This is part of a Religion in Film series, concerning spirituality and its many forms through the cinematic lens. In this article, I take a deep dive into the rather obscure 1944 wartime fantasy film “Between Two Worlds” starring Paul Heinried, Eleanor Parker, and John Garfield. This was a first viewing for me and I was introduced to it by fellow film blogger (And girlfriend) Katie Keener. Here Katie and I have a dialogue concerning the film.
Jeremy: So I have never seen or heard of Between Two Worlds until you introduced me to it, and you were the first person I told about my Religion in Film series where you first told me about how it might fit in. What are your initial thoughts on the film?
Katie: I know that it is more of an obscure film but when you told me about the series you were wanting to plan I had to suggest it as a possible option. I’ve seen the film quite a few times over the past five years so it is one that I consider a personal favourite of mine. What first endeared me to it was the fact that it was different from a lot of other films at the time in terms of how it handled the subjects of religion and spirituality. It never becomes preachy and makes you ponder all you’ve just seen. This was your first time seeing it so what was the impression it left you with?
Jeremy: I really enjoyed it. To make it clear, I agree with your thoughts that it was unlike films of that time, which I felt were a bit more unambiguous with how it dealt with morality and the ideas of heaven and hell. This film sort of skewers that idea by making its characters more complex. Rather than making some of them good and some of them bad, they are people who are full of contradictions, and moral ambiguities. When we get to the moment where they are judged, I was shocked to find I sympathized with some of the not so good people such as Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom) who was selfish and unloving, yet gets kind of a harsh sentence. Other people such as John Garfield’s Tom Prior, who is the cynic I wasn’t sure where the film was going to land on him. The whole judgement sequence made me realize just how invested I was in the characters’ fates.
Katie: Oh exactly. This film does not deal with those topics in safe black and white, instead everything and everyone lives in a grey middle ground. There are a handful of characters who we know are not the best people as far as their character is concerned, but we sympathize to a point because the film makes us realize that they are humans with flaws. You could say many films from the same time were more likely to make such characters removed and almost cartoonish, therefore when they got comeuppance you were less likely to feel any pity. Here we do feel pity as you said, Mrs. Cliveden-Banks has arguably the cruellest sentence given to her. Also Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson) who has a less rigid blow yet still no sympathy when the time of judgement comes. The film puts you in their shoes for just a moment and their remorse is palpable even if they may be too proud to show it. I agree entirely as the judgement scene grips you in anticipation of what different roads this group will be split off on.
Jeremy: I think it’s safe to say a lot of old Hollywood movies from this era had a very sentimental and propagandist take on heaven and hell which probably brought that cartoonish mentality on their characters. It seemed like the mandate that the bad would be punished while the good would be rewarded, especially when it came to the afterlife. I was actually greatly affected by these type of films when I was younger. They almost worked like sermons to me, and I suppose they were designed that way. The Song of Bernadette was a film I still like very much which dealt with a young girl who performs miracles after witnessing the Virgin Mary. It’s a very sentimental film, but the villains in it are very one note as they are pegged as non-believers. I feel Between Two Worlds becomes more modern with how it deals with good and evil and perhaps this has to do with the fact this takes place during wartime when things such as right and wrong were becoming less concrete.
Katie: Films made with this type of tone and subject matter then did have a very sentimental feel to them and that is not a bad thing, but Between Two Worlds is to be appreciated for offering a more nuanced and realistic take. The other films did well at giving us good stories that were very moral which tugged at the heart, but as you said the characters that were flawed were very much one note. I never found myself pitying those characters to such a degree as I did here in Between Two Worlds which is refreshing. In a way that is fitting to the subject at hand because with that pity we see that we are not one’s to place judgement on them. Not saying that we should be pitying those who act horrendously but some people such as Mrs. Cliveden – Banks and Maxine Russel are characters who may have acted in bad ways but necessarily aren’t bad people. At least in the sense that as far as religious practices are concerned it is not a person’s place to judge another human as that is not our place. Not to trail off there but I thought it was an interesting thought. That is true that the film being made during wartime may have given it such a more nuanced take. Speaking of that I was curious to hear your thoughts on how it sticks out against other films of the time that took a more patriotic tone or a very look at cowardice during wartime. For instance Paul Henreid’s Henry taking his own life due to that desperation.
