Monday, May 27, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Watch on the Rhine" (1943)

Sometimes when a movie is totally different from our expectations, it can be a glorious thing. I remember going into "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" expecting a slapdash prequel, and came out convinced I'd just seen the best movie of the summer.

But diverging too far from what people thought they were going to get can be a fatal drawback, too, and I admit I approached "Watch on the Rhine" expecting to see a gripping spy thriller. This was, after all, a film that was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actress, and won a golden statue for Paul Lukas as Best Actor.

Alas, "Rhine" couldn't be more different than I expected, and it seriously sapped my enjoyment of the picture. I went in thinking spy thriller with lots of twists and turns in the plot. It's much more a dramatic piece of high-toned propaganda, as characters speechify about the evils of Nazism and the nobility of those who stand up against it.

As its opening screen crawl makes clear, the film is an ode to Germans who resist the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich through armed resistance. Coming out in 1943, it couldn't be seen as anything other than an overt appeal to the fighting resolve of Americans and their allies abroad.

Set in 1940 and based on a famous play by Lillian Hellman, "Rhine" concerns an American woman, Sara Muller, (Bette Davis) who returns home after 18 years abroad with her German husband Kurt (Lukas) and children in tow. It soon becomes clear that Kurt is not just the mild-mannered engineer he seems to be, but is one of the key leaders of the German resistance.

Alas, Sara's wealthy mother Fanny (Lucile Watson) has a disgraced Romanian count loitering as a house guest on an extended stay -- why, it's never made clear since she doesn't really know him very well -- and he conspires to sell the information about his identity to the Germans. He threatens to blackmail the husband, who shoots and kills him, then returns to Europe to fight on.

If that doesn't sound like a lot of plot, it's because it isn't. Dashiell Hammett was a famous novelist used to seeing his books turned into movies and television, but as near as I can research this was his only screenplay credit. He tries in vain to breathe some life into the proceedings, but it's hard to escape the story's stilted stage origins, as characters talk and talk and talk ... and talk.

Similarly, director Herman Shumlin was a stage veteran with no experience behind the camera, and it shows. His camera work is stagy and stiff, with characters tending to plant themselves in one spot and barely move around. The performances are also uniformly formal and inorganic, as the actors recite their lines by rote as if schoolkids who have proudly memorized a speech for class.

Shumlin only directed one other feature film, and promptly went back to his native soil on Broadway, where he racked up an impressive array of Tony Award nominations and wins. I'm glad he found success in the medium where he was most suited, because clearly film work was not for him.

The scene where Kurt shoots the count, Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), was controversial in its time because the Romanian is only looking for a bribe, not threatening his life. Kurt forces him into the garage at gunpoint, and a shot rings out. It's pretty clear that Kurt kills him in cold blood.

At first this ran afoul of the censors of the time, since the Hays Code stipulated that criminals always had to be shown getting their comeuppance in the end. According to a book about Davis' career, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures actually suggested changing the ending so Kurt is captured and executed by the Nazis. In the end, the producers managed to convince the censors that Teck was the true villain, and he intended to betray Kurt even after extorting money out of him.

All the Germans except Sara speak in very stilted tones as if English were not their first language. I can understand what the filmmakers were going for, but the result is stiff and strange, with the children speaking like little academics. There's also the odd youngest child, a chubby child who informs his grandmother that he is "not beautiful," and she does him one better by telling him she adores him despite his being ugly.

There's also a distracting subplot about Sara's playboy brother David (Donald Woods) having a thing with the count's young wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald). It adds nothing to the tale, and only serves to distract from the spy story. Of course, since that is so spare, perhaps they just needed something, anything to pad out the script.

All the European names makes for a difficult time remembering who is who -- Teck, Anise, Marthe. Even "Kurt" comes out sounding more like "Koort."

Maybe it's just because I was expecting something completely different -- I was picturing back-alley assassinations and a potboiler plot -- but I just couldn't get engaged in "Watch on the Rhine." Even the title seems like a misdirection, since the action rarely leaves the Farrelly mansion, let alone shifting to Germany. But this is a whole lot of pompous pontificating with little dramatic punch.

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