Films: Drama/Romance


THE STRANGER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946. Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Philip Merivale, Richard Long. Director: Orson Welles.

   Orson Welles’ The Stranger, the auteur’s most commercially successful production, is a movie about evil. More specifically, it’s a film about the capacity of evil to mask itself in respectable bourgeois garb, to hide inconspicuously in plain sight.

   Although linear in its narrative, The Stranger makes ample use of unique camera movements and stylistic flourishes commonly associated with film noir. And as in films noir, Welles’s choice of non-traditional camera angles and use of shadows and lighting to convey impending menace serves to give the film a semi-nightmarish feeling, one that conveys to the viewer that there is something fundamentally not quite right with post-war American and its norms of surface level respectability.

   As an actor in the film, Welles is on less solid ground. While his portrayal of the Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, now hiding in Connecticut under the name Charles Rankin, is captivating in its depiction of how seemingly ordinary men can be capable of committing atrocities, it’s also fundamentally flawed. Welles is just a bit too American in his mannerisms throughout as well as in his desperate fear of being caught by the Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson).

   This prevents him from fully disappearing into his character. To be fair, Welles was portraying a Nazi war criminal that was merely pretending to be nothing more than a respectable teacher at a New England boys’ school, one who married the daughter (Loretta Young) of one of the town’s leading public figures.

   There’s much more I could say about The Stranger, but I hesitate to say too much without viewing the film for a second, or even perhaps third, time. There’s a lot going on in the film, much more than I suspect movie audiences saw in 1946 or that I saw upon my first viewing of the Kino Classics DVD version.

   That said, two aspects of the film bear mentioning. The first is the scene in which there is a film within the film. It takes place in a typical upper class Connecticut home in which Mr. Wilson (Robinson) shows both the town judge and his daughter footage from the Nazi concentration camps. This was actual footage and was taken from Death Mills (1945), a documentary film on the Holocaust produced by director Billy Wilder, who himself lost his mother in Auschwitz. This was the first time actual footage of the Holocaust was utilized in Hollywood film.

   The second concerns a quirky aspect of Orson Welles’ character, namely his obsession with clocks. It’s a recurring theme throughout the film and one that Welles, as director, utilizes skillfully to dramatize the fact that as Nazi hunter Wilson closes in on him, time is running out for Franz Kindler and his perverted notion of restoring the Third Reich.


THE 7th DAWN. United Artists, US/UK, 1964. William Holden, Susannah York, Capucine, Tetsurô Tanba, Michael Goodliffe, Allan Cuthbertson. Director: Lewis Gilbert.

   There’s a scene in the latter part of The 7th Dawn in which William Holden, along with two traveling companions, slog their way through the humid Malay jungle in a near futile attempt to reach the city before a prisoner they hope to save is hanged. As they swing their machetes to and fro, hoping to take down trees and brush that obstruct their path, you just sense how trapped these characters feel. Most of all, you feel the slowness of it all, the overpowering sense of how little time seems to be elapsing despite their valiant effort.

   Call me overly critical, but that’s essentially how I felt watching this turgid cinematic adaptation of Australian novelist Michael Keon’s The Durian Tree (1960). Although filmed on location in Malaysia, which admittedly does provide the viewer with some captivating scenery, the film never really makes a solid case for itself. William Holden is the star. He portrays Ferris, an American rubber plantation owner caught up in the power machinations of both sides during the Malay Emergency. He is a one-note character, a committed bachelor and political maverick, loyal to no side but compelled, like so many other characters in novels and movies before and since, to live in exotic non-Western locales.

   When the British detain his long time mistress Dhana (Capucine) for terrorist activities, he’s forced to make decisions that will impact not just his own life and fortune, but also the future of Malaysia and its people as they seek independence from British rule. He soon is forced to reckon his own desire to stay aloof from politics with the knowledge that Ng (Tetsurô Tanb), a comrade in arms from from the Second World War and the fight against the Japanese occupation, is leading the violent, pro-Soviet insurgency against the British. Added to the mix is an unlikely – and frankly unconvincing – platonic May-December romance between Ferris (Holden) and Candace Trumpey (Susannah York), the daughter of the newly appointed British Resident in Malaysia.

