Patrick McGoohan is famous for playing crafty and self-possessed men who spend most of their time anticipating how best to deal with the cards in the other players' hands. His one-of-a-kind style is a source of awe for his colleagues and McGoohan's many fans analyse every frame of his work, trying to see how everything fits together. I've yet to meet anyone, though, who has seen "Two Living, One Dead," a much-overlooked film he made for Anthony Asquith in 1961. It was an oddly-themed crime drama for that time, or, indeed, for 1937 when an earlier Swedish picture was first adapted from Sigurd Christiansen's prize-winning novel. Patrick McGoohan is Berger, a married man with a small son. He has no greater career drive than to be Postmaster one day, but John Kester is older and has more experience, so he gets the job first. Knowing he is next in line for the job is quite enough for Berger, at least for the present. Then a horrifying tragedy occurs which transforms Berger's small, quiet community into a virtual prison, unrelieved by friendship or sympathy. Berger interrupts a robbery-in-progress: John Kester has been murdered and another unconscious employee named Anderson lies beside him. Instinctively, Berger reacts in panic and offers no resistance to the armed men. Afterwards, still trembling, he immediately summons help, but his response to the robbery is considered "questionable" by the authorities, his employers, the press and his neighbors.
Unlike Anderson, who proudly wears a large bandage on his head, Berger didn't even try to protect his employer's money. His wife Helen expresses gratitude that he acted like a coward and didn't leave her a widow like Mrs. Kester. Berger's much younger colleague Nils, who has always championed him for Postmaster, is taunted by his co-workers, and Berger's little boy Rolf, who never loses faith in his father for an instant, is bullied by bigger kids at school and then patronised by his teacher. The only adult who offers Berger a shred of sympathy is a stranger in town named Rogers, beautifully played by Alf Kjellin. Rogers is on a death watch for his brother, who was hit by a car. Unlike the townspeople, he does not judge Berger for his behavior, but only appears disgusted by the honors that are being heaped on Anderson the Hero. The connection between Berger and Rogers is among the more intriguing elements of this low-key film noir, filmed entirely in Sweden with a largely British cast and a mostly Swedish crew. Initially, "Two Living, One Dead" was well received when Anthony Asquith brought it to Moscow for a public screening. Things returned to normal when he went back to England and sadly watched the film wind up on British television and, much later, on American television at three in the morning.
For "Secret Agent," "Prisoner" and "Columbo" fans, though, "Two Living, One Dead" is a MUST: it truly deserves a video release so that today's audiences can see the origins of Patrick McGoohan's existential isolation and his mesmerising defiance of authorities: it's all rooted in deeply emotional fear, which he expresses unreservedly here. The other cast members (Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, Dorothy Alison, Peter Vaughn, a teenaged Michael Crawford as Nils and 8-year-old John Moulder-Brown as Rolf) are all wonderfully cast and played, but the centrepiece of this offbeat gem is Berger's eerie connection with the mysterious Rogers. Why do we lionise so-called heroes? How does the notion of cowardice infiltrate our essential human drive for self-preservation? Does it take our own unbearable suffering for us to recognise others who suffer? Maybe these questions weren't front and center in 1963's "The V.I.P,'S," a much splashier flick also directed by Asquith, but they're here in "Two Living, One Dead," starring the great Patrick McGoohan, if only you can find this unjustly forgotten treasure, SOMEWHERE, ANYWHERE!
© 2003 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 1/8/03
Two Living, One Dead
Sweden/UK - 1961