Archive for Robert Wagner

Wagner’s Wrong Cycle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2019 by dcairns

“Stand there, Bob. No, elbow up a bit. Turn your head a fraction…”

Hollywood started going weirdly wrong in the fifties, I think. Competing with TV, which in those days had really great scripts and acting but looked essentially like Mr. Magoo’s Dream of Hell, Hollywood countered with some terrible scripts and elevated a lot of attractive non-actors to leading roles.

A KISS BEFORE DYING isn’t an appalling piece of writing, but the need to render the central literary trick of Ira Levin’s source novel in cinematic terms robs it of most of its bite, and the dentition is further eroded by the casting of bores and incompetents in the leads, with one more skilled player so miscast her abilities wrench the whole thing in the wrong direction. True, the casting of Robert Wagner as a killer of women is… suggestive. Titillating, even, in a deeply wrong way. And it’s true that Wagner’s blandness shows some sign of becoming a positive dramatic force — he IS the banality of evil — in this unfamiliar context. Mark Cousins recently introduced me to RW’s early appearance in WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, where he plays a traumatised veteran, and the contrast of his catalogue model beauty with the “troubled” label is as close to “electrifying” as one could ever speak of in relation to this player, who always seems smothered in insulation.

And that’s still the case in AKBD. If one reads about the life and death of Natalie Wood, RW emerges as someone with a definite dark side, even if you don’t think he’s guilty of or hiding anything beyond rowing with his wife and being a bit inept at calling in an emergency (I would say he might well be guilty of more than that, though the term “person of interest” never sat more uncomfortably on the shoulders of a movie star). But as the would-be serial unmarried young Bluebeard here, Wagner invests no malevolence, no cunning, no manipulation in the role, he just doubles down on his native blandness. (One exception: the character’s nastiness to his dear mother, played by a rare Technicolor Mary Astor, makes you want to stab him.)Uh-oh.

OK, so that could actually work, even if it’s a side-effect of somebody’s casting error rather than an inspired choice (and you just can’t tell with Wagner) but who do we have as the good guys? Uh oh.

Jeffrey Hunter is the studious young man who tries to thwart Wagner’s proto-uxoricide (is there a word for killing your betrothed? Anyone writing about this story needs such a word). Hunter, unlike Wagner, is a man who shows clear signs of wanting to act, so he dons glasses and clenches a pipe between his pearly whites I refer to his teeth, not his butt cheeks, as you might suppose)… and that’s it for performance. Can you wonder that, despite yielding to no man in my admiration for Nick Ray, I have never made it through THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, or if I have, I can’t remember it? What stops me making another attempt on that Everest of tedium is that I might be wasting my time, having already accomplished the feat only to have it slip from my memory like an unusually dull bar of soap. That one also has both Wagner and Hunter as leads — the Dream Team! In that you actually fall asleep watching them.Then we have Virginia Leith, evidently also being groomed for stardom — thrust upon the blameless public. She’s really, um, “good” in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, in that she invests lines like “No, my deformed friend, like all quantities, horror has it’s ultimate, and I am that,” with exactly what they seem to demand, whatever that is. Here, she’s lost, just uninterestingly terrible, and the script loses focus whenever she’s around, since it wants us to be on her side as she investigates her sister’s death, and still on her side when she refuses, against all reason, to believe in Wager’s guilt. Very hard for an actor to put over, and completely impossible for poor Virginia, who is very attractive I must say.

Joanna Woodward is the miscast one, the only lead who can act: she’s studied her part and deduced that the character written as a doting nitwit must be played as such, an unavoidable conclusion for a method actor but the wrong choice for this hokum. (Look at Mia Farrow’s far more sympathetic, less distanced performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, from another Levin book about a deceived and betrayed woman.) If they’d only swapped Leith and Woodward around, I think you’d have something: Leith’s lack of experience/skill would allow her to play dim naturally, without knowing she was doing it, and maintain our sympathy without trying, and Woodward could invest her shrewdness in playing the wilful, sharp (some of the time) and passionate heroine.

