Monday, February 15, 2010
Reeling Backward: "The Seventh Cross"
"The Seventh Cross" reminds me very much of "Fury," another Spencer Tracy film that was profiled in this space some time ago. Tracy plays a decent Everyman who's hunted by the mob, and finds reasons for both hope and despair about the state of mankind during his run.
This film has additional political overtones since it was made in 1944 and set in 1936, before most of the world appreciated the threat of the Nazis' rise to power. Tracy plays the last of seven escapees from a German concentration camp. All the others have been captured and killed, their bodies strung up on trees at the camp that have been pruned and turned into crosses. The last, empty one is awaiting George Heisler.
Based on the novel by Helen Deutsch, screenwriter Anna Seghers doesn't even mention anything about why the men were imprisoned until more than halfway through the film. It turns out Heisler was a political agitator who spoke out about the takeover of Germany by Nazism.
Director Fred Zinneman doesn't take the gloves off in his depiction of the German people -- they're shown as being gleeful about the search for the escaped prisoners. In a disturbing scene one of the escapees, a former circus acrobat, flees the police across the rooftops of the town before intentionally plunging to his death.
Even small boys of the Hitler Youth enthusiastically scour the town for George, nearly discovering him in a woodpile.
There are some good Germans, though. The main example is Paul Roeder and his wife Liesel, played by the real-life married duo Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in their first onscreen pairing.
Paul is a friend of George who's so focused on his family and his job that he barely pays attention to the political unrest. He doesn't even know that George was sent to a concentration camp, and is now being sought by the authorities. The factory where he works has been busy cranking out weapons for the German build-up, but Paul doesn't care because his paycheck has swelled.
The veil over Paul's eyes is yanked away when he sees how his friend is being persecuted, and he soon becomes caught up in the underground movement. Cronyn would receive an Oscar nomination for his moving performance -- the only recognition he received from the Academy during his long career.
The film uses an interesting device that's effective, but it sort of gets misplaced. It starts out with narration by another escapee. After he is captured, tortured and killed, his narration continues as the voice of reason whispering inside George's head. The narration grows more and more infrequent, until it finally disappears for good. Storytelling tricks like that work only if the filmmakers are willing to fully commit to them, and here they seemed to lose faith in it.
Also unconvincing is a slapped-together romance between George and a hotel maid played by Signe Hasso. She helps him escape by hiding in her room, and then in the next scene Tracy is shown putting on his tie on. That's about as close to an explicit declaration of sexual intercourse having taken place as one got at that time.
"The Seventh Cross" is a decent thriller, one of the first prison break movies that became so popular after World War II. Spencer Tracy was one of those performers that audiences just immediately identified with and wanted to root for.