Thursday, January 31, 2008


The goings-on during an eventful couple of days at a Southern military college, seen mostly through the eyes of a freshman (George Peppard) and focused on the behavior of Jocko (Ben Gazarra), a sadistic bully who terrorizes students and faculty alike. The film opens with Gazarra and his dimwitted buddies (Pat Hingle and James Olson) barging in on Peppard and his dork roommate (Arthur Storch) one night after hours for a poker game. When Storch gets slapped around (as a hazing event, apparently), a cadet next door (Geoffrey Horne), the son of one of the schoolmasters, hears the commotion and reports them. They manage to clean things up and act innocent, but Gazarra punishes Horne by beating him up, forcing-feeding liquor down his throat, and throwing him down some stairs, so when he's found the next morning, it is assumed that Horne got drunk and battered by falling on his own. Horne is expelled, but his father (Larry Gates) discovers evidence that incriminates Gazarra. However, when he confronts Gazarra, the boy manages to turn things around and provokes Gates into hitting him, a punishable offense. This act, overheard by several cadets, is the turning point for Gazarra, and Peppard gets Hingle, Olson, and a dozen others to hold a sort of kangaroo court during which punishment is meted out to Gazarra.

This film is based on a play, "End as a Man" by Calder Willingham (which was itself based on a novel), and until the end, little attempt is made to open it up. Since practically all the scenes in the first two-thirds of the movie take place in small cadet dorm rooms, an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere is maintained. Supposedly the play had a much stronger homoerotic subtext, which here is pretty much limited to two characters. The aforementioned Storch, who plays one of the most unpleasant characters I've ever encountered in a movie, is mostly an uppity, nerdish, chickenshit little twerp, and there is a brief reference to his apparently willful inexperience with women when Gazarra tries to foist him off on a hooker. However, the cadet called Cockroach (Paul E. Richards) has a perverse hero-worship crush on Gazarra, who refers to him as "a three-dollar bill"; he also has "artistic" leanings, and is writing a novel about Gazarra, calling his character Nightboy. There is one steamy scene in a group shower in which the naked Gazarra grabs the naked Richards, who refuses to shut up about his idealization of Gazarra, and soaps his head up, but aside from this moment (and, of course, the all-male surroundings), any homosexual element has to be read in by the audience. The performances are all good, especially Gazarra (who originated the part on Broadway) and Peppard in their movie debuts. Gazarra has the showier part, but Peppard is equally good (and quite handsome) as the passive observer, as is Olson in the smaller role of a dumb galoot of a jock--hard to reconcile this Olson with the father character I know him better as in RAGTIME 20 years later. Most of the actors look a bit old to be playing college-age men, especially Hingle who was over 30 at the time, but since they all look about the same age, it's not a bothersome element. Interesting mostly for its performances. [TCM]

Monday, January 28, 2008


A somewhat schizophrenic WWII spy movie, directed by Henry Hathaway; the first and more successful part is done in the faux-documentary style that Hathaway used for his earlier spy film THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, but the last two-thirds abandons that style for a more traditional fictional adventure narrative. There's nothing wrong with either style, but they don’t mesh well here. Establishing the documentary mood is some repetitive narration at the beginning, setting us up for a look at a fictionalized version of the OSS, here called Secret Intelligence. We follow a group of fledgling agents in preparation for overseas intelligence gathering under the watchful guidance of Walter Abel, head of the organization, Melville Cooper, known as their "house mother," and James Cagney, the agent who puts them through their paces. Abel tells Cagney that one of the men, Richard Conte, is actually a German agent hoping to learn the Allies D-Day plans, and they've decided to feed him false information and let him join the group when they parachute into Holland to join the Resistance in destroying a Nazi bomb depot and in bringing back the Frenchman who built the depot. However, along the way, Conte figures out he's been found out, kills an agent during the parachute drop, and skedaddles to Gestapo HQ in Paris (the title address). Realizing that Conte knows faces and names and could scotch the whole mission, Cagney parachutes into France and poses as a Vichy flunky to try to neutralize Conte. This part of the film has some twisty plot points and is exciting, even if Cagney seems woefully miscast as a French-speaking agent--he doesn't even make a half-hearted stab at an accent. However, the finale, which I won't completely spoil, seems rather far-fetched, though it does lead to a nice climax which almost prefigures the ending of a later Cagney classic, WHITE HEAT. Aside from Cagney (who is OK if not as commanding as usual), the rest of the cast is fine, especially Frank Latimore and Annabella as agents-in-training and Sam Jaffe as a French mayor who may or not be on the side of the Resistance. Watch closely and you might catch Karl Malden and E.G. Marshall early in their careers in tiny roles. Both halves of the film are interesting, but the fit as a whole is a little awkward. Still, quite watchable. [FMC]