   For a movie that appears to have been promoted as both an adventure film and as a romance, The 7th Dawn is a shockingly dull motion picture. While there are a few somewhat exciting moments scattered throughout the film, none of them, save an overwrought scene in which British soldiers torch an insurgent village, are particularly memorable. And that one was cheap, clearly designed to pull the heartstrings of theater audiences and to build a moral equivalency between the British and the Malay communists.

   Perhaps that’s part of what made watching this movie such a slog. When all is said and done, you just don’t feel particularly keen on either the British or the Malay insurgents. Why make a movie with a plot that continually raises the stakes and gives the audience no one to truly root for?


STELLA DALLAS. United Artists, 1925. Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt, Beatrix Pryor, Lois Moran, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Vera Lewis. Based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. Director: Henry King. Shown at Cinevent 22, Columbus OH, May 1990.

   One of the great all-time tear-jerkers, and I don’t imagine there was a dry eye in the room at the end. Colman was a major star before the talkies, and I’ve never seen him give a bad performance, but this Belle Bennett’s film, and she carries you with her all the way.

   Is her performance better than Barbara Stanwyck’s in the sound remake? Maybe not, but I think it’s just as good, and I am a great admirer of Stanwyck in almost everything she did in the thirties and forties.


FRANKIE AND JOHNNIE. Republic, 1936. Helen Morgan, Chester Morris, Lilyan Tashman, Florence Reed, Walter Kingsford and William Harrigan. Written by Lou Goldberg, Moss Hart(!) and Jack Kirkland. Directed by Chester Erskine and John H. Auer.

HER MAN, Pathé, 1930. Helen Twelvetrees, Philips Holmes, Marjorie Rambeau, Ricardo Cortez, James Gleason, Hary Sweet, Thelma Todd and Franklin Pangborn. Written by Tom Buckingham and Tay Garnett. Directed by Tay Garnett.

   Okay so now that everyone has the tune running in their head, here’s one of my favorites:

   Now let’s get on to the movies, starting with Frankie and Johnnie:

   Helen Morgan, the tragic hard-boiled chanteuse of the jazz age, and virile, roguish Chester Morris. They seem born for the parts. Add seductive Lilyan Tashman as a gal named Nellie Blye, Florence Reed as the Lady that’s known as Lou, and stately Walter Kingsford as a raffish gambler with a derringer tucked in his vest, and you have a cast that should have carried this off.

   Unfortunately, they don’t.

   Frankie and Johnnie was an independent production made in 1934 and finally picked up for distribution by Republic in ’36, and the delay should be a tip-off that there was something rotten in Screenland. In this case, it’s the saccharine, Disney-esque treatment of the early parts, as the lovers meet and court each other amid flowering gardens and fluttering songbirds. A little of this goes a long way, and we get a lot of it: about an hour’s worth in a film that runs 66 minutes. And yet….

   There are two moments here that will stay in my mind long after much better movies have fled my brain cells for greener pastures. They both involve brothel-madam Florence Rice, looking down from the mezzanine where she keeps an eye on things. Sensing trouble, she daintily takes out her handkerchief, whereupon the bartenders covertly pull iron. Then she drops it and we see the wisp of fabric drift languidly down to the floor as shots ring out. The first time, it’s an interesting scene. The second time, it has the fatal resonance of a ballad.

   Which suits it just fine.

   Much much much much better is Tay Garnett’s take on the tune from 1930, Her Man. In this version, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a cheap hustler working a seedy Havana bar, exploited by knife-throwing pimp Johnny (Ricardo Cortez) because she still has her looks – though he’s casting an eye on Thelma Todd as a gal named Nellie Blye.

   Into this seamy milieu comes Dan (Philips Holmes) a lusty young sailor looking for a good time, with his perpetually drunken buddies James Gleason and Harry Sweet, who raise their inebriated slapstick to a fine art. Frankie hustles Dan, but she’s touched by his innocence to the point where she aborts an attempt to slip him a Mickey, at the risk of a slapping-around from Johnny.

