Mon 12 Sep 2016
TONIGHT WE RAID CALAIS. 20th Century Fox, 1943. Annabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb, Beulah Bondi, Blanche Yurka, Howard Da Silva. Director: John Brahm.
Although Tonight We Raid Calais is most certainly a war film, it is emphatically not a combat film. Rather, it belongs to that particular subset of movies, filmed and released as the war was raging in Europe, in which ordinary people are forced to make a choice between accommodating themselves to the Nazi occupation or fighting back against the Third Reich despite great personal risk to their families. It’s a morale booster, to be sure, but one benefits from John Brahm’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography.
Much like the superb Edge of Darkness (1943) starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, which I reviewed here, Tonight We Raid Calais tells that story of a small-town community that summons the will to take on the Nazis. Instead of a Norwegian fishing village, this film unfolds in northern France, not too far from the eponymous port city that sits across the English Channel.
Geoffrey Carter (John Sutton), a French-speaking British commando lands in Nazi-occupied France with a mission. He is to seek out the precise location of a German munitions factory and to find a means of relaying that information to the RAF. After attacking and killing German soldiers, Carter hides out in a French farmhouse. The family, lead by patriarch M. Bonnard (Lee J. Cobb) is a house divided: Bonnard is a staunch French patriot opposed to the Nazis; his wife (Beulah Bondi) is grief-stricken by the loss of her son, Pierre; and his daughter, Odette (Annabella) who distrusts the British and is ready to somewhat accommodate herself with the German presence in her country.
The plot, which runs at a steady clip, follows Carter as he both tries to ensure that Odette doesn’t betray his plans and works to enlist the local townsfolk into a plan to burn their crops at night so as to give the RAF a clear view of the factory. Getting in his way is the occasionally bumbling, but clearly devious Sgt. Block (a truly miscast Howard Da Silva who simply is not believable as a Nazi) who has more than a fleeting romantic interest in Odette.
What really makes Tonight We Raid Calais a standout film, however, is not the rather standard “commando behind enemy lines” storyline, but rather a subplot that takes place (Spoiler Alert) toward the end of the film. After the local German commander executes M. Bonnard and his wife for their resistance activities, Odette takes it upon herself to avenge her parents’ deaths.
Indeed, due to the aforementioned actions of the character portrayed by Annabella, Tonight We Raid Calais also belongs to the “female revenge thriller” subgenre that can exist comfortably within film noir, action films, or martial arts films. In this case, the female revenge narrative occurs within the context of a war film, making Annabella’s character much more memorable than the British commando she is aiding.
Overall, this is one of the better World War II films released during the course of the war. It’s at times overly sentimental, but with an edge to it. There are some genuinely tense moments, much of it due to Brahm getting the most of his actors, including Lee J. Cobb who, although he was in his early 30s at the time of filming, was very convincing in his role a late middle-aged French farmer willing to sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself.