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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
McGoohan plays a dour clerk who has spent twenty years working for the
Post Office. He is a serious-minded man whose only passion lies in his
wife and young son. However, although he is asocial, he has a keen eye
for cruelty and an early scene has him quietly reassuring the young
Michael Crawford after he has been set up by the popular, loud-mouthed
Bill Travers who is the Office 'character'.
Aurally, an extremely violent hold-up takes place. McGoohan's boss is shot and dies gurgling in a most horrific fashion. Travers is knocked out. McGoohan reacts to the violence by evidently thinking about his wife and child and resists his impulse to fight the robbers. Thus he emerges uninjured.
In the ensuing two weeks McGoohan's self-confidence is undermined by the police, the towns-people and most of all his superiors. All of them consider him a coward. He is passed over for an expected promotion and the job is given to the brave Travers instead. McGoohan's relationship with Virginia McKenna deteriorates as his sensitivity to what people think of him increases.He takes to wandering the streets alone at night. Eventually he meets a mysterious stranger (who shares the same lodgings as Travers) and they take to having nocturnal assignations. McGoohan discusses his behaviour in the third person by pretending he is a friend of his own character. The mysterious stranger empathises and reassures him. One night they part at McGoohans front gate and McKenna unexpectedly invites the stranger in for supper. McGoohan's deception comes to light and McKenna's distress at his betrayal of her (by his intimacy with this stranger) leads her to reveal their son is being ostracised at school because his father is a coward. Their relationship has now completely shattered.
In due course the stranger reveals he and his brother were the robbers. His brother has died in an accident consequent to their crime. He now wants to make amends for ruining McGoohans life and tells him Travers was not knocked out by them but ran into a door-post in panic during the robbery. Furthermore they were only able to plan the robbery because Travers had talked openly in his lodgings about how much cash there was and when it was available. McGoohan exorcises his demons by borrowing the gun and staging a fake hold-up of Travers where he is revealed as the braggart he is.
Mcoohan and the stranger part, the stranger promising to put his ill-gotten gains to charitable use. McGoohan returns home and offers intimacy to McKenna. She realises her man has come back and falls into his arms again.
This is a curious film where McGoohan was able to take a break from being the gallant persona that Danger Man had created for him. Around the same time he explored the characterisation of a more craven physical coward when he played the scheming Johnnie Cousin in 'All Night Long'.
The film could have been a classic British 'kitchen-sink' drama but for some reason is set in Scandinavia. This must have made it totally non-box-office at the time of it's release except maybe for the Bergman brigade! One can only assume that as it was a Nordic novel originally, the copyright-holders insisted the film be based in it's country of origin. Maybe the Norwegian in McGoohan (via 'Brand') meant he wished it to retain it's ethnicity. He surely must have had some influence in the decision as a respected theatrical actor and successful TV personality.
Either way it was one of the early steps off the beaten track that this determinedly un-populist actor was to make and of course, if you can find a copy, essential viewing for McGoohan admirers.
Fans of "Danger Man" will be surprised to see McGoohan playing a man so
passive in the face of danger, but this film buttresses many of the
values that McGoohan insisted upon for the character of John Drake, the
spy who abhorred violence. Not only does his character Eric forego a
violent response to the robbery; he spends the rest of the film
demonstrating the futility of reflexive violence. Eric's friend John
Kester died because he reacted violently to the thieves. Had Eric
resisted, he too would have died. And the robbery would still have been
successful. As Eric concludes, "It's stupid to risk your life for a few
thousand kroner, especially when you have a wife and a child....I wish
to God Kester had been an observer too."
The film does a nice job of depicting the price Eric and John's families pay for the robbery. The opening scenes set up the two parallel families: mothers happily serving breakfast, fathers good-naturedly walking their sons to school, sons happy and secure. That tranquility is forever lost to the Kester family with John's death. Kester's wife has no illusions about what she has lost; her son will grow up to conclude that his father was a good man, but she will always wish that he had chosen, like Eric, to be an observer so that he could return to his family.