   Ms. Twelvetrees over-emotes a bit, but her whipped-dog look in the presence of Cortez at his nastiest speaks volumes. Philips Holmes, normally type-cast as feckless wimps, is amazingly virile as Sailor Dan; Marjorie Rambeau casually lays out her whore-with-a-heart act, and Franklin Pangborn has a typically amusing and unusually combative part as the guy who wants his hat back – with a laugh-out-loud finish. We can see where the story is headed, with True Love on a troubled horizon for Dan & Frankie, but director Tay Garnett handles it with such rowdy enthusiasm no one minds much.

   At a time when many more prestigious films were stage-bound and static, Garnett moves his camera easily, fluidly, through mean streets, meaner back rooms, and a raucous Havana Saloon that looks like one of the less reputable circles of Hell. In fact, sometimes he’s just showing off, as when waiter Vince Barnett loads the spiked drink onto a tray, raises it overhead, and we follow the tray in close-up across a crowded dance floor and right up to the lovers’ table.

   Garnett’s adept visual style shows itself best in the slam-bang finale, as Dan storms down a crowded street, knocking by-passers aside, and into the saloon like a gunfighter in a western, followed by a classic barroom slugfest – so good in fact that Garnett did it again, almost shot-for-shot, in Seven Sinners (Universal, 1940.)

   Come to think of it, there’s a whole lot of Her Man that reappears in Seven Sinners, including the knife-wielding bad guy, the disreputable side-kicks, and sundry other bits of business, but that’s a story for another day. I’ll just say here that this is not an easy film to find (I found one dealer, whose DVD proved to be incomplete – had to catch the ending on YouTube.) but if you take the trouble, you’ll enjoy it immensely.


THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER. Frenzy Productions, 1962. Written, produced, directed by & starring Timothy Carey. Music (some of it) by Frank Zappa. Narrated by Paul Frees.

    “I believe we have been in the presence of Genius. Unfortunately, what the part calls for is Talent.”
                           –Orson Welles

   The more films I watch (and I’ve watched a few) the more convinced I am that Cinema in the last half of the 20th Century was all about Timothy Carey.

   Start with THE WILD ONE, EAST OF EDEN, THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY, ONE-EYED JACKS, RIO CONCHOS, then move on to BEACH BLANKET BINGO, MERMAIDS OF TIBURON, THE OUTFIT, POOR WHITE TRASH, HEAD, SHOCK TREATMENT, BIKINI BEACH, and FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE — the man seems ubiquitous. And often memorable. His wild dance in POOR WHITE TRASH combines the grace of Chaplin with the energy of Gene Kelley.

   “Unfortunately, what the part calls for is talent.”

   Watching Carey on screen, straining at bit parts, one can sense the creative passion oozing from his pores. So it was probably inevitable that he made this very personal and idiosyncratic film, with nods to CITIZEN KANE, A FACE IN THE CROWD and THE IMMORAL MR TEAS. And while it’s touched with greatness, it’s still not very good.

   Most of the problem can be set down to budget. Much of THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER is beset by cheap sets, poor lighting, bad acting (Well it’s hard to tell about the acting since most of the actors have to declaim their lines just to register on the tinny sound track.) mis-matched stock footage, and the general air of desperate cheapness one finds in porno films — or ahem! at least I assume that’s what porno films are like. Not that I’d know first-hand, you understand.

   Withal, this tale of a bored executive who becomes a street preacher, then a rock star, and finally a demagogue teetering on the edge of a Presidency that will destroy the nation, has its moments. Some of the camera compositions are quite striking (Edgar G. Ulmer was one of the cameramen.) some of the ideas really imaginative, and Carey himself is always compelling.

   “Unfortunately, what the part calls for is talent.”

   I read an article once about Timothy Carey protesting in front of a film festival that wouldn’t show THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER. The author interviewed Carey at length, then went to the director of the festival for his side of things, and got the comment, “It’s a really bad film.”