Friday, January 25, 2008


Another movie for the new year which I had avoided as a glossy and dumbed-down biopic. I knew almost nothing about the Polish composer Fredric Chopin before I saw this colorful, melodrama, and I suspect I still don't really know much about him. Here, the handsome and robust Cornel Wilde plays Chopin, a piano prodigy from a young age, taught by Prof. Elsner (Paul Muni), presented here as a somewhat pompous but likeable older man. Elsner spends much of the first half of the film at war with Chopin's family, who are against Elsner taking their son from Warsaw to Paris to find success as a pianist and composer. Chopin is sickly for most of his life (with TB, apparently, though Wilde is never less than robust-looking throughout) and is also a strong patriot who occasionally risks his career in order to protest the "Czarist butchers" who have been sent from Russia to rule Poland. His debut performance in Paris is cut short when he learns that two of his freedom-fighter friends have been executed by the Russians, but famous composer Franz Liszt (Stephen Bekassy), who knows how talented Chopin is, comes to his rescue in the film's best scene: at a salon concert, Liszt sits down at the piano to play, requesting all the lights be dimmed. Halfway through the rapturously received performance, the candelabra on the piano are lit to reveal that it has been Chopin playing all along. While becoming the toast of Paris, Chopin falls for novelist Georges Sand (Merle Oberon), an unconventional female novelist who dresses in men's clothing and dares to live by her own standards. She begins to rigidly control his life, keeping him playing in salons instead of the concert halls that Elsner thinks he should be in, and stopping upsetting news about the Polish political scene from reaching him. Elsner finds himself frozen out of Chopin's life, but with Liszt's help, he renews contact with him and gets him to go on a major concert tour to help raise money for Polish resistance. The tour is a success, but it saps Chopin's strength, leading to his early death. I am not typically a fan of either Wilde or Oberon, but both are fine here, giving full-bodied performances perfectly in tune with the artificial, melodramatic atmosphere of the film. Muni, of whom I am also not an admirer, is not very good here, careening between over-the-top and tired. Nina Foch and George Coulouris are good in supporting roles. The movie, in rich Technicolor and with elaborate sets and costuming, always looks great, even if there are long sections that drag something fierce. The piano music is played by Jose Iturbi and Wilde does a nice job with "hand-dubbing" the piano playing. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


