The truest, awfulest form of claustrophobia is not the feeling of the walls closing in, but of people closing in. Claustrophobia of the flesh — other people’s and our own. So the most impressive sequence in Rene Clement’s rather little-known wartime resistance romance, LE JOUR ET L’HEURE, is a desperate passage through a crowded train, where Henri Decae’s camera jostles about realistically, creating an entirely new form of camera movement, nosing left and right as it nudges its way through the resisting mass of travellers. Movie crowds usually part obligingly for the crew — sometimes, when the lens is wide, you can even see them doing it at the edge of frame. But this bunch of surly French passengers AIN’T BUDGING. So we squeeze along in little surges, like blood from a wound.
Suddenly — there’s Reggie Nalder, and we know things just got worse. (I would love to see a movie where an appearance by the scar-faced Austro-Hungarian thesp signalled an upturn in somebody’s fortunes, but I fear his career, from JERICHO in 1946 to JERICO in 1991 (his filmography has more symmetry than his face!) passed without a single white knight role.
Stuart Whitman was never an actor I embraced as warmly as I do Nalder — TV’s Kurt Barlow gets a free pass, like Michael Berryman for being fabulously freakish — Whitman seemed to always herald tedium in BBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies screenings of the 70s. But then I saw him playing a persecuted paedophile in THE MARK, and I thought, I have to give him points for bravery. He’s actually a good, sympathetic presence when not called upon to embody the Glenn Ford ideal of masculinity, which is a pretty messed-up ideal. Here he plays an American airman shot down over France and enlisting the aid of Simone Signoret to escape into Spain — he hopes.
The suspense set-up is so strong that the movie can coast from one tense situation to another, never having to rely on its slightly underwritten love story, and knowing that an actor like Signoret can fill in the blanks. The strong supporting cast, with Michel Piccolo, Billy Kearns and Genevieve Page, helps, as does the photography, despite a great deal of anamorphic mumps and rubberwalling, the combination of widescreen and wide lenses making us feel like we’re being wrapped around the actors or else buckling lengthwise into boss-eyed cylinders as we’re pressed through the doorways.