   Which it is. But this is not the inept badness of GLEN OR GLENDA, nor the overblown malaise of… of… Oh hell, name any expensive flop. Carey fills SINNER with a passion only partly obscured by its own awfulness. The result is memorable.


   All too often SINNER screams its passion so loudly it provokes unintended laughs: As when Paul Frees narrates as the devil and we cut to unrelated stock footage of a snake in the grass. Or when Carey stalks into a Church to the overblown accompaniment of “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s THE PLANETS. Or when the stock footage simply doesn’t match. Or when… well suffice it to say, there’s plenty of it here.

   But in my memory of this fiasco, I keep coming back to the really fine and imaginative parts –and there are plenty of them, too. So I’ll just finish by saying it’s a film to approach, if at all, with a tolerant attitude and a wary eye.

   And don’t look for talent.


WHITE GOLD. Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC), 1927. Jetta Goudal, Kenneth Thomson, George Bancroft, George Nichols. Director: William K. Howard. Shown at Cinevent 22, Columbus OH, May 1990.

   The notes for the program put it well: “…claustrophobic, oppressive and obsessed with lust and betrayal.” A bride is seen by her father-in-law s coming between him and his son. The father-in-law lies and the woman will not betray the lie, hoping that her husband will believe in her innocence in the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

   The scene in which, as the wife leaves the house, she makes a gesture that without a single comment answers all the questions raised in the preceding scene of confrontation, is an unforgettable lesson in narrative economy. I feel as if this film is burned into my mind’s eye. Not to be missed if it’s ever scheduled near you.


BROADWAY BILL. Columbia Pictures, 1934. Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Walter Connolly, Helen Vinson, Douglass Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn, Lynne Overman, Clarence Muse, Margaret Hamilton, Frankie Darro. Director: Frank Capra. Shown at Cinevent 22, Columbus OH, May 1990.

   What a wonderful cast. A racetrack comedy/drama, not a genre I am particularly fond of, but easy to take here. The climax astonished us and broke our hearts. Even the upbeat ending didn’t do much to improve the mood of the audience that quietly filed out.

   [PLOT WARNING.] I don’t want to tease you, so I am going to reveal the climax. The film is about a race horse that is trained by Baxter to win the big race against all odds. The horse, running valiantly wins, and then drops dead; its generous heart, weakened by an earlier bout with a virus, burst.


SWORD IN THE DESERT. Universal Pictures, 1949. Dana Andrews, Märta Torén, Stephen McNally, Jeff Chandler. Director: George Sherman.

   Sword in the Desert marked Jeff Chandler’s first appearance in a war movie, a film about Jewish resistance fighters during the final days of British rule in Mandatory Palestine. The movie premiered in New York City on April 23, 1949. It remains a milestone both in Chandler’s then still burgeoning screen career and in representations of Israeli national identity, with one observer going so far as to label Sword in the Desert the first within a new American film genre, “the Israeli Film.” The latter would be replicated in American cinema with Edward Dymytrk’s The Juggler (1953) and with the formidable screen presence of Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger’s commercially and critically successful Exodus (1960).

   Although Chandler was not top billed in Sword in the Desert, the film nevertheless demonstrated his natural ability in portraying gruff and laconic men toughened by war and by circumstance, characters faced with numerous obstacles and constrained by difficult choices.

   Directed by George Sherman (1908-1991), who later worked with Chandler in two competently directed, but altogether undistinguished, Westerns, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and War Arrow (1953), Sword in the Desert is a quixotic and unevenly constructed war film set both chronologically and geographically on the margins of the Second World War. Although most definitely a war film, Sword in the Desert is as much a character study and a compelling drama as an action-packed epic about two opposing factions fighting over the same land.

   With a script and production by Robert Buckner, known primarily for his work at Warner Brothers in the 1930s and early 1940s, the movie follows the path, both literally and metaphorically, of Irish-American freighter captain, Mike Dillon (Dana Andrews), the nominal protagonist.

