What happens after death is an interesting question, maybe a little scary, but very important. I definitely didn’t start this blog to proselytize, and I’m not going to start now, but death is something we’ll all face someday. The problem is, no one who dies can tell the rest of us what it’s like–all we can do is speculate. Between Two Worlds, a 1944 film featuring such greats as John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, and Paul Henreid, reflects one view of the workings of the afterlife.
It is wartime London. At a steamship office, groups of people are sitting around waiting for transportation to ships bound for America. The departure board is blank except for a giant chalk “X” and there are posters everywhere reminding people that the enemy would love to know what they know. We see a line of passengers sitting and waiting, starting with a bored-looking young man and his girlfriend, who is polishing her nails. She shows them off to the fancy woman next to her, who recoils in horror and switches seats with her husband. Next is a jolly-looking Merchant Marine proudly telling the clergyman next to him about going home as a passenger. Deluxe. On the pastor’s other side is a kindly older woman who offers a bun from her basket to a man in a posh-looking suit, who is sitting gingerly and stiffly on the edge of the bench. The latter jumps up and demands that his staff be allowed to wait with him, but the officer in charge refuses, as there are no special privileges during wartime.
A nervous Austrian man runs up to the counter, hands shaking, and asks for passage on the next ship. The clerk regretfully tells him he can’t, as there’s nothing he can do if the man doesn’t have an exit permit. The man trudges off regretfully, leaving the clerk to remark to the officer that the man had been quite a soldier in the Free French and it was all too bad. The officer nods, and then calls Group F, which just happens to be the line of people on the bench. Group F rise as one and pile into a waiting car. Just as they’re about to drive away, a young woman runs up to the car looking desperately for someone named Henry. And as if that weren’t enough, the air raid siren goes off. The car with Group F drives away, only to catch a direct hit. The woman is thrown to the ground and watches in horror as the car burns.
The woman (whose name is Ann, played by Eleanor Parker) goes home and finds her husband, Henry (Paul Henreid), who was the man at the shipping office trying to buy a ticket. He tells her he’s no good for her as he can’t work, especially in the profession he loved, which was as a concert pianist. Ann passionately denies it, and then notices Henry has sealed all the windows and the gas is on.
The hissing of the gas gives way to the hissing of a ship’s whistle. Ann and Henry walk slowly down a long hallway, and then the deck, and just as slowly the truth dawns on them: they’re dead. They peer through a window at the bar and see the group from the cab at the shipping office, standing around in a clump as the steward passes out cabin assignments. Feeling more and more freaked, Ann and Henry go into a lounge, where Henry sits down at a baby grand piano and finds he can play again.
Soon Ann and Henry meet Scrubby, the steward, played by Ed Gwynn. Scrubby is a sympathetic soul who takes care of those just entering the afterlife. Scrubby warns the couple not to let the rest of the people know that they’re dead, but to let them figure it out on their own.
Speaking of the other passengers, what took place on the bench tells us most of we need to know about them except for their names. Tom Prior (John Garfield) is a former foreign correspondent. He’s abrasive, outspoken, mad at the world, and uses wit and sarcasm to cover up how lonely he really is.
Maxine (Faye Emerson) is a mediocre actress who came to England to perform with the USO because she thought it would give her career a boost. It doesn’t pan out, and she takes up with Tom, probably because he’s handsome and exciting. When his career hits the skids, she loses interest very quickly and is bitter at everyone, Mr. Lingley being the one exception.
Mr. Lingley (George Coulouris) always introduces himself as “Mr. Lingley of Lingley, Limited.” He’s to-the-letter ruthless–a selfish, grabby snob who can’t believe he has to associate with the common man. His bodyguards are his security blankets. He also is on the lookout for a trophy wife or something, and in this instance he casts his eye at Maxine Russell. It’s clear the two don’t love each other (when would they have had time?), but Maxine sees Mr. Lingley as a possible meal ticket.
Next are Benjamin and Genevieve Cliveden-Banks (Gilbert Emery and Isobel Elsom), an older couple who were bound for America to help raise money for war orphans. Benjamin is relatively decent, but like Mr. Lingley, Genevieve is deeply snobby, aghast at having to mix with the unwashed masses. She treats her high-born husband more like a Maltese dog than a human being, only a lot less dotingly–if Genevieve could stick Benjamin in her handbag, she would.
Also on the bench are Pete Musick (George Tobias), Mrs. Midget (Sara Allgood), and Reverend William Duke (Dennis King). Pete is a nice fellow from New York City who’s overjoyed to be going home to see his wife and new baby girl. He enjoys life and likes cheering people up. He’s also been torpedoed three times, and he thinks it’s his lucky charm that saved him–a little paper doll he’s named Hokus and carries in his pocket. Mrs. Midget is a gentle, motherly lady of the working class who’s going to America for her own reasons, and she likes sticking close to Tom. She encourages him to make friends and speak up for himself, which Tom is a wee bit baffled about. Last but not least is Reverend William, another gentle sort who is off to America because he wants to be out in the world meeting people. Reverend William has never left his parish, and is excited to talk to anyone of any class.
Tom figures the situation out first. He sees how strangely Ann and Henry are acting and tails them, overhearing them talking about how the others are still making plans for the future even though they suddenly have none. Tom breaks the news by putting on what his companions think is a magic show. It isn’t until he shoots Mr. Lingley that the group finally realizes something’s going on, and even then Tom has to spell it out for them. Most of the passengers take the new revelation calmly, but it’s more of a struggle for some than for others.
After that, there’s nothing to do but let the idea sink in. “But wait, there’s more,” Scrubby tells them, only he says it much more elegantly. The Examiner (Sydney Greenstreet) will be coming to evaluate them for their next destination, and they have absolutely no control over it. They don’t all take this lying down, either. Mr. Lingley in particular tries to do what he’s done his entire life, and that is to bribe, cajole, and intimidate. It’s a no-go with Scrubby and the Examiner, though. In fact, it makes things worse–like arguing with a cop after being pulled over. And that goes for the rest of the characters. They can’t bring anything to the table except who they are and how they’ve spent their time on earth. Some will be pleasantly surprised, others will have their hopes dashed, but they will all get what they deserve.
Garfield plays Prior with an energy that just grabbed me, as if he was playing the role in the theater instead of in a film. He really gives the sense that Prior is smirking in the face of death, even though deep down he knows better. His bravado does begin to ebb, but for a good reason. I kept hoping he would have a new and better destination than what he left behind.
Between Two Worlds is a simple movie, but it raises some deep ideas. A fancy Art Deco ocean liner may not be exactly the way we make our way into the afterlife (and most likely it isn’t). We can’t presume to know how long we will live, and we certainly shouldn’t take matters into our own hands. What we do have a say in, though, is what we do with our lives. Do we throw life away, or do we seek to be the best people we can be? As C+C Music Factory once sang, “Things that make you go hmmmm…”
And that wraps up Day Two of The John Garfield Blogathon. There are more entries waiting for you at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Hope you enjoyed reading this, and see you tomorrow for Day Three!