During World War II, a diverse group of people in war-ravaged London books passage for the United States, but Austrian pianist-turned-soldier in the Résistance Henry Bergner (Paul Henreid) is unable to join them for want of an exit permit. Searching the streets for him during a German air raid, his wife Ann (Eleanor Parker) witnesses an aerial bomb obliterate a car full of passengers on their way to the docks. She returns to their apartment to find that Henry has turned on the gas to commit suicide. Despite his attempt to dissuade her, she joins him.
Suddenly, the pair find themselves on board a fog-shrouded, mostly-deserted cruise ship together with some other passengers. Ann recognizes them as the people who were killed in the bombing. The steward, Scrubby (Edmund Gwenn), asks Henry and Ann not to tell the others they are dead; it is better that they come to the realization on their own.
At first, the couple is delighted to be together eternally and to have Henry's piano-playing ability restored to him, but they soon find their situation unbearable as they become acquainted with the others. Timid Anglican priest Reverend William Duke (Dennis King) yearns to more actively help his fellow man, while American merchant sailor Pete Musick (George Tobias), who has survived three ship sinkings, looks forward to seeing his infant child for the first time. A kind-hearted older woman, Mrs. Midget (Sara Allgood), tells Thomas Prior (John Garfield), a cynical, wisecracking newspaperman, that she would be content with a little place of her own. At one point in the film Prior says that his epitaph should read: "Here lies Prior. Wifeless. Childless. Wishing his father had died the same."
Prior is the first to learn the truth when he eavesdrops on Henry and Ann, and, spurned by his wealth-seeking actress companion, Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson) for unscrupulous war profiteer Mr. Lingley (George Coulouris), reveals all to the other passengers in a "magic show" in which he burns Lingley's money and shoots him in the chest with Lingley's gun, to no effect.
The jig up, Scrubby reveals that they are to be judged by the Examiner and consigned to their various fates. When the Examiner arrives, he is revealed to be the deceased Reverend Tim Thompson (Sydney Greenstreet), someone Duke had known well in life. Duke is given another opportunity in Heaven, as an Examiner-in-training. The Examiner takes Henry away to sit in on the rest of the examinations. One by one, the other passengers are judged and sent ashore to their respective fates.
Wealthy Mr. Lingley discovers he can neither bribe nor browbeat his way into Heaven, and must pay for the suffering he inflicted on others in his ruthless, single-minded drive to raise himself from the slum. He had amassed wealth and power. But Thompson asks: "where is it." Unlike the others, he will have no "examination", having already condemned himself with the words: "I'm Lingley, of Lingley Limited."
Genevieve and Benjamin Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom and Gilbert Emery) are a mismatched couple. She is a shallow, mercenary social climber, who married him only for his wealth and position and was unfaithful. She is at first delighted to learn that she will reside in a castle, but then the Examiner tells her she will be alone forever. Her husband had patiently put up with his wife's infidelities because he truly loved her and hoped that she would someday reciprocate, but his love finally wore out and, when given the choice, declines to join her in her solitary afterlife. Instead, he is to be reunited with his old chums.
Prior then barges in, and is followed by Russell. He is defiant, but she regrets the choices she made in life. She leaves with the hope of redemption. Prior however tries to gamble his way into Heaven by rigging a deck of cards, but when his sleight of hand is trumped by the Examiner's powers, he demands total oblivion. Instead, he is told that the afterlife will be no different from his life, with one exception: he will no longer be able to hide behind his deceptions; he will not be able to delude himself as to who and what he really is. Mrs. Midget offers to accompany Prior, giving up her cottage and garden in Heaven. The somewhat bewildered and suspicious Prior agrees. The Examiner reveals, after Prior leaves the room, that Mrs. Midget is actually Prior's mother. She had given him up when he was very young so he could have a better chance in America; being reunited with him, being able to take care of him, is her idea of Heaven.
Musick the sailor bemoans not being able to see his family again, but is consoled when told he will be reunited with them eventually.
Finally, there is the special case of Henry Bergner. Because he committed suicide, he is doomed to remain on the ship, or one like it, for all eternity, just like Scrubby, while Ann goes to Heaven. Ann protests that her suicide was voluntary and that nothing will separate her from Henry. Ann refuses to go ashore with the Examiner. Scrubby pleads the matter with the Examiner, seemingly to no avail. Then Henry begins to hear the sound of breaking glass and wanders onto the deck to think. Ann searches for him, but he is nowhere to be found. Scrubby tells her that he must have gone back to Earth. Returned to their apartment, Henry finds a window shattered by a bomb blast, letting in fresh air and thwarting their suicide attempt. He revives Ann and they rejoice at being given back the gift of life.John Garfield as Tom Prior
Paul Henreid as Henry Bergner
Sydney Greenstreet as Reverend Tim Thompson
Eleanor Parker as Ann Bergner
Edmund Gwenn as Scrubby
George Tobias as Pete Musick
George Coulouris as Mr. Lingley
Faye Emerson as Miss Maxine Russell
Sara Allgood as Mrs. Midget
Dennis King as Reverend William Duke
Isobel Elsom as Genevieve Cliveden-Banks
Gilbert Emery as Benjamin Cliveden-Banks
Neither the original play, Outward Bound, nor its 1930 film version have a war setting. There are fewer characters in the play and the earlier film, and no one is killed by a bomb, but the plot is essentially the same, as is much of the dialogue. However, because there is no bomb explosion, neither the audience nor the ship passengers are aware that the passengers are dead until well into the play, not even Henry and Ann. The play and earlier film also share a number of other differences from Between Two Worlds, one of them being that Henry and Ann are lovers and Ann cannot obtain a divorce from her husband. When they board the ship, the audience is led to believe that they are running away to be together, and it is not until the end that it is revealed that they tried to commit suicide. The Hays Code, which was not in effect in 1930, when Outward Bound was filmed, prevented Ann and Henry from being depicted as illicit lovers, and instead demanded that they be turned into husband and wife. However, the suicide aspect of the story went unchanged from the original.
Never available on VHS, Between Two Worlds was released by Warner Archive on DVD.A Matter of Life and Death (film)
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