   As a smuggler of desperate and impoverished refugees, many of them Holocaust survivors attempting to gain entrance to Palestine, Dillon inadvertently gets mixed up with the Jewish struggle for political sovereignty in the late 1940s Middle East. The British authorities, however, are adamant at stopping the flow of illegal Jewish immigration. So Dillon is able to charge a sizeable fee for his efforts, something he won’t let his initial contact in the Jewish underground, David Vogel (Stephen McNally) forget.

   Initially skeptical about any cause larger than his own financial well-being, Dillon ultimately ends up sympathetic to, or at least more understanding of, the Jewish cause in Palestine. It is Chandler’s character, the Israel underground leader, Kurta, who serves as the catalyst for change in Dillon’s personal, political, and spiritual transformation.

   This occurs toward the end of the movie, when Dillon refuses to divulge Kurta’s secret identity to the British military authorities. For Andrews, this role, much like the role of a ship’s captain in Sealed Cargo (1951), made him “one of the silver screen’s most decent and desirable leading men.” Indeed, Andrews’s performance in Sword in the Desert, while certainly less known than his work in such films as Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), is nevertheless an exceptional one, one that demonstrates skill in conveying both gravitas and world-weariness.

   Although Andrews, well into his prime acting years, is a formidable screen presence, it is Chandler’s portrayal of Kurta that remains the highlight of the movie. The viewer first encounters the bronzed, tall, and proudly Jewish fighter some twenty-three minutes into the story. He is taking notes with a pencil while a fellow resistance leader, Sabra, delivers anti-British propaganda over the local airwaves.

   Sabra is portayed by Swedish actress Märta Torén, who would go on to co-star with Dana Andrews in the spy film, Assignment – Paris! (1952). After listening intently to Sabra, Kurta speaks. He delivers an impassioned speech about how freedom will come soon to the Jewish people of Mandatory Palestine, ending his broadcast with three poignant words: “God Save Israel.”

   Throughout the film, Kurta proves himself to be both tough and sensitive, determined in his goal to drive the British from Palestine. Although the viewer does not learn whether Kurta was born in Palestine, he does demonstrate all of the characteristics of a Sabra, a euphemism for a native-born Israeli taken from the name of a prickly pear characterized by a tough exterior and soft interior. But Kurta does not allow his idealism to get in the way of his pragmatism. He realizes that he needs Dillon’s assistance in bringing more Jewish refugees past the British naval blockade, and he is willing to overlook the freighter captain’s initial mercenary, if not borderline hostile, attitude toward the Jewish people’s struggle for independence from British control.

   On his lapel, Kurta wears a pin in the shape of a sword. It is meant to symbolize Kurta’s status as a leader in the Jewish underground. The film’s title is derived from a poignant scene in which Kurta, surrounded by troops outside Beersheba, drops the sword pin in the desert sand in an attempt to shield his identity from the British forces.

   Chandler’s final scene in the movie is both a noble and a tragic one for his character. Wounded badly by gunfire after a controversial and over-the-top sequence in which Jewish commandos raid a British military installation on Christmas Eve, Kurta thanks Dillon for not betraying him to the British authorities. He apologizes to the Irish-American captain for not being able to fulfill his earlier promise to escort him to Beirut so he could get back to his ship. With his final breath, Kurta instructs his subordinate David to ensure that Dillon, now squarely in the pro-Zionist camp, safely gets to Lebanon.

   As the first Hollywood film to depict the paramilitary struggle for the contemporary State of Israel, Sword in the Desert is also notable for being one of two movies in which Chandler portrayed an overtly Jewish character, the other the made-for-TV Biblical epic, A Story of David (1960). Although the film barely alludes to the nascent ethno-political conflict between the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism, its political sympathies could not be clearer. One could hardly imagine a major studio today wading into the Middle East conflict with such alacrity and daring.