Astor is good but there isn’t enough of her. Dear old George Macready is acting for five, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate the effort but maybe not now, George?

Gerd Oswald directs, his camera leering-looming-lurching in for dramatic close-ups, unsubtle but certainly appropriate, and the whole production gleams dumbly. I love Technicolor, part 2.

There is a love song, “A Kiss Before Dying,” playing on every juke box in this movie, and nobody says “What a weird idea for a song!”

Oh, and the credits have kissy lipsticks all over them, which is particularly curious with Wagner and Hunter being top-billed.

A KISS BEFORE DYING stars Prince Valiant; Jan in the Pan; Teenage Jesus; Clara Varner; Miss Wonderly;  Count Yorga, vampire; and General Mireau.

Posthumous Panthers #2: Curse of The Curse of the Pink Panther

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by dcairns

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“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Inspector Clouseau will be played by an empty coat. Called Ted Wass.”

My purpose is not to claim that there is a curse on THE CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, as there is supposedly on SUPERMAN and THE EXORCIST and PETER’S FRIENDS – though quite a few of the principals involved have suffered mishaps and tragedies which come to mind dispiritingly as one watches. But no, my intention is to demonstrate that the film is itself the embodiment of a curse, visited upon its director and transmitted by him to all who have the misfortune to watch.

(The Curse Of PETER’S FRIENDS — the most dreaded of all showbiz curses — states that each principal actor in Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 country-house dramedy must direct a superhero movie derived from Norse mythology. It has only just begin to come true. The waiting is the worst part.)

The later PINK PANTHER films – and by “later” I have to mean pretty well anything after A SHOT IN THE DARK – are more compelling as psychopathology than as cinema, dark portraits of a talented filmmaker somehow compelled to revisit what was far from his favourite creation, working with a difficult, tormenting collaborator (Peter Sellers) again and again, and then repeating the experience after his star’s death as if attempting some inconceivable combination of exorcism and resurrection.

After THE TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, in which Joanna Lumley, sporting a frankly unacceptable French accent, roved around the world dropping in on guest stars from previous episodes in order to “motivate” a series of flashbacks and outtakes from those same episodes, it seems unlikelythat the world was crying out for another instalment in the Clouseau necrology, but Blake Edwards goes to the well once more and duly fills his bucket with sand. Sand played by Ted Wass.

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It’s hard to assess Wass as a Sellers replacement, other than to say that he’s obviously no replacement. He has, it seems, a certain gift for physical comedy, and is a good bit more athletic than Sellers ever was, so that he requires less stunt doubling. He seems affable enough. But the gags are almost as weak as the plot (Wass, as Detective Clifton Sleigh, has to hunt the missing Clouseau, a blind alley of a comedy narrative idea unless the film’s going to end up at Sellers’ grave) so we get little sense as to his abilities. The script makes him a kind of bumbling Clark Kent nice guy, complete with glasses, which is a good deal less interesting as a concept than Clouseau’s mixture of arrogance, bigotry, intransigence, self-delusion and gnawing self-awareness – Sellers insisted that Clouseau deep down knows he’s an idiot, but must keep up this frantic pretence of competence, which is what makes him a grand figure. Sleigh is a nice guy and a failure and he knows all of this. If we feel a little sympathy for him and want him to make good, that’s fine, but there’s no exciting tension to our relationship.

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But back to the psych ward stuff. The cheaply executed, poorly designed and interminable opening titles provide a clue to the Edwards mindset, as the Panther gets chained at the ankle to a cartoon Ted Wass which gets spat out of a computer. The two hobble off together, chained for life like the Hilton sisters. Since Edwards had the original Panther character based on himself, the sense that he’s been forcibly partnered up with a synthetic ghost is inescapable, as is the synthetic ghost itself. (In the similarly nasty-looking titles in TRAIL, the screenplay credit is literally pissed onto a page by the cartoon Clouseau. A more pointed auto-critique could not be imagined.)

