Hey, it's a shipboard drama! Romance? Fun? Wackiness?
Oh, no. What an odd, odd movie.
We meet the principles in a waiting room of an oceanliner firm. In a nice piece of economical filmmaking, they’re all sitting on the same bench, and the camera goes from one end to the other, establishing each character. There’s the bitter, cynical newspaperman, played by John Garfield, whom I never like. His brash hard-bitten girlfriend.
She shows off her new nail hue to the matron next to her, who huffs a well-I-never and exchanges places with her older, cadaverous husband. So we know the hubby’s henpecked and the matron’s a snoot.
Next, a good-heartened all-smiles sailor from the merchant marine, who’s full of cheer because he’s goin’ home to see his wife and his kid, and bruddah, after bein’ torpedoed three times he’s lookin’ forward to a nice easy trip. There’s a nice old lady who’s been a domestic all her life, and a priest, too.
We add a miserable capitalist who orders everyone around, and we’re ready to board.
Add Hans Conreid, not in heroic Victor Lazlo mode here, but still tortured, sensitive, and foreign in that vague 40s movie way:
He wants to get on the ship, but he’s told there’s a six-month wait for exit visas. Seems a bit cruel in wartime, no? Let ‘em out if they want to go. He leaves.
They have to take a taxi to the dock, and be quick about it, since there’s bombers above. A distraught young woman who’s looking for her husband stops the cab to look inside; she wants to go inside, but the capitalist pushes her away, and they’re off to the dock.
But then, well, uh-oh:
It’s not often you see a movie that introduces all the characters, then kills ‘em off. Spectacularly.
But remember the title. Those two worlds are This One and the Afterlife. Most of the movie consists of the trip from one to the other. There are two big plot points the script has to hit: when do they realize they’re dead, and what happens when the ship docks?
Oh, the two characters who didn’t get in the taxi? They go home and gas themselves. So it’s just a day-brightener all around, this one. The suicide scene also manages to stop the movie right in its tracks; all the dramatic momentum leaks out, and when we meet them again on the ship, the film has begun its strange sleepwalking pace. Since they’re suicides, they know they’re dead. The others don’t. The others seem to think that being the only people on the liner is normal. Assisting them in their transition? The invaluable Edmund Gwenn, who’s kindly and decent and helpful, if a bit vague about things.
Well, eventually they wake up to their situation, magnify the character traits present the first time we met them, engage in some side melodramas, and generally pad out the trip. I had high hopes for this, based on the first few scenes, and thought there’d be more of a shipboard feel. Nearly gave up on it until they docked, and here comes the fellow who will judge their inevitable destination:
Yes sir. Very good sir. I like a man who speaks frankly about damnation, sir. Sidney Greenstreet. Will it be the good Sidney or the corrupted Sidney? Well, you know the answer to that. One by one the characters are given their final verdict, which makes for an interesting half-hour. There’s no heaven or hell spoken of, just appropriate eternities. (The priest, I believe, gets to go a small town with a fine golf course.) For a culture that had been through years of war, it’s an interesting fable - a gauzy reassurance that we survive, we go to the right place, and will be waiting for the beloved survivors.
The suicidal couple, as you might imagine, views the judgement procedure with no small amount of trepidation, but they should have remembered: this is a Warner Brothers movie. They’re good people. And so does a movie about dead people going to heaven or hell manage to provide a happy ending you couldn’t have seen coming unless you had seen “Outward Bound,” the 1930 movie on which it was based, or saw the stage play.
Notable: the score. It’s by Korngold, which I didn’t find as compelling as some did. The trailer is here. (Unembeddable, alas.)