   On the other hand, the film took perhaps one too many liberties with the historical record. This may have inadvertently weakened its chance at getting a wider reception. For instance, the film’s strident depiction of the British military forces in Mandatory Palestine as fundamentally unjust, as opposed to a more nuanced approach, actually weakens the story. Likewise, the historically inaccurate scene in which Jewish commandos attack a British military base does little to move the story forward and may have aided in sinking the movie into obscurity. Not surprisingly, the film’s release was controversial in the United Kingdom, leading at least one London movie theater to shut down a screening due to protests.

   While overtly sympathetic to the cause of Israeli national independence, Sword in the Desert was nevertheless geared toward the largely Christian-American movie-going public. This may help explain why Christian symbolism plays such an important role in the movie, such as when Dillon refuses to reveal Kurta’s identity to the British lest he become a “Judas,” the Christmas Eve celebration at the British military compound, and a brief visual reference to the City of Bethlehem at the very end of the film which bolsters the movie’s place within the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

   It might also perhaps explain why Andrews’s character, Dillon, is of Irish heritage, as well as the character, Jerry McCarthy (Liam Redmond), an Irish nationalist who joined the Jewish cause in Palestine primarily as a means of fighting British soldiers. By way of contrast, Kurta never appears to be animated by any particular animus toward the British, so much as by a deep love for the Land of Israel. This helps make his character the most compelling and sympathetic one in the film.


SEVEN SINNERS. Universal, 1940. Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, Anna Lee, Mischa Auer, Oscar Homolka, Billy Gilbert, Samuel S. Hinds, Reginald Denny, Vince Barnett, Henry Victor. Written by John Meehan, Harry Tugend, Ladislas Fodor and Laszlo Vadnay. Directed by Tay Garnett.


   That says all you need to know, but I’ll expand on it just a bit.

   Seven Sinners opens with a saloon-busting brawl of epic proportions and closes with another even better. In between times we get Marlene Dietrich doing a Miss Sadie Thompson bit as a notorious chanteuse plying her dubious trade among the islands of the South Pacific.

   She goes to work in Billy Gilbert’s Seven Sinners Saloon, meets and falls in love with naval lieutenant John Wayne, but the course of true love is obstructed by his officious superiors (Samuel S. Hinds and Reginald Denny at their stuffiest) and her earthy admirers, including muscle-brained Brod Crawford, jolly klepto Mischa Auer, and knife-wielding Oscar Homolka, whom she would rather forget.

   Director Tay Garnett lets things simmer nicely, teetering at the brink of violence like a drunk on a diving board while Dietrich and the Duke get the hots for each other—by some accounts a passion that extended off-screen as well. Whatever the case, the chemistry between them bubbles up on-screen quite palpably, as the story steams toward a climax that surprised and pleased me no end.

   But before that ending we get the definitive Saloon Brawl. One that matches and exceeds the exuberant melee in Dodge City, mainly because all the principals are right in the thick of things, swinging, kicking, walloping and smashing stuff with balletic abandon. Nobody just gets hit in this donnybrook; they go careening over bars and balconies, breaking tables, chairs, walls, windows and bottles—or having that stuff crashed over them.

   The result is a film of unforgettable energy: romantic, funny, surprising… and undeniably lusty.


TEN SECONDS TO HELL. Hammer Films, 1959. Jack Palance, Jeff Chandler, Martine Carol, Robert Cornthwaite, Dave Willock. Sreenplay by Robert Aldrich and Teddi Sherman, based on the novel The Phoenix by Lawrence P. Bachmann. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Three years after Jeff Chandler portrayed a heroic U.S. Navy captain in Away All Boats (1956), he would co-star with Jack Palance in the stunningly well photographed drama, Ten Seconds To Hell (1959). Based on Lawrence P. Bachmann’s book The Phoenix, the plot follows a German bomb disposal unit tasked with dismantling unexploded ordinances in post-war Berlin. They are a coterie of men whose work would allow the German capital to rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes.