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Every sequence in the movie seems to revolve around mannequins, puppets, clones and travesties. Wass visits the Clouseau Museum, which features dummies of Clouseau in his various disguises. In the most outright uncanny moment in a film full of unwelcome chills, a dummy of “oriental assistant” Cato gets replaced by the real Burt Kwouk – but only its reflection in a mirror. The black-eyed masklike mannequin remains in position.

A visit to the boutique of Hubert Balls, manufacturer of disguises, now transformed into the personage of Harvey Korman, provides more masks and body parts, and Wass picks up both an inflatable dog on castors and an “instant companion”, basically a blow-up woman who can be produced upon the instant to serve as cover in tricky situations. Cue deflation gags in which the rubber “Shirley” sags into a likeness of the ageing Dietrich as the air escapes from her, and the film.

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To Valencia, where the streets are full of carnival floats, bobbing about rather horrifyingly. And so it goes…

David Niven, of course, is less than he was and somehow more, a dying man with his croak of a voice replaced by impersonator Rich Little (he sounds a little American). After an interminable hour, a romantic interest is procured in the perky form of Lesley Ash (who has suffered horrible mishaps since which can’t even be detailed in this piece less despair take over). Clouseau was always funniest with women, I think, since his attempts to put on a front were apt to collapse with the most embarrassing consequences. Wass barely gets a chance to fluff it, since Ash falls into his arms so readily.

Robert Wagner’s curse is that he’s Robert Wagner, I guess.  Not an actor I like to think of on a yacht, so here he is, on a yacht. Capucine, who showed such physical comedy flair in the original, and in WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT, is required to sit in a chair and mouth some exposition. A few years later she would be dead too.

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Also included: Herbert Lom repeatedly fracturing his skeleton. Graham Stark demoted to waiter. Michael Elphick (another tragic one: remember how good he was in THE ELEPHANT MAN?) as a Spanish police chief.

Astonishingly, the quest for Clouseau does actually pay off, in what I have to admit is a kind of demented coup de cinema. Spoiler alert, here, because I was actually kind of impressed by the temerity of Edwards solution. Clouseau has undergone plastic surgery so as to spend his latter days in peace with Joanna Lumley, as who among us would not like to do? This plastic surgery has transformed him into Roger Moore. The actual Roger Moore, doing a very terrible Peter Sellers impersonation. Ted Wass meets Roger Moore and you have a scene of two bumblers and one Lumley, which surprisingly doesn’t destroy the entire set. And then it trundles on for ten minutes with some guff about the diamond. You remember, the diamond.

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So, Peter Sellers becomes Roger Moore, Graham Stark has become Harvey Korman, David Niven became Christopher Plummer then back to David Niven but with Rich Little’s voice. Claudia Cardinale seems to have become Joanna Lumley, but will be Claudia again in SON OF THE PINK PANTHER.

And poor Ted Wass has become a footnote¹.

¹ This one, in fact.

A tracking shot is a moral act

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by dcairns

Or, how did we get from this ~

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(Lewis Milestone’s own hand giving an Oscar-worthy performance at the end of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT)

To this ~

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Dana Andrews observe’s a dead German’s hand in A WALK IN THE SUN. “Nice ruby. Wonder where he stole it.”

But to begin, here’s a quote from Richard T. Jameson’s fascinating piece on Lewis Milestone from Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The subject is Milestone’s Exhibit A claim to greatness, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT ~

One army defends its trenches as another charges across the empty waste of no-man’s-land. The defenders spray the advancing enemy with machine-gun fire, and Milestone’s camera tracks relentlessly across the attackers’ path. As each enemy solider is brought into camera range, he falls: it is as though the camera eye were synchronized with the mechanized pattern of gunfire, meting out death with an awful inevitability. And when, somehow, the attackers succeed in overrunning the trenches, drive out the defenders, and then become defenders themselves, with the first army counter-attacking to regain its own ground, Milestone repeats the visual device: another ‘machine-gunning’ camera chops down the soldiers on that side. The machinery of war devastates both armies with chilling impartiality, and Milestone’s structure eloquently defines the tragic absurdity.

