My excursions into the films of Powell and Pressburger brought me back into the world of the 1940s, and specifically, World War II. My next film to see is 49th Parallel (also known as The Invaders in the U.S.), which won Pressburger his only Oscar and was Powell’s first outing as director working with Pressburger. But in the meantime, I’ve visited two other “classics” to see what all the excitement was about.
Watch on the Rhine always grabbed my interest because it won Best Actor for Paul Lukas, whom I knew little about and who won the award over Humphrey Bogart’s seminal work in Casablanca. I might have written that off as simply a fluke, except that Lukas also won the first Golden Globe as Best Actor (not a big deal), the National Board of Review Best Actor Award (you’ve got my attention), and the New York Film Critics Circle Award (OK, I’ll watch the film).
The film itself hasn’t aged well, to be kind. It’s based on a successful play by Lillian Hellman, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett. It looks and feels like a play, and a rather old and stodgy one at that. It’s overly talky and not well translated into a cinematic work. The words spilling out of the children’s mouths in particular are nearly painful—no one, no one talks like that, not even brilliant children with strong international backgrounds.
If you look it up, you’ll see Bette Davis’s picture and name strongly featured. She fought against the marketing angle, as her part is more supporting than anything, and she just wanted to be part of a strong anti-Nazi work. She’s fine, but is clearly leaning on her usual rhythms and clipped speech.
What is great is that central performance. Lukas is wonderful in a part that could have been dry and stuffy and arch and something like Raymond Massey became as he aged (think East of Eden and you’ll see what this could have been.) Lesser actors might have been overwhelmed by the lines the poor man has to say. But he (perhaps having perfected it on the stage) artfully internalizes the conflicts, and the words are believable. Yet even saying that, one must wonder if Lukas’ reputation as a stage actor, his admittedly fine work here, Bogart’s work that was all of a piece in a better film, and of course, the strong anti-Nazi message, all conspired to pile the awards onto Lukas. Other than revisiting the performance, now known primarily as the one that took Bogart’s award away, it’s not worth seeing the film. The film manages to raise a fascinating question about what is self-defense, which of course must have resonated more strongly before and in the early stages of the war. But aside from that question, which it tosses out but doesn’t develop, the film is businesslike, earnest to a fault, and to be honest, occasionally ridiculous. I’m glad I saw it, but will likely never spend the time watching it again.
What might be worth watching again was In Which We Serve, which I also watched because I had to fill in that gap. I had read about the film for years, knew that the legendary Noel Coward won a special Oscar for his work here, and I wanted to see the first film directed by David Lean. (It’s credited to Coward and Lean, but rumor has it that it was only a few weeks before Coward handed the duties entirely off to Lean.)
Unlike the “filmization” of Watch on the Rhine, In Which We Serve is an actual movie. It has a surprising three-part flashback structure, the camera becomes a part of the action instead of just showing it, and I can only assume that the tight rhythms of the film come from Lean, best known at that point in his career as the best editor in England (49th Parallel, Major Barbara and Pygmalion, among several others). And the cinematography was by future director Ronald Neame, with camerawork by the brilliant Guy Green.
The film moves, breathes and has more life in one scene than all of Watch on the Rhine, in spite of that film’s pertinent ideology. The story is king here, with three Brits of various ages and stations in life dealing with the (spoiler alert) sinking of their ship. It’s almost like a middle-of-the-war British version of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). There’s excitement in the set-up, and energy in the action scenes. There’s also pathos (great at times) in the personal stories featured as well. Rousing and touching at the same time.
The film features a bravura performance from the relatively unknown Bernard Miles, a strong performance by the young John Mills (who would go on to do great work with Lean in the future) and a near-shocking performance by screenwriter, playwright, actor, singer, composer, and co-director Noel Coward. The shock isn’t that Coward could act, but that this effete writer of biting social comedies could pull off a believable performance as a seasoned naval officer. He does, and solidly. If you have a good eye, note the performance of a very young and nearly cherubic Richard Attenborough and a young Michael Wilding, still better known as Mr. Elizabeth Taylor #2. Better yet is the film debut of the great Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter).
It’s clear that Lean was ready to burst onto the film world as an accomplished director (Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago). The performances are solid, the camerawork is intelligent and artistic, and the film engages the viewer from the first image. Lean had clearly learned a few things from the Soviet directors and editors, as some of the images and a lot of the editing patterns reminded me of the best Soviet cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
There is a certain earthiness to many British films of the times, and a kind of raw inelegance. Between Coward’s script, his performance, and Lean’s direction, this film is nothing like that. The film combines these elements in a swiftly moving, strongly dramatic, visually exciting way. There’s little else like it in early 1940’s British cinema, and it stands up surprisingly strongly today. If you need to choose between Watch on the Rhine and In Which We Serve to satisfy your WWII itch, go with the latter.