   Directed by Robert Aldrich, who had worked with Palance in The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956), Ten Seconds to Hell was a Hammer Films Production/Seven Arts Pictures feature and was the auteur’s only film to feature Chandler as an actor. Aldrich made apt use of not only both men’s acting skills, but also their imposing physicality, as both Chandler and Palance were tall men. In Ten Seconds To Hell, a sublimely claustrophobic film, they portrayed men locked in a peculiar existential struggle, who both literally and figuratively, towered over the other men in their unit. Although Chandler and Palance had appeared together as opponents in Douglas Sirk’s Sign of the Pagan (1954), that mediocre costumer failed to fully utilize either man’s talents in portraying strong men locked in battle.

   At the time of the theatrical release of Ten Seconds To Hell, the New York Times recognized the impact that Aldrich’s direction had on eliciting strong performances from the two male leads, noting that Aldrich “has drawn from Jack Palance a performance that is perhaps the finest of the actor’s career” and that he “has deftly maneuvered Jeff Chandler as [Palance’s] evil alter-ego.” It is also the case that the characters portrayed by Palance and Chandler, much like the actors’ performances, are best understood primarily within the context of their antagonistic relationship and the period of time in which both men live.

   Ten Seconds To Hell takes place at the end of the Second World War, but it still can be considered central to the World War II War film genre. Set in the ruins of Berlin, the film tells the story of a bomb disposal unit who work at the behest of Major Haven (Richard Wattis), a British officer working in the Allied-occupied city. The unit consists of six men, with Erich Koertner (Palance), a former architect, and the nasty, sarcastic Karl Wirtz (Chandler) as the two primary characters.

   Their distinct worldviews and opposing personalities create exacerbate the already existing tension of working as bomb disposal technicians. The other four men, Franz Loeffler (Robert Cornthwaite), Peter Tillig (Dave Willock), Wolfgang Sulke (Wes Addy), and Hans Globke (Jimmy Goodwin), are less prominently featured in the story, but serve to further highlight the antagonism between the more introspective Koertner (Palance) and the fatalist Wirtz (Chandler).

   What unites these men is their status as History’s losers. In their study of Robert Aldrich, Alain Silver and James Ursini note that the “men of the bomb disposal unit “. . . are defeated. They are literally so, as soldiers on a losing side. They are figuratively so as well, for when they return to Berlin at the beginning of the film, they are carrying that defeat as an emotional burden.” Indeed, none of the men, with the exception of Solke, has a wife or a child to return to.

   The movie opens with a camera shot of a train pulling into a rather dismal looking Berlin station. On board are soldiers, defeated men from the losing side of the cataclysmic war that left German cities in ruins. The first person off the train is Wirtz (Chandler), signifying the pivotal role he is to play in the movie’s narrative. But, as it turns out, he will not be the film’s protagonist. That role is reserved for Koertner (Palance), the soldier to immediately follow him off the train.

   Voice over narrative, conducted in semi-documentary style, tells the viewer that Wirtz is concerned primarily with his own survival and that he plays for “high stakes” and deals “from the bottom of the deck.” It’s a blunt characterization and is designed to intrigue the viewer into wanting to know more.

   The first speaking part for Chandler occurs soon thereafter. Wirtz, Koertner, and the other four men are meeting with Major Haven, their British liaison. Wirtz takes control of the salary negotiations, forcing Haven to provide the men with a higher salary than originally suggested. Soon, the discussion among the unit turns antagonistic, as Wirtz (Chandler) challenges Koertner (Palance) to a bet that he will outlive him.

   The stakes are high. As bomb disposal technicians, the men know that one false move can mean sudden death. But they agree to Wirtz’s bet, pooling half their salaries into a pool for the winner of this morbid game. It is here that we learn just how smug, arrogant, and selfish Wirtz truly is. He knows exactly how to taunt, how to push people’s buttons. Chandler is able to convey Wirtz’s ruthlessness not merely with words, but also with a smirk, body language, and posture. It is not so much that Chandler portrays Wirtz as vicious, as it is that he is able to instill a sense of what could only be best described as creepiness into Wirtz’s persona.