Eric's family suffers in other ways. His wife Helen comes to wonder if he couldn't have done something to prevent the robbery; he comes to doubt himself and her; and their son Rolf is bullied by his schoolmates. From the beginning Rolf seeks to protect his parents. On the night of the robbery, he accedes to Eric's plea that they be careful not to upset Rolf's mother; later, once his schoolmates have made his life horrendous because of their scorn for his presumably cowardly father, he desperately tries to keep his father from discovering his misery. It takes Rolf's school teacher to point out the obvious: Rolf is as stubbornly protective of his father as his father is of Rolf and Helen. No matter how abused, Rolf and Eric stay true to themselves. The psychic price of this behavior, however, is high.
About 2/3 into the film, the viewer will be wondering whether this stoic persistence is worth it. Eric and Helen Berger have become strangers to one another, and neither can comfort Rolf. Perhaps, the viewer thinks, it might have been better if Eric had been killed--at least his memory would be honored and loved, and his marriage would never have known the doubt and alienation that has come to plague Eric and Helen.
The convenient deus ex machina of having Eric form a close tie to one of the robbers allows the film to resolve both the emotional and the philosophical issues at debate. After the thief insists that he would have shot Eric had Eric resisted the robbery, the question of the utility of violence is settled neatly. And because the thief also reveals that Andersson, the Post Office hero, did not in fact offer brave resistance, Eric can put aside the myth of successful violence. Confronting Andersson after hours and showing him up as a blowhard frees Eric to reassert his own self esteem and reclaim communion with his wife.
The ending (especially given McGoohan's famous reluctance to play love scenes) is quite touching, as indeed, is the entire film. The pain and loss that explode in the lives of the Berger and Kester families feels just as shocking to the viewer as it is to the on-screen protagonists. This film depicts their suffering with great sensitivity, and it's hard to begrudge the convenient dramatical device of the compassionate thief. The Bergers deserve some happiness after their ordeal, and a cautionary tale about the illusory appeal of violence is as instructive in 2006 as in 1961.
This movie is available only in the trading market in an adequate print
that's blipped out from a TV broadcast. It's not a noir but it will
probably be appreciated by noir aficionados and certainly by McGoohan
fans. I thought it was a strong showcase for his capacity to portray a
tortured soul under severe pressure.
Anthony Asquith, a name associated with high quality, wrote and directed. This picture is not really a noir; but it has some features in common with noir, namely, a crime lies at the story's center and its aftermath has marked effects on the principals. More than that, the story shows the dominance of falsity, self-doubt, social pressure, guilt, misperception, weakness and ostracism in human relations as a consequence of the crime. Some noir films also explore such themes at both personal and social levels.
A very good plot summary of this already is on IMDb. There are only 3 reviews there. Patrick McGoohan stars along with Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers and Alf Kjellin. All are excellent in this strong psychological drama that has the depth of a stage play. They all show emotion, and McKenna is especially notable in conveying a somewhat weak woman who has settled for less than what she really wants materially. McKenna and Travers had been married for 4 years and stayed married until his death in 1994. Here she is playing the wife of a postal clerk, McGoohan. They are happily married with one little boy about 7, but they have limited means and opportunities. McGoohan's ambition is to become the new postmaster and he stands to achieve that being senior to Travers who also doesn't have the capabilities for the job.
Travers, McGoohan and Peter Vaughan work at a postal bank which is robbed. Vaughan is shot and killed. Travers has a minor head laceration. McGoohan was in the back room at the time. After he sees that Vaughan has been shot, the masked robber confronts him at gunpoint and he hands over the cash box. The postmaster and the town view Travers and Vaughan as heroes and McGoohan as a coward. At first he defends his behavior, but then he develops doubts about himself and this spreads to McKenna, corroding their marriage badly. Travers is promoted to postmaster, striking a major blow at McGoohan and McKenna. So does the ostracism of their child at school. The story develops further when McGoohan meets a stranger, Alf Kjellin, and strikes up an unusual friendship in which each man expresses his feelings about their predicaments by acting as if they were talking about friends of theirs. Kjellin is effective in conveying his own peculiar torment.
