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.