This is a war movie without a war; specifically, it plays out a lot like the Errol Flynn movie OBJECTIVE, BURMA except without a battleground background. The earlier film cut back and forth between a group of soldiers lost with few supplies in enemy territory, and a group of Army personnel working at getting the men back. This film cuts back and forth between a group of civilian fliers lost with few supplies in near-Arctic land in Canada, and a group of Army and civilian personnel working at getting the men back. John Wayne is a civilian pilot with the Army Transport Service during WWII; on a flight from Greenland to Goose Bay in Canada, he and his crew run into bad weather and are forced to crash land in uncharted land on the Labrador Peninsula. They survive the landing on a frozen lake, but with sub-zero temperatures, little in the way of food, and a dwindling power supply, they know they can't last long. Army men Walter Abel and Lloyd Nolan spearhead a rescue team made up of other transport pilots who come running to help when they hear that one of their own is in trouble. In the Flynn movie, the trapped men kept moving and were tracked from the air by their rescuers until they got to a place where they could be picked up; here, the men are pretty much stuck at their plane, desperately sending out SOS signals and, as the power supply weakens, using a difficult hand-crank emergency signal device to attract the search team. The best scene is when some search pilots fly directly overhead but, between the glaring white expanses and iced-up windshields, the fliers don't notice the men waving below. There is one death on the ice, and the men, even the stoic Wayne, come close to giving up before the searchers finally get a fix on the men, and Wayne proclaims, "Bless their pointed little heads!" (a variant of a phrase I only knew before as the title of a Jefferson Airplane album). Wayne is OK, but his persona, artificial-sounding slow drawl and all, was solidly in place by the time of this movie, so it feels like he's playing John Wayne rather than the character of Capt. Dooley. Better are Sean McClory, Harry Carey Jr., and Jimmy Lydon as members of Wayne's crew, and James Arness as a rescuer (who gets a cute comic relief scene early in the film). Also with Andy Devine, Regis Toomey, Allyn Joslyn, George Chandler, and Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer. Most of the exteriors were shot at Donner Lake in California, now a ski resort area. [TCM]

Sunday, January 20, 2008


This period melodrama, set in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War is really a WWII propaganda movie at heart. The story begins in the small French village of Cleresville, occupied by the Prussians. The local priest has refused to ring the church bell for any reason, deciding to keep the bell silent until he witnesses a worthy act of resistance. In the nearby town of Rouen, we follow a group of travelers in a stagecoach which will pass through Cleresville; most of them are effete, upper-class men and women; one is the young priest who will replace the older priest, one (John Emery) is an ineffective rebel, and one (Simone Simon) is a saucy laundress (read: prostitute) who is looked down upon by most of the other passengers. When they spend a night at a roadside inn, a Prussian officer also on his way to the village (Kurt Kreuger) invites Simon to "dine" with him in his room. She has earlier said that she has made it a point of pride never to "dine" with the occupiers, and she refuses here. At first, the travelers seem to respect her for her decision, but when Kreuger refuses to let the group go on their way, they begin to pressure her to give up her ideals and go to his room. She finally relents, and the next morning, even though the group has its freedom, most of them shun her on the stagecoach. In Cleresville, she takes a job at a laundry, and Emery decides to stay in the village to help the new priest protect the bell. Kreuger also winds up stationed in the village and soon, confrontations occur involving both Simon and Emery which cause the priest to happily ring his bell to let the villagers know that resistance has begun.

This little-known film, directed by Robert Wise, was produced by Val Lewton at RKO but it has been excluded from the Lewton canon since it is not a thriller or a horror film like most of his others (though it did rate a brief mention in the Martin Scorsese documentary on Lewton which TCM ran recently). Nevertheless, this is as well done as any of his more well-known films and deserves to be more widely seen. It is a bit talky, and as it is based on two separate short stories by Guy de Maupassant, the narrative does break in half in the middle with some loss of momentum, but the film still works as a whole. I actually forgot while I was watching it that it was set in the 19th century since it works so well as a WWII allegory--Kreuger played Nazis is many 40's films, and the portrayal of the beginnings of a underground resistance is a staple of wartime movies. Simon, the Cat Woman in CAT PEOPLE, is quite good as the noble underclass heroine. Familiar faces among the other passengers are Jason Robards Sr., Norma Varden, and Alan Napier. The title character is actually Kreuger, who is given the nickname "Fifi" by his men for his constant use of the mild French curse "Fi, fi, donc!" [TCM]

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Every year, I make a resolution not to make New Year's resolutions. However, this year, I have decided to make an effort to watch more classic movies which I have deliberately avoided. Most of these are well-known films (mostly from the 50's) which everyone says I should see, like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE or MARTY or SHANE or SERGEANT YORK, but for which for some reason, I just can't work up any enthusiasm. Sometimes it's because, as with REBEL, I know so much about it that I feel like I've seen it already. Other times, as in HUMORESQUE, it's because it seems like a film I would definitely not enjoy. Joan Crawford in brittle bitch mode and John Garfield as a sensitive tough-guy violinist? Typically, I'd say, "No, thanks, seen it already." But I made this my first "resisted" film, and by God, I loved it! And not even in a campy way.