Altogether this is an interesting story that succeeds in exploring a number of themes in some depth. By the way, for some reason the story is set in a Swedish town but it could as well have been set in England or even a small town in America.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the wide range of roles which Patrick McGoohan has played in his
long career, his favourite role was the title character in Henrik
Ibsen's "Brand": a defiant individual who is perceived to be superior
to all his neighbours in the village. In 'Two Living, One Dead',
McGoohan plays a similarly Ibsenesque 'enemy of the people', who
follows his own conscience despite grave consequences. Based on a
Norwegian novel which was previously filmed in Norway, this remake was
filmed in a small town in Sweden, with a primarily British cast
depicting Scandinavian characters. The dialogue makes references to
money as 'kroner', and so forth.
Erik Berger (McGoohan) is a middle-class husband and father and a respected civil servant: he has a secure mid-level job as a postal clerk. Berger's boss is the sub-district postmaster, John Kester (Peter Vaughan), and it's understood that Berger will eventually be promoted to that job when Kester retires. One day at the post office, Berger interrupts an armed robbery in progress: Kester has been shot dead, whilst Berger's co-worker Andersson (Bill Travers) has apparently been coshed and lies unconscious on the floor. Because Berger has a wife and young son who are dependent on him, he feels it's not worth risking his life to defend the government's money. He allows the thieves to escape with the loot before he summons the police. (The film's title refers to Berger, Andersson and Kester: two living, one dead.)
The reaction of the police, the postal authorities, the local newspaper editor and the townspeople is very interesting. Andersson -- who survived with a minor injury -- is deemed a hero for apparently having put up a fight. Kester -- who also put up a fight -- is perceived as a fool because he got himself killed. But Erik Berger is considered a coward. His neighbours shun him and his wife Helen; their young son Rolf is taunted by his schoolmates. Berger maintains that his passivity was an act of conscience, not cowardice: his neighbours disbelieve this. After Kester's funeral, Berger is passed up for promotion: it's Andersson who inherits Kester's job as postmaster.
SPOILERS COMING RIGHT NOW. Eventually, Berger learns the truth: his co-worker Andersson was not so heroic after all, and crucial details of the robbery are not what they seemed to be. Berger is vindicated.
McGoohan has long had a reputation for refusing to play violent characters. (He was reportedly first choice to play James Bond, but turned down the role because of its gratuitous sex and gunplay.) As Erik Berger, McGoohan gives a cold performance with aspects of 'holier-than-thou': even if Berger made the proper decision, it's difficult for us to like him. The very beautiful Virginia McKenna is superb as Berger's wife, the nearest thing to a heroine in this movie: there must have been an interesting dynamic on the set, as (in real life) McKenna was married at this time to Bill Travers, who plays the unexpected villain. Young Michael Crawford is impressive as the post-office errand boy who remains loyal to Berger when everyone else shuns him. (Full disclosure: Crawford got me sacked from a job once.) Dorothy Alison is touching as the slain postmaster's widow; unfortunately, her character is named Esther Kester. Alf Kjellin is good as a stranger in town, who sympathises with Berger for his own reasons ... which turn out to be rather surprising.
This movie is rather a departure for Anthony Asquith, who tended to direct films with patrician characters and classical themes. (Not surprising, in view of his parentage.) I give Asquith, McGoohan and McKenna full marks for sincerity, but this movie doesn't really come off: it's gloomy and existentialist, occasionally promising to become a noir thriller or (during the robbery sequence) a caper movie, yet never delivering. The character of Berger is ambiguous: were his actions indeed dictated by conscience, or was he simply a coward? Has anyone the right to judge Berger if they've never been in a similar situation? This film raises intelligent questions but offers no answers. The Swedish tech crew do their jobs efficiently, especially as they were working with a British director and cast. I'll rate 'Two Living, One Dead' 4 out of 10.
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