Or would have, if it hadn’t been violated at midpoint. For as the enemy’s second wave reaches the defenders’ trenches, Milestone’s camera performs yet another tracking manoeuvre, this time aiming down into the trenches as it moves along. And as the camera arrives at any given point on its course, so to does another attacker, leaping into the ditch and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with his opposite number. Technically, the device is impressive; conceptually, it is loathsome. Unlike the camera-as-machine-gun, there is no inherent logic in it. The co-ordination of the camera’s arrival with that of an enemy trooper bespeaks no necessity beyond the director’s design. A scene about the impersonal horror of war becomes a balletic speciality number.

I like that Jameson is so passionate about the ethics of technique, and I get what he’s saying. I also think he’s slightly crazy, here. But he has a point, though I might phrase it differently and identify the problem elsewhere. I think I could defend Milestone’s middle shot on the grounds that it shows the men fighting as if they were parts in a machine, their movements stylized and synchronized to dehumanize them. It’s also obvious that part of the sequence’s immense power is its momentum, created by a series of fast-moving shots which often do not follow the moving men but move perpendicular to them, creating an imminent sense of violent convergence. For the battle sequence’s sheer impact, this plan is essential — and impact is something else than merely technique.

The more valid objection might be the wider one that by turning war into a giant choreographed spectacle, by making the audience excited at the action and noise and evoking the surge of adrenalin, Milestone is repackaging armed conflict as entertainment. A Hollywood film, even one as grim and unrelenting as ALL QUIET, is an entertainment of a sort. But can’t he be defended on the grounds that no evocation of warfare, if its goal is to educate those who haven’t had the experience (who are sometimes apt to be over-enthusiastic about something they know nothing about), can ignore the rush, the thrill, the camaraderie or the other aspects that make soldiers enjoy war, which they often do.

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If ALL QUIET was Milestone’s only war movie, his reputation would probably be higher. But it isn’t, and perhaps as a result his 1930 film enjoys more respect than he does.

As America entered the war, Milestone put together this documentary with Joris Ivens, using material shot by Russian cameramen at the Eastern front. All part of Milestone’s “premature anti-fascism” which would cause him some trouble later.

Then he embarked on a series of war pictures. THE NORTH STAR and EDGE OF DARKNESS have already been discussed here — they deal with the conflict in Russia (more trouble later) and Norway and are very impressive. It’s immediately troubling that they use many of the same techniques — the lateral tracking shot in particular — as ALL QUIET, and use them to create excitement, celebrating battle and triumph, in scenarios where our reaction to the fighting is an uncomplicated one of cheering on the goodies. Even the deaths of sympathetic characters are swept aside by the overwhelming charge to victory.

As problematic as these films are in some respects (only in some, be fair: they’re very good films), they’re easy to take compared to THE PURPLE HEART (1944).

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Why is he dressed as a wizard?

I told a friend on Skype I was watching a WWII propaganda movie full of Chinese actors playing Japanese roles (since all the Japanese actors were interned).

“Is Richard Loo in it?”

“He is!”

“[Talk show host] Dick Cavett used to do an impression of him. It wasn’t very good, but he would do it at any opportunity. ‘A chain is only as strong… as its weakest link.'”

“He says that in this movie! This is the movie that’s from!”

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Zanuck may be writing the dialogue and the cheques, but Milestone is calling action. On the plus side, the film is at times sincerely emotive, the cause was at least a better one than WWI (can’t accuse a man of hypocrisy for decrying one war and supporting another), and the technique is often impressive. But those Sino-Chinese baddies are nasty pieces of caricature. Since neither the writers nor the directors nor the actors know very much about Japanese culture, and since the intent is melodrama, it’s not surprising that the effect is crude. What’s always disturbing about these films is that the propaganda is delivered on racial rather than strictly political lines. I don’t actually mind the racist terminology of the heroes (“nips,” “monkeys”) since I think it’s realistic. It’s the film’s attitude that counts.

