Sizzling Quislings

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too –

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.

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16 Responses to “Sizzling Quislings”

  1. Thanks, Anne Richardson —

  2. “Jolly hearty Russians” was the whole silly deal when Hollywood was ordered to depict our allies in a favorable light. Then once the war was over the same Hollywood was SHOCKED! (cue Claude Rains in Casablanca) to discover that anyone thought of these Commies as anything other than hateful.

  3. Putting “can,” “screw” and “snatch” at the bottom of the list of American slang must have been somebody’s joke.

  4. “You’re the pants on a Roxy usher.”

  5. The slang joke must be revenge for having to water down Porter’s lyrics. In You’re the Top “cocaine” becomes “perfume from Spain” which had Fiona baffled, since that fine nation was never a major manufacturer of scents.

  6. I hope to get to EDGE OF DARKNESS later today, and maybe rewatch THE CAPTAIN DIED AT DAWN after that. The dancing & singing peasants scene in NORTH STAR never fails to make me fall over laughing. So much hardy Hollywood peasant happiness! Tourneur’s pro-Soviet film, DAYS OF GLORY, is so sober in contrast. I still haven’t seen MISSION TO MOSCOW, which looks like a doozy.

  7. Mission to Moscow is the only one that’s in really bad faith — the others may be pro-Soviet but they’re not Stalinist.

    Remember, The CAPTAIN Hates the Sea but The GENERAL Died at Dawn! Maybe we need a mnemonic.

    The advantage EoD has over TNS is that it begins with the crisis already underway, the plucky Norwegians occupied and plotting their uprising. If The North Star had planted more suspense… well, at least the ludicrous festivities would have had some kind of dramatic irony underpinning them.

  8. The Captain Hates the Dawn! The General Died at Sea!

  9. The Captain Hates the Strange Love of Mice and Men Who Dare All Quiet on the Night of Nights at Dawn.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    Check out more ersatz Russkie resistance fighters in Tourneur’s DAYS OF GLORY (44). Greg Peck’s de-butt. Stilted dialogues by writer for the screens Casey Robinson.

  11. David Boxwell Says:

    Shiny, slap-happy Helmut Dantine:

    . . . . Allen, are you feeling any better? Yes, I’m crazy about
    Helmut Dantine
    but I’m glad that Canada will remain
    free. Just free, that’s all. never argue with the movies.

    Frank O’Hara, “Fantasy (dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsberg)”
    (1964)

  12. He’s fervid, you have to give him that.

  13. Cheeky quotation from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung (specifically Siegfried’s Funeral March) near the end of EDGE OF DARKNESS, when Helmut Dantine climbs the stairs toward his rendezvous with death. But shouldn’t we have seen Judith Anderson shoot the German soldier she loved? It would be the Judith Anderson thing to do.

  14. She does, thiough, doesn’t she? That was my interpretation, even if we don’t see it.

  15. She probably did, and I just wasn’t paying close enough attention. I only caught on that it was him because the camera stayed on his face for so long. I needed a reaction shot from her to make it sink in who done it, I guess.

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