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Two Living, One Dead

Posted by martinteller on July 27, 2013

One night, a post office is robbed at gunpoint for a large amount of money.  Three employees are present during the crime.  Kester (Peter Vaughn) is mortally wounded attempting to vanquish the burglars.  Andersson (Bill Travers) is knocked unconscious when he tries to attack one.  In another room, Erik Berger (Patrick McGoohan) hears the commotion.  As he goes to check it out, a gun is pointed at his belly.  He hands over the cash with no resistance.  Now Andersson is hailed as a hero who did his “duty” while Berger is the subject of sneering gossip and derision.  The newspapers call him a coward.  His son (John Moulder-Brown) is ridiculed at school.  The promotion to Postmaster that he was in line for gets handed to Andersson, despite being his senior.  He’s suspected of being an accomplice.  Even his wife (Virginia McKenna) has her doubts about Erik’s character and whether he did the right thing.  Only one man seems to be on his side, a stranger named Rogers (Alf Kjellin) who has troubles of his own.

Another superlative drama from Anthony Asquith, who has rarely let me down.  The film is based on a Swedish novel and in fact was a Swedish movie in 1937.  Asquith makes the unusual decision to set and shoot the film in Stockholm, although most of the actors are British and there is no narrative reason why it needs to remain in Sweden.  He even pulls from Ingmar Bergman’s stable: Kjellin had significant roles in a few of Bergman’s early films (including the laughably bad High Tension) and the cinematography is in the very capable hands of Gunnar Fischer.

McGoohan, in a role far from the crafty hero of “Danger Man” that he was known for at the time (and later “The Prisoner”), is wonderful in the lead.  He projects a rare vulnerability as his reputation and sense of self-worth start to crumble.  He has to communicate a lot of internal conflict and a range of emotions, which he pulls off expertly.  By the same token, the other main players — McKenna, Travers and Kjellin — have complex parts to play and acquit themselves beautifully.  Interestingly, Travers & McKenna were married at the time (and later starred together in Born Free and had instrumental roles in the semi-related documentary The Lion at World’s End) yet they share very little screen time.

The story is compelling and unfolds nicely (though a third act reveal may strike some as too convenient), but it’s not primarily a plot-driven film.  It’s a character study in the most literal sense as Berger — and everyone who knows or hears about him — examines his character in great depth.  It’s also an examination of “courage” versus self-preservation, a condemnation of those who rush to judgment, and a comment on the futility of violence.  The film explores human frailty and foibles in a manner that would make Bergman himself proud.

What a shame that the only copy of this I could find is a shoddy recording from a television broadcast.  Rating: Great (91)


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