbanks,Jr. did in the same role in the 1930 film.

Especially outstanding are Edmund Gwenn as the ship’s steward, Isobel Elsom as a rich, elderly, bitchy woman, Sydney Greenstreet as a mysterious character whose identity will not be revealed here, and Sara Allgood in one of the most sensitive performances of her career (she acts rings around Beryl Mercer from the 1930 version). George Coulouris, a reliable villain in those days (he was Orson Welles’ nasty guardian in “Citizen Kane”) is sinister and pompous as a greedy tycoon. And John Garfield is excellent in the Leslie Howard role, altered some to fit Garfield’s tough, bitter on-screen persona rather than Howard’s ultra-sophisticated, debonair one. (Garfield,though,does not go as berserk when he finds out the truth as Howard so hilariously did in the 1930 version.)

Although much of the dialogue in the first half has been changed and perhaps made slightly less “literary”, the second half,which features Sydney Greensteet, is quite faithful to the earlier film and the stage play. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music runs through nearly every scene, and, although verging toward the bombastic and melodramatic at times, lends plenty of atmosphere to the story.

One unfortunate aspect is that the photography in this version never becomes as eerie as that in the 1930 version, with its striking light and darkness effects. But none of these faults should keep you away from this film, which deserves far better than its relative obscurity in comparison to the other great Warner Bros. classics as well as other films dealing with the afterlife.

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The play “Outward Bound” opened on Broadway in New York City, New York, USA on 7 January 1924 and closed in May 1924 after 144 performances. The opening night cast included Dudley Digges, Leslie Howard, J.M. Kerrigan, Alfred Lunt and Beryl Mercer. There was one Broadway revival in 1938, directed by Otto Preminger.
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Neither the original play, Outward Bound, nor its 1930 film version have a war setting. There are fewer characters in the play and the earlier film, and no one is killed by a bomb, but the plot is essentially the same, as is much of the dialogue. However, because there is no bomb explosion, neither the audience or the ship passengers are aware that the passengers are dead until well into the play, not even Henry and Ann. The play and earlier film also share a number of other differences from Between Two Worlds, one of them being that Henry and Ann are lovers and Ann cannot obtain a divorce from her husband. When they board the ship, the audience is led to believe that they are running away to be together, and it is not until the end that it is revealed that they tried to commit suicide. The Hays Code, which was not in effect in 1930, when Outward Bound was filmed, prevented Ann and Henry from being depicted as illicit lovers, and instead demanded that they be turned into husband and wife. However, the suicide aspect of the story went unchanged from the original.

World War II is in full swing, and London is being hit with an air raid attack.

After the attack, several people awake on board an odd ship with no knowledge of how they got there or where they’re headed. They were all planning to board ships for America before the air raid occurred, but this is not the ship that they expected to be on.

What they don’t yet realize, but will soon discover, is that they were all killed in the air raid and will soon be delivered to either heaven or hell. An “examiner” is on his way to the ship, where he will determine each of their fates.

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As this realization that they have died comes to fruition one by one for the members of the diverse group, each of their life stories is slowly revealed.

Edward A. Blatt directs the melodramatic fantasy Between Two Worlds. The cast includes John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet and George Tobias. The script was adapted by Daniel Fuchs (Panic in the Streets) from a play by Sutton Vane. Vane’s play also served as the basis for the 1930 film Outward Bound, starring Leslie Howard.

Between Two Worlds is a film with some of the strangest mood-mixing I’ve ever seen. It is at times incredibly sentimental, but a certain level of eeriness is also maintained throughout most of the film due to the fact that the entire premise centers around a ship full of deceased people. It’s melodrama meets spooky exploration of death, with some romance thrown in for good measure, too.

While odd, this mix is certainly engrossing. In combination with the slow reveals of each character’s personality and history, it makes for a film that’s difficult to turn away from. The fact that some characters are in on the truth before others adds to the sense of intrigue, too.

The cast is enough to keep the viewer hooked as well. The film is full of incredible talent, and while the level of melodrama sometimes goes overboard (often due to semi-corny dialogue combined with an over-utilized but beautiful score), the performances themselves are solid.

The stand-outs here are Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker. [This portion of the review will contain a small spoiler.] The two portray a married couple who are the first to realize that everyone on the ship is dead. They’re able to learn the truth so quickly because they already know for a fact that they are dead: they committed suicide together. [End of spoiler.] Their story is heartbreaking and touching, and Henreid in particular gives a very sensitive performance that gives his character a strong emotional connection with the viewer.

Steer clear of this one if you’re severely opposed to sentimental morality films, but otherwise Between Two Worlds is definitely worth a watch. The film is available on DVD and also pops up on TCM now and again. You may remember from my “10 deal breakers” post last year that films with overemphasized religious messages are usually not of interest to me, but this is an exception because the cast is so stellar and the plot is so gripping. Aside from this emphasis, the film’s only downfalls are a few overdramatic moments and the stereotypes applied to the characters, but these don’t come close to ruining it. The score: 

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