   Living in the ruins of Berlin, Wirtz and Koertner share a boardinghouse run by Margot Hoefler (Martine Carole), a Frenchwoman who married a German soldier during wartime. Margot is now both a widow and a societal outcast in Berlin. Carole, the French actress who had starred as the eponymous lead character in Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955), portrays Margot in a rather subdued, although occasionally too melodramatic, manner. Like Koertner and Wirtz, she too is defeated, her status as a German war bride having left her a perpetual outsider, alienated from mainstream society.

   It does not take long for Wirtz, a man without shame, to make unwanted romantic advances on Margot. One evening he comes back to the boardinghouse inebriated. His loud voice wakes up Koertner, as the former attempts to seduce an unwilling Margot. Chandler portrays Wirtz in this scene with understated ferocity, in some ways similar to the character of Luke Darcy he portrayed in The Jayhawkers (1959).

   Wirtz is a man who utilizes pitiful attempts at humor to mask his rage, telling Margot that, “biology used to be [his] best subject.” and “Why not take Dr. Wirtz’s introductory course?” Koertner, awakened by Wirtz’s booming voice, rushes into Margot’s room and stops him from going any further. This scene fuels the increasing tension between the two primary characters and serves to delineate the men’s differing attitudes toward women. While Wirtz is a man who seeks conquest, Koertner is a man who seeks companionship.

   Koertner will go on to develop a romantic relationship with Margot, although this will not cause the ultimate rupture with Wirtz. Rather, it will be the discovery of the British thousand-pounder, a type of unexploded ordinance with which the team was unfamiliar. Not only does this type of bomb cause the death of team members, it plays a pivotal role in furthering the antagonism between Koertner, the brooding outsider and Wirtz, the dissolute cynic.

   When Koertner suggests that they call off the bet, Wirtz refuses, leading to a verbal confrontation between the two men. A distraught Koertner tells Wirtz that he would like to see him dead and blasted to hell. It is then that Koertner realizes that there is something bigger at stake in this dispute than just money. He tells Margot that it is a “battle for survival between the Karls of the world and the me’s of the world.” Koerner’s revelation stems, to a large degree, from his reaction to Wirtz’s radical selfishness, a particularly chilling worldview that he learned from his uncle.

   [PLOT WARNING] Ultimately, it is Koertner who survives the bet and who is freed from the shackles of Wirtz’s cynicism. In the film’s final sequence, we see Wirtz (Chandler) deep in rubble, defusing a bomb. With jazz music playing on the soundtrack, Koertner walks out of the abandoned building where Wirtz is working. Seconds thereafter, the bomb explodes, killing him. Koertner is now free, liberated from the bet and his existential struggle against Wirtz.

   But it’s not a joyous or celebratory victory, for Koertner still, in both a literally and metaphorical sense, walks alone. While the film ends with optimistic voice over narration and positive imagery of rebuilt Berlin, one cannot help escape the theme of post-war alienation just below the surface.

   Ten Seconds to Hell is closest thing to an “art house” film that Jeff Chandler ever starred in. Indeed, Aldrich, who had caught the eye of French critics well before he became widely known in the United States, allowed Chandler to take on a role quite distinct from many of his previous films. His character, Wirtz, is not so much a villain as a spiritually defeated man tasked with a dangerous and dirty job. He is a man who has irreparably lost a moral compass – his center, as it were – in a chaotic, tumultuous society, a claustrophobic world in which the concrete possibility of an inadvertent horrific death looms large. He is most certainly not a hero.

   Andrew Sarris, longtime film critic for The Village Voice and a leading proponent of the auteur theory, has noted that Aldrich’s “films are invariably troubled by intimations of decadence and disorder.” When applied to Ten Seconds To Hell, Sarris’s observation seems particularly apt. Filmed in the ruins of Berlin, physical decay is visually omnipresent throughout the movie.

   But it is the theme of moral decay, however, that propels the narrative. It is largely Chandler’s alternatingly subdued and overpowering portrayal of the decadent Wirtz that propels the narrative forward to its simultaneously tragic (for Wirtz) and liberating (for Koertner) conclusion.

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