Jeremy: Those are all good points. I had to chuckle when we first see Paul Henried who most people will know as Victor Lazlo in Casablanca where he plays a very patriotic war hero who is desperate to find letters of transit. The first time we see him in this film, he’s still trying to get a letter of transit, which he seems to be unlucky with. But instead of playing a self-righteous war hero, he’s a coward and he’s afraid which causes him to kill himself where he ends up on the boat with everyone else who is dead. It’s really his story as he’s subject to seeing everyone’s judgement, and of course the film doesn’t forget that suicide is a sin, and perhaps the film is playing with the idea that it’s even more sinful during wartime, as it’s meant as the coward’s way out. If this film isn’t so propagandist towards religion, it certainly is towards the war effort as most films were at the time. It’s probably no coincidence that the last person to be judged is Pete (George Tobias) who fought in the war and has eluded death up to this point. The film takes much pains to remind us that Pete’s death isn’t in vain because he was a fighter, and his death more than any others is a reminder of the great cost many faced since we are told he had a wife and a newborn daughter whom he’ll never see. He obviously is going to heaven haha. But putting this back to wartime films, it does have that very “God’s on our side” feel to it. Sergeant York was another film at the same time, probably the most successful wartime film, where Gary Cooper plays real life Alvin York who finds religion, becomes a pacifist, yet he’s still able to become one of the most decorated war heroes ever when it’s explained to him that killing Germans is the greater good. The film has a muddled message to say the least, but people ate it up in 1941. I don’t think Sergeant York was trying to say anything profound about religion, but Between Two Worlds for my money at least adds nuance to the discussion. I think it’s because it’s more focused on its characters than giving out a pro-war message. Of course part of it comes down to the love story between Henried’s Henry and Eleanor Parker’s Ann who dies at the same moment as him though she didn’t mean to kill herself. I almost saw her as the film’s moral centre what are your thoughts?
Katie: Oh yes, when you first brought up that amusing Paul Henreid letters of transit connection while we were watching I also found it quite amusing. But yes, when you look at Between Two Worlds you see that it is an ensemble piece but I agree that the story’s path lies with Paul Henreid’s character. When we first meet his character of Henry we see a desperate man who can’t seem to go on and when he realizes he can’t leave Britain decides to end it all. Contributing to this of course is the fact that at one point we are led to believe that he was an extremely gifted pianist who now seems to have lost his gift and proper control and precision of his hands. Combined together Henry seems convinced that he has nothing to live for and even his love for Ann can’t change that mindset as he believes she would be better off without him. Naturally as you said the film does not shy away from saying that suicide is a sin and therefore comes with its own set of consequences different to the rest of the group who all died in a street bombing during an air raid. But the film yet again doesn’t get preachy in condemning this or at least does not go about it in the way you may expect. Due to the method in which Henry ended his life he is very much the outsider on the ship and feels removed, unlike the others he knows quickly that being there means he is dead while the others are gifted with a temporary ignorance which he is encouraged by Scrubby (Edmund Gwenn) not to make them aware of. Instead it is something they must realize for themselves. Funny we should talk about Pete’s wartime bravery in contrast to Henry’s cowardice as Pete is the first of the others that he and Ann encounter. Almost as if the film wants to contrast the two subtly to us. I completely agree with you that Ann seems very much the heart of the film. Henry may have took his life and Ann died in the same manner but hers was accidental and she is very much the one thing that he can grasp to. Then of course as you figured out for yourself early on it is later revealed that Scrubby who is the steward also took his own life, telling us that the punishment for those like him is to spend eternity sailing with passed souls back and forth forever. I guess depending on someone’s perspective that could either seem like a rather tame punishment for the act or an eternity of never resting and loneliness.
Jeremy: That’s true, I mean it seems like Scrubby is in sort of a limbo or purgatory I guess. Although I think he’s the cautionary tale for Henry because (Spoiler Alert) Henry and Ann don’t die, but are brought back to life for a second chance. It’s what we were hoping for since these are the two lovers, we kinda want them to live and not get separated. It goes back to the tried and true morality tale the film is trying to spin. Real quick, I suppose we should spotlight the man who does all the judging Sydney Greenstreet, who people would know from Casablanca again as well as The Maltese Falcon. What I like about Greenstreet in this is he can play a very jolly, cheery fellow like how we see him being introduced, but there is something sinister and even playful in his role. He kinda put me off balance because his arrival felt like everything was going to be okay for everyone, but then when he lays out the judgements, he means business and there is no bargaining. He’s clearly God’s messenger but there’s a bit of deceit in his character that he’s not so angelic. He’s more fire and brimstone than one might expect, even if he feels pity for the ones he’s damned, I suppose you could say I was conflicted by him, which goes to the idea that this film is more nuanced than is given credit.