The flick deals with two US air crews shot down and captured by the Japanese and put on trial in a kangaroo court. In this way it combines war film (a little action in flashback) with courtroom thriller. A little extra violence is supplied by the Japanese tendency to commit hara-kiri when things don’t go their way.

As a flagwaver, the film is often a touch embarrassing. But do we like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or are we happy they were defeated? If so, we presumably recognize the value of propaganda to the Allied cause. But that doesn’t make it good art. Then there’s the film’s racism, exaggerated by Chinese actors playing Japanese characters, and by Darryl Zanuck’s storyline. Ironically, the film’s attempt to portray the Japanese as culturally psychotic is derailed when the American characters choose “a noble death” in a way that seems little different from the honour suicides derided in their enemy captors.

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As usual with Milestone the film is extremely well-crafted: the paddy field set at night is striking, and the hexagonal reinforced concrete prison block makes for striking compositions. Milestone has some good actors, and Farley Granger.

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A WALK IN THE SUN came after the European conflict was over and it’s a far more nuanced and interesting film. Two of the stars, Dana Andrews (sad iguana stare) and Richard Conte (crocodilian grin) return, along with Norman Lloyd (hooded cobra eyes) and, surprisingly, Sterling Holloway, who would later play an animated snake for Disney but really looks like Tenniel’s Mock Turtle. It’s the most reptilian bunch of grunts you ever saw, and the “plot” has them land in Italy and attempt to walk to a farmhouse to blow up a bridge. Along the way they grouse, bum cigarettes, philosophise and die. Robert Rossen’s poetry-of-the-streets dialogue is really amazing — contrived as heck yet evocative of some kind of life. The underrated Conte is particularly good at snapping it out.

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Milestone’s war films suffer when the location material is interrupted by studio stuff or rear projection or stock footage, but that problem is minimized here (and in PURPLE HEART which is all studio save some time-lapse clouds). Russell Harlan’s photography is outstanding (he was making the transition from B pictures to major films for Hawks and Blake Edwards), and Milestone’s knack for filming group shots is fully exploited (he storyboarded everything so he could concentrate on performances on set). There are some interesting narrative devices — a recurring ballad, most effective when it unexpectedly segues into a blues tune for a scene of the men simply waiting for the next life-or-death situation — and a VO read by Burgess Meredith (star of OF MICE AND MEN) which isn’t associated with any one character and sometimes made me think of Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE. I liked the VO better than the ballad but both are useful.

The whole thing is semi-real and semi-mythic. It doesn’t go as far into abstraction and existential angst as Mann’s MEN IN WAR, but it hints in that direction twelve years early. The ending is triumphal again, but in 1945 it was probably always going to be.

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Milestone could have left it at that, honour somewhat salvaged, but in 1950 Zanuck had him celebrate the marines with HALLS OF MONTEZUMA. The lateral tracking shots are back, and by now we’re wondering why this inventive filmmaker, who came up with new and inspired stuff on almost every film, insisted on repeating himself so much in his battle scenes.

Milestone has an excellent bunch of actors and Robert Wagner. Richard Widmark is at his most attractive as a sergeant who doesn’t plan on surviving. He’s suffering terrible migraines, and has his doc chum (Karl Malden) supplying him with powerful painkillers.

“These aren’t a cure. They’re temporary.”

“So am I.”

We’re in colour this time, bright Pacific colour. The mission is to take an island, capturing Japanese prisoners for information. Korean-American Philip Ahn, a Milestone regular since THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, is one of these. The dialogue isn’t as good as Rossen’s but the patriotism is more muted than Zanuck’s. Characters are maimed, killed, driven crazy (somebody always goes crazy in Milestone’s war films, which is something I give him credit for). Jack Webb delivers a rousing, religiose speech at the end and makes everything alright. But there’s some sharp observation of war’s absurdity and despair. Is that cannon fire or the sound of cake being simultaneously eaten and had?

