Sunday, September 2, 2012

Between Two Worlds and Outward Bound: One's a Classic, One's Not

The following review contains plot spoilers.

John Garfield learns his destiny.
Long ago, when I could still be surprised by a classic film, I discovered Between Two Worlds on a local TV station. It quickly entranced me with its tale of a mysterious ocean liner drifting through misty waters with only a handful of passengers. The steward, Stubby (Edmund Gwenn), seems to know a lot more than anyone else--and, indeed he does, for he is dead and so are all the passengers. They are sailing to their destiny and each one's personalized fate will be delivered to them by the Examiner (Sidney Greenstreet).

Greenstreet as the Examiner.
Between Two Worlds is the kind of the film Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger might have made if they worked within the studio system in 1940s Hollywood. Granted, it lacks the imaginative visual style of, say, A Matter of Life and Death. However, it creates a haunting portrait of its fateful journey, framed effectively by the despair of World War II. Its other strengths include an all-star Warners Bros. cast (John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, Paul Henreid, and Greenstreet) and a stunning score from composer Eric Wolfgang Korngold.

Daniel Fuchs adapted the screenplay from Sutton Vane's 1924 stage play Outward Bound. Vane's play also served as the basis for a 1930 film version starring Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

From the day I learned about the Leslie Howard version, I was intrigued with seeing it. Little did I know it will take me over three decades. But last month, to my delight, Outward Bound popped up on TCM On Demand. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a huge disappointment.

Certainly, my expectations set the bar high, which likely impacted my assessment. I am also acutely aware of the limitations of early sound films, such as the absence of background music and the tendency to minimize camera movement. In regard to Outward Bound, those limitations emphasized its theatrical origins. Indeed, it seemed as if one was watching a filmed play--a fact reinforced by a lengthy opening narration that describes the virtues of Vane's play.

Howard as Tom Prior.
Great acting could have carried the day--after all, much of the dialogue is the same in both films. However, it's the performances that sadly doom Outward Bound. Even Leslie Howard overplays his role as Tom Prior, one of the first passengers to discover the truth. It's almost as if he was still mastering the nuances that separated acting on the stage from acting on film.

Interestingly, Howard appeared in the stage version of Outward Bound, but in a different role. He played Henry, one of the two lovers who commit suicide (a role played by Fairbanks in the 1930 film and Henreid in Between Two Worlds). I think Howard would have been fine as Henry, but suspect the producers thought Prior was a juicier part (it is--and Garfield provides the required intensity in the later film).

Outward Bound has its virtues. The fog-enshrouded darkness creates the required mysterious atmosphere. Helen Chandler, as Fairbanks' lover Ann, has a touching scene near the end where she believes Henry has been lost to her. However, there's no doubt that Between Two Worlds is a vastly superior film, a quiet, disconcerting classic that leaves a lasting impression.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post comparing the classic "Between Two Worlds" with "Outward Bound." The latter does indeed have an especially annoying opening where you have to read several pages of text, which is not the way to draw a viewer into the film. Leslie Howard is also, unfortunately, over the top in his role. "Between Two Worlds" is the far superior choice for this intriguing story.

    1. The 'several' pages you refer to would be 2 (two). I don't mean to criticise, as it's quite possible that might provide difficulty for you, for many reasons. But, I must disagree with your commentary. Yes, it was 1930. So that must be taken as fact, as an early attempt for the 'talkies', but I found the acting superb.

  2. Rick, after reading this I've put "Between Two Worlds" in my DVD queue. Don't know why I've never seen this. The presence of Garfield et al. make it of definite interest to me. I did try to watch "Outward Bound" on TCM recently and gave up on it after 20 minutes or so, something I rarely do even for obvious turkeys. Everything you observed about I did too. It was just too curiously stilted and artificial--especially about its "Twilight Zone"-like premise--for me to take seriously. Even the normally reliable Leslie Howard was a drag!

  3. "...a quiet, disconcerting classic that leaves a lasting impression." That's exactly the impression "Between Two Worlds" made on me in my youth and, I'm happy to say, sustained to this day. The movie even impressed my mother, who is not a major classic film fan.

    It's Beryl Mercer who does in "Outward Bound" for me. I just want to shake her.

    PS: I suppose I'll vote for "Postman" on the poll, but my all-time favourite Garfield performance is in "The Breaking Point"

  4. I agree, Between Two Worlds is a better film, and it is not just because I am a huge John Garfield fan. I think Garfield himself hated the film and his performance in it. However, I liked performance and his is the only character I cry for at the end. As far as the voting goes, if The Breaking Point was a choice I would have voted for that film. His performance in that film is amazing. No acting is seen by Mr. Garfield, he is Harry Morgan. Although I have love so many of his performances and his films it is so hard to choose.

  5. Me again. Hello. I am a huge fan of John Garfield. Below is a link to a petition I wrote to present to WB home video and TCM to ask them to finally put together a box-set of John Garfield's films for purchase. If you support this petition and believe it is about time that a box-set of John Garfield's films become available then please add your name to this petition. I need a lot of names to make this petition successful so please feel free to spread the word about this petition. If you prefer that your name not be displayed there is a function on the petition site that will allow you to do this and all that will show is “Name Not Displayed and the state where you live. Also, comments are very important in making any petition successful so please if you feel comfortable about adding a comment I encourage you to do so. I hope you will add your name to my petition.
    Thank you very much.

    Here is the link to my petition.

  6. You make an excellent point, Lori! Breaking Point should have been included in the John Garfield survey, but I had a hard time narrowing down his best performance as it was! It always amazes me that the film "To Have And Have To Have Not" which is loosely based on the Hemingway story, as opposed to "Breaking Point" which was a far superior film and more true to Hemingway 's book is forgotten.

  7. I do remember this having a big efefct on me as a child, with the slow realisation that they were all souls on their way to the hereafter really hitting me. Not sure of Garfield is well cast in it, his being such a 'down to earth' sort of performer, but I have no doubts about the value of the amazing music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a major plus all on its own.

  8. I woke up early today and discovered "Between Two Worlds" on TCM. I was 45 minutes late to tune in, but I couldn't take my eyes off the movie. I must buy it. I cried through most of the last hour. Exdellent!!!

  9. I am with anonymous above. While I have seen this film a couple of times before, I always find it intriguing and emotionally engaging. While it is A comparatively little known film, its moral lessons will capture any thoughtful heart.

  10. I loved this movie! All of us wonder what happens after death, but nobody knows exactly what it will be like. Though this movie is a fantasy, it is deep and well thought out. If indeed we do create our Heaven or Hell from how we live our lives,then this film sums it up well! It is thought provoking and well worth watching.