Sinking Ship

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It’s the dying days of WWII (weren’t they all?) and Germany is close to surrender. A general, his catamite, an Italian fascist, a French journalist and arch-collaborationist, and various other unworthies escape by submarine and make for South America where the plan is to lay the groundwork for the Fourth Reich. Along for the ride is an abducted doctor, required to care for an injured Nazi wife, and Rene Clement with his film crew, making LES MAUDITS, an imperfect but largely gripping and very timely 1947 war thriller. With the doctor’s connivance, the pack of rats gradually turn on one another, sweating in the close quarters of their submerged iron coffin…

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This kind of thing needs to be very carefully worked out in plot terms, and it’s a little sloppy, but Henri Alekan’s cinematography conjures the claustrophobic milieu with noir/documentary conviction and intensity — at one point, we pull back along the entire length of the sub from the inside, establishing just how cramped and inhuman it is, and setting up the geography for the grisly adventure ahead. DAS BOOT invented nothing.

Poor Paul Bernard’s facial scarring marked him for weasel roles throughout his career — even during the occupation his characters (eg for Gremillon) always seemed like a commentary on collaboration and betrayal); Joe Dest makes a repellant Nazi martinet, his homosexual obsession with Berlin rent-boy and hired muscle Michel Auclair quite startlingly apparent. Henri Vidal is the staunch hero, whose Yojimbo-like plan to turn his captors against one another could stand greater development.

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*Coughs politely*

Oh yes, and Dalio, as the Nazis’ faltering South American agent, always a master of vacillation and anxiety.

As with Clement’s other war films, the reliance on stock footage, albeit really good stock footage, can be distracting, and how are we meant to feel about REAL burning ships in our entertainment? Because this is smart and sophisticated but it’s still a thriller, DIE HARD on a sub, with less punching and more psychology.

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10 Responses to “Sinking Ship”

  1. Sounds fascinating.

    Michael Auclair (who is still with us) was quite the Babe in his youth, particularly in Beauty and the Beast where he nearly steal sthe show from Jean Marais. Rene Clement had of course exquisite taste when it came to les homes as witnessed most spectacularly in Plein Soleil in which he made Alain Delon a star of the first magnitude.

  2. And Clement was relatively rare among filmmakers in his day in even acknowledging the existence of homosexuality. It seems an important theme in his work.

  3. Yeah, I have to concur with you about being relatively disappointed. I did not read YOJIMBO-esque connivance as our hero plotting his escape to notify the authorities… which does show the sloppiness of plotting that you raised.

    The claustrophobia of the sub was well handled. I’m surprised there aren’t more, as even something like the recent PHANTOM (with Ed Harris & David Duchovny as a Soviet sub captain and a KGB spy, respectively, neither of whom quite feel at ease with their accents) still ends up somewhat effective. David Twohy’s BELOW, with a haunted WW2 sub, also had its omoment.

  4. I remember that one being disappointing, and I’d liked some of Twohy’s stuff. He seems uneven.

    My childhood TV viewing tells me that sub movies are usually slow and dull, like (largely) Ice Station Zebra. The ones that work best really turn the constraints of the setting into advantages, as with Das Boot and to some extent this one. Visually it’s impressive. Great set-up, lacking in pay-off.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    Are you hinting that Rene Clement was gay, David E? I had always assumed that he was (look at his films) but then I got in trouble in Sight & Sound for even suggesting such a thing!

    I do know that Rome was abuzz with gossip when he and Tony Perkins were…er, collaborating on THE SEA WALL. But perhaps I got the wrong end of the…no, I’d better not say it.

  6. Auclair also played the founder of “Empathicalism” in Funny Face — a left-bank “philosopher” whose “theories” are utilized in order to seduce Audrey Hepburn. But Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson come to her rescue and save the day.

  7. MGM musicals wouldn’t be complete without a dash of lightweight anti-intellectualism. Sadly.

    I’m resolved to see more Clement this year, so maybe I’ll form more of a theory of the dedicated bachelor’s orientation, but it will remain a theory.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    He actually was married. But then so was Rock Hudson…

  9. Yes, it proves nothing. I couldn’t see anything on the IMDb but I may have overlooked it.

  10. […] also this recent piece on LES MAUDITS and this one on THE DAY AND THE […]

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