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THEY WHO DARE (1954), a British production made during Milestone’s blacklist trouble, is worthless. It doesn’t have the lateral tracking shots, but it doesn’t have any other visual interest either, save for the attractive colour in Wilkie Cooper’s lensing of Greek landscapes. Akim Tamiroff is back — an actor who spans Milestone’s career from ’30s to ’60s. Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot in the same unit, in Greece, seems like an invitation to innuendo, but let’s resist.

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The most intriguing bit is a superimposed boulder wobbling in the foreground of a shot, (above, on the left) apparently inserted in post to cover a mistake. It’s enormously distracting, since the shot isn’t quite stable, causing the vast rocky overhang to bobble about as if full of helium and jounced by a breeze. Whatever it’s concealing must have been insanely inappropriate to merit such an extreme and unsuccessful cover-up.

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Directorially, the only familiar moment is the director’s fondness for including caricatures of his cast. Here’s a swashbuckling Dirk, as one of his comrades-in-arms pictures him.

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PORK CHOP HILL (1959) deals with Korea. In A WALK IN THE SUN, Norman Lloyd is always going on about “the Battle of Tibet” which he predicts will be fought in 1956. He was almost right. The lateral tracking shots are trotted out one more time. The futility of war — symbolized by the taking of one insignificant hill — is undercut by producer Gregory Peck adding a VO at the end to explain the strategic import of the victory. The ching-chong-chinese soundtrack (by Leonard Rosenman! What was he thinking?) is a disastrous miscalculation too, but there are some very good actors, and Gregory Peck.

Under the credits, we see what appear to be negotiations breaking down between the Americans and the Koreans — one has to assume this started life as an actual scene, depicting the causes of war, and that Gregory Peckory decided nobody cared about that stuff and so chose to slaister music all over it, drowning out the dialogue. He could have cut the whole sequence, but waste not want not — better to have it here, serving no coherent purpose, apparently. The whole re-edit job is so clunking and inefficient — a title comes up to identify the location AFTER a whole establishing scene — that it’s easy to see where the interference has happened. Things improve once the action starts, and it never lets up. An American unit has to conquer a completely worthless hill, with none of the promised support, and they’re decimated doing it. The peace talks footage becomes part of a rear-guard action by Peck the producer to prove it was worthwhile.

Some of the stock characters might as well come with targets on their backs, but there are also welcome bursts of interest from a juvenile Harry Dean Stanton, a baby Robert Blake no bigger than a man’s hand, and a daringly cast Woody Strode as a malingering coward (for which read a guy who mainly wants to survive: I was on his side). And he gets whole scenes with the intense Roscoe Lee Browne. That’s right: two black guys talk to each other, and both roles could have gone to white actors. And it’s 1959.

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The campaign is a catalogue of blunders by command, and the propaganda broadcast by an oleaginous Chinese Lord Haw Haw (I call him Lord Run Run Haw Haw)  figure is notable for the fact that everything said against the war is demonstrated to be true by the action of the film itself. So it’s arguable that Peck’s interference merely imposed inefficient Hollywood bookends on the film, the way so many subversive films from the golden age come packaged in conservative platitudes. The real meat is inside.

Oh, and the photography is rather wonderful at times, with a misty pre-dawn advance and some intense spotlit stuff and a world of dust and death. Sam Leavitt was responsible and his credits are IMPRESSIVE.

This was Milestone’s last statement on war, and it ends with Peck’s stuffy VO: “Because of their sacrifice, millions now live in freedom.” And yet, the true last word is probably still contained in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, Milestone’s millstone. Let it serve as coda:

“We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?”

All Quiet on the Western Front (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Halls of Montezuma
Purple Heart
The North Star
TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures (Desperate Journey / Edge of Darkness 1943 / Northern Pursuit / Uncertain Glory / Objective Burma)
A Walk in the Sun (Restored and Uncut)
Pork Chop Hill