Robert Blake is a kid growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of a grocer (J. Carroll Naish) who can't understand his boy's desire to have a violin for his birthday. His mother (Ruth Nelson) is more understanding and he gets the violin. He grows up (becoming John Garfield) devoting himself to the violin and studying at an arts institute, and is mentored by cynical pianist Oscar Levant--what other kind of pianist could Levant possibly play? After years of frustration, he finally gets a break when he plays at a party given by Joan Crawford, a famed patron of the arts. Surrounded by callow playboys and fawning gay boys (my interpretation of the presence of cute blond Teddy in the party scene) and a passive, weak husband, Crawford is attracted to the young, cocky, darkly sexy Garfield. After a brief battle of wills, he lets her help him out by getting him an agent and paying for his first public recital. He's a smash and his career skyrockets. Crawford and Garfield begin a tempestuous affair, with Crawford constantly jealous, sometimes of other women, but ultimately realizing that he's married to his music; she says she's "tired of playing second fiddle to Beethoven." The film climaxes with the distraught Crawford listening to Garfield playing Wagner over the radio, and taking a last, long walk, dressed to the shoulder-padded nines, into the ocean.

This is an old-fashioned "woman's picture" involving passion, suffering, and a fabulous wardrobe, but there are several things that make this stand out above the rest. Crawford is at her peak as a Movie Star, and once she enters the film, about thirty minutes in, she monopolizes the screen, seeming to glitter in every frame. She's very good, better even than in MILDRED PIERCE, for which she won the Oscar, and she hadn't yet started going campily over the top as she would in her 50's films. She's older and classier than Garfield, but the relationship never feels false. Garfield is also good, though he tends to take a back seat in his own narrative in the last hour. Paul Cavanagh is fine as the effete husband and Naish, who I'm coming to admire more and more as a consummate supporting actor, is quite good as the father. Oddly, the one weak link is Oscar Levant, whom I normally like. Here, his dry, cutting wit is overused, sometimes feeling artificially shoehorned in, and his line readings are done at a breakneck speed which doesn't fit with the feel of the rest of the movie. I did like Levant's somewhat ambiguous friendship with Garfield; at one point, he tells someone that his relationship to Garfield is the same as George Sand's to Chopin. Ruth Nelson, as the mother, rather overdoes the disapproving glares she gives Crawford throughout. There is a lot of classical music in the movie, but it avoids the "classical vs. pop" plotline that many 40's films partake of; there is a scattering of pop tunes used as counterpoint, including "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" and "Embraceable You." I don't want to risk overselling this movie, but I was caught off guard by how much I liked it. [TCM]

Monday, January 14, 2008


I guess I need to admit that, even though I like Frank Capra, I'm not a fan of his MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON--Capra's do-good populism is allowed full sappy reign and Stewart, usually letter perfect in his 30's and 40's movies, goes overboard with the hoarse voice in his famous filibuster scene. I bring this up because this movie seems like it must have inspired MR. SMITH to some degree, even to a scene with the hero ruminating in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and the same sappiness and simplistic populism used in Capra's movie in the service of criticizing Washington lawmakers goes awry here. Even worse, instead of the likeable Stewart, here the unlikable and shrill Lee Tracy plays the hero, a man named Button Gwinett Brown, related to a signer of the Declaration of Independence--we're told that Tracy's blood "is bluer than one of Sophie Tucker's songs." Tracy, newly elected to Congress, comes to town prepared to fight waste and corruption and he's taken under the wing of Frank Sheridan, who secretly works for Alan Dinehart, a bad-guy lobbyist who is also a bootlegger and who seems to have half of Congress under his thumb. Wallis Clark, head of the Prohibition Department, threatens to resign and expose Dinehart until he is reminded that Dinehart has enough dirt on Clark to send him to jail, and Clark promptly kills himself with a gun provided by Dinehart. (This is actually the best scene in the movie; it's mostly downhill from here.) Tracy gets involved with the Bonus Army, a group of WWI veterans agitating for benefits due them, and makes his first mark in Congress by fighting a boondoggle bill which would allocate millions of dollars to build a memorial to a person no one has heard of. He succeeds in stopping the bill but is told that he made an ass of himself before his colleagues. Sheridan, under orders from Dinehart, starts a recall to get Tracy out of office, but with the help of good-guy senator Walter Connolly, his daughter (Constance Cummings), and the men of the Bonus Army, Tracy amasses evidence of wrongdoing against Dinehart, who is eventually put in the same fatal situation in which he put Clark earlier.

