Monday, July 18, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Tenth Man" (1988)

I don't usually write about television movies, but 1988's "The Tenth Man" has more cinematic roots than most TV.

It was based on a novel by Graham Greene, whose work has been the basis for a number of movies -- "The End of the Affair," "The Quiet American," "The Third Man," etc. And director Jack Gold had plenty of feature film experience as well as television.

And, of course, it stars a trio of magnificent English film actors: Anthony Hopkins, Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi. Given that pedigree, I'm willing to give it an honorary inclusion into the Reeling Backward club.

It's a tragic tale about fear and regret, and the impossibility of escaping the past. Its hero begins the story in shame, and ends it with a brave sacrifice. He is a liar and a coward, and yet culminates his journey ennobled.

Hopkins plays Jean Louis Chavel, a wealthy French barrister who is rounded up by the Nazis in the early days of the German occupation of France. There is no reason for his arrest, or I should say there is no particular reason that he should be among those arrested -- he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Germans are plucking men off the street at random to hold as hostages. Whenever the French Resistance stage any sort of violence, a few of the prisoners are executed.

(I should note that although all the major characters are French, everyone speaks in the finest upper-crust British accents -- one of those conceits of filmmaking we're asked to just swallow.)

Sure enough, after some trouble the Germans announce that three of 30 Frenchmen will be executed in the morning. As an added twist of the knife, they will force the prisoners themselves to choose from among their number the condemned. After drawing lots, Chavel is horrified to find he has gotten one of the three pieces of paper with an "X" on it.

After breaking down in a tearful display, Chavel offers to give 100,000 francs to any man who will take his place. When this fails to net any takers, he increases the deal to include everything he owns, including his mansion estate in the countryside near Paris. Michel Mangeot (Timothy Watson), a sickly young man, agrees to the bargain, and sees to it that Chavel himself makes out the legal papers leaving everything to Michel's sister and mother.

Interestingly, the title refers not to Chavel, who is actually the 27th of 30 prisoners to draw lots, but Michel, who nabs the 10th ballot. Or perhaps it's just a reference to one in 10 men being executed ... but that would mean there were three Tenth Men. No, I think it's Michel. I'm always fascinated by movie titles that don't mean what they appear to, like "The Last of the Mohicans," which refers not to Hawkeye but his adoptive father, Chingachgook. 

Flash to the end of the war, and a bedraggled Chavel emerges from prison, bearded and wearing ragged clothes. Finding a ring in the cobblestones near the Seine River -- which he had contemplated hurling himself into -- he pawns it for enough money to travel to his former estate. He finds the grounds overgrown and the shutter hanging askew, but otherwise the house is intact. Chavel is startled to discover that it is not in fact abandoned, but still occupied by Michel's sister Therese Mangeot (Scott Thomas) and her elderly mother (Brenda Bruce).

He gives Therese a fictitious name, suspecting that she may blame him for the death of Michel -- a wise move. Turns out she is boiling with rage, waiting for the day Chavel returns so she can spit in his face and shoot him (though not necessarily in that order). He tells her he was in prison with her brother and knew Chavel, so she hires him as a servant. His main job is to alert her if Chavel should ever turn up.

There's a bit of literary conceit there, especially the idea that Chavel's former neighbors and the local priest (Cyril Cusack) wouldn't recognize him after being away just three years and growing a beard.

You can probably guess what happens next: Chavel finds himself falling for Therese, but can't bring himself to declare his true identity and feelings, knowing she burns with hatred for him.

It's a very subtle, interior performance by Hopkins, the sort of thing that typified his career before he won an Oscar for "Silence of the Lambs" three years later. The way his eyes fall to the floor, and his hands rub his forehead and cheek, it's almost like Chavel is trying to hide from himself. It would be interesting to know what sort of man he was before the war, bu the movie doesn't provide much illumination before he's thrown in prison.

Things grow more melodramatic in the last third or so with the arrival of an impostor (Derek Jacobi) claiming to be Chavel. The son of one of the other prisoners, he heard the story of Chavel and decided to make use of it. He's on the run from the authorities for collaborating with the Germans and needs a place to stay for the night. But smartly sensing the odd dynamic unfolding in the Chavel mansion, he decides to make a play for bigger stakes.

I enjoyed "The Tenth Man" for the most part -- the acting is splendid, and it has a dour, sober quality and an authentic period feel. Sort of "Masterpiece Theatre" meets Dostoevsky.

2.5 stars out of four


  1. The Tenth Man is definitely one of Anthony Hopkins best movies, I think the title refers to one in every ten men being executed. Interesting to read other people's take on this movie, thanks.

  2. I loved the movie, it was so different from other Hopkins's movies. It also had the feeling of a much older production than it really was and I enjoyed this feeling very much.