Katie: Exactly, Scrubby is that cautionary figure to Henry showing what awaits him given the manner in which he died. Though Scrubby always appears to be almost sorrowful in seeing Henry and Ann navigate those first few hours before judgement, showing that even though he seems content or at least accepting of his role that he would not wish it on anyone else. But yes, as your spoiler warning entails Henry and Ann get the rare opportunity to go back and be given a second chance. Also it is quite an interesting end since Henry fades back into the past first and for a moment the movie and also the commentary from Scrubby is that Ann may not be able to go back either. Amusing since her death was just a casualty of his suicide. But yes we must touch on Sydney Greenstreet who comes in during the final act and delivers everyone their judgement whether it be heavenly bliss or an eternity of cruel punishment whether the person is truly a bad person to the core or not. He may feel brief pity for a few choice figures that may not deserve the slight cruelty of their future in the afterlife but in moments you as the viewer think he may soften he holds firm. Though in all the facets of his character as he doles out to the characters the one moment of slight gentleness is during the time when Tom (John Garfield) accepts the mild yet harsh dealing that is not a one way trip to heaven. As he accepts this the character of Mrs. Midget (Sara Allgood) who as took a shining to him through the whole film offers to go with him as a warm figure of support even if it means sacrificing her gentle future in the cottage by the sea she always dreamed of. I think Greenstreet does manage to show some warmth as he reveals to us at the same time the little twist behind this moment.
Jeremy: I love that twist, and I didn’t see it coming even though the film did a nice job setting it up in a subtle way. I won’t spoil that haha. True Greenstreet can’t help but be Greenstreet, and he brings that warmth, but the fact he’s played both angelic and sinister roles goes to the ambiguity this film shows towards his character. I wanted to talk a little bit about the look of the film, it’s very evocative and ghostly. I suppose there’s something about being on a boat in foggy conditions that just brings that eeriness in the air. Also the one thing I appreciate is the use of silence and quiet throughout. It gives the film an air of contemplation and thoughtfulness, it also takes its time with everyone. I never felt it was rushed and the characters were all fleshed out.
Katie: The film does throw a few crumbs at us so that when that little reveal happens we are surprised yet have that nice satisfaction as well. Oh all you said about the slightly conflicting aspects of his character are true and mirror the complex and multilayered characterisations through the film. This is not a film that will be giving you a rosy cheeked angels holding everyone’s hands when given their judgements. It is very surreal, but it makes the subject matter as realistic as it can be and I think that is why the film is so perfect and beautifully done. The look and style of the film is the perfect feel to really ground us in this world and set up this place as being a hazy middle ground. The whole film has a way of feeling like a prolonged dream sequence with the fog drifting in over the decks and the silence that feels unsettling on such a place that is most often thought to be bustling with people. It is eerie and also melancholic like a ghost ship sailing through the night void of the people and gaiety that you somehow feel should be there, nothing more than a shadow much like the characters themselves in a way I should add without getting too flowery. Oh yes, I appreciate that it does not shy away from prolonged moments of quiet. Naturally given the story the room for contemplation is much appreciated but for films in general the embrace of quiet and not the need to fill everything with noise is beautiful as it is here. I agree as we naturally have characters that could easily have been overlooked if not handled correctly but every supporting character is given adequate and well rounded little arcs from when we first meet them to when we must bid them farewell. By the time you get to the end you feel as if you have really gotten to know these people or at the very least you get down to seeing how they tick which is always satisfying.
Jeremy: Well put, it all comes down to a very satisfying conclusion. Speaking of which I suppose we should try to reach our own conclusion with this. I was very excited to talk about this movie at length with you in this way. I love that it was an obscure film I wasn’t aware of and you brought me to it. It’s a wonderful example of older films that get lost in the shuffle of the more canon films people are more familiar with. I know both you and I have a passion for shining a light on the films we love so I just want to thank you for showing this to me.
Katie: That is true and one that I would recommend to anyone who has not seen it or heard of. Yes, I suppose that time has come to wrap up all that we have discussed. I was excited about that to and having seen the film before I loved hearing all your insights as it felt like seeing it for the first time again with fresh eyes. It was definitely one that I knew I wanted to show you at some point and I’m very happy that you enjoyed it so much after we watched it. That is true as it is a good example of a great film that is hardly talked about which is a shame given it’s impressive cast list but I love that we could talk about it here and hopefully have it be something for others to seek out and discover for themselves. We do indeed and I loved sharing it with you and having this space to discuss and peel back the layers of the film together……. Oh and just briefly I still think Eleanor Parker spinning in circles to get back and the dissolve to the record player was silly.
Jeremy: Haha fair enough, but it’s fine to leave something a bit silly to end on.
Katie: That is true and I look forward to us doing this again.
You can read Katie Keener on her blog ToujoursKatie