Movies are often political, but the subject of politics rarely makes for compelling cinema. This film seems to come down hard on Congressional politics, but it pulls its punches in the name of fairness, and winds up wanting to have it both ways by insisting on one hand that most lawmakers are crooked and lazy, but on the other hand that most lawmakers are good people at heart. The mechanics of the plot are hard to follow because so much of the corruption is left vague in content, but the scenes involving the veterans group are good and Dinehart makes an excellent bad guy. Tracy is not very inspiring, though Cummings and Connolly are OK. The film uses the title of a best-selling muckraking book of the time (and later a newspaper column) by Drew Pearson but the screenplay was based on an original story by Maxwell Anderson. I was pleased to see this film because it's been hard to come by, but I can't really urge others to hunt it down. [TCM]

Friday, January 11, 2008


Thoroughly average military-readiness propaganda film from WWII, notable only for its lovely Technicolor, and for being the first of four films that John Payne and Maureen O'Hara made together. The title would seem to promise plenty of wartime action, but there is none except for some moderately dangerous training maneuvers late in the film. Much of the movie was shot at a real Marine Crops base in San Diego which makes me assume this film had the approval of the Corps, but I can't imagine that it reflects the real Marines of the day. Randolph Scott is a Marine commander, and not nearly as rough on his men as the stereotypical Marine drill instructor I picture in my head (admittedly itself a Hollywood stereotype). John Payne is a newbie, the son of an old friend of Scott's (Minor Watson) who wants Scott to whip the tall, good looking boy into shape, though as far as Payne is concerned, he's just killing time until he gets a cushy office job in Washington. The night before he is to report to barracks, Payne meets O'Hara at a party and discovers she's a Marine nurse, and the equivalent of a lieutenant. After he kisses her, he says, "I bet I'm the first Leatherneck in history who's kissed a lieutenant"--um, probably not, I replied to the screen. Anyway, if you've seen any of these cliched "the military makes the man" movies of the era, you know what happens: Payne is a pain in the ass to Scott, but he's also popular with the other men, and when he gets serious, he's also a good Marine. When Scott and Payne get into fisticuffs, Scott takes the blame, knowing that Payne could get kicked out. During maneuvers, Scott winds up in mortal danger and Payne risks his life to save him. Still, when Payne's girl (Nancy Kelly) gets him his office job, Payne decides to take it, but then, in addition to his blossoming affection for O'Hara (and her grudging affection for him), Pearl Harbor happens and changes everything. At the end, the Marine's Hymn (from which the movie's title is taken) is used for what amounts to an inspirational musical number. Not a moment of the movie rings true, and though the Technicolor makes it look nice, it also may add to the feeling of artifice that hangs over it all. The one original touch is a scene in which Payne strips out of his civilian clothes and into his uniform in the middle of a parade march, surrounded for modesty's sake by his buddies. Other would-be Marines include William Tracy (the messenger boy in SHOP AROUND THE CORNER), Alan Hale Jr. (Gilligan's Skipper), Harry Morgan (MASH's Col. Potter), and Maxie Rosenbloom. Payne and O'Hara are easy on the eyes, and I'd only recommend this for their fans. [FMC]

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


These German Mountain films I've been watching are all about men (and usually one woman, played by Leni Riefenstahl) up against the rigors of nature. They are also about the filmmakers up against nature, as they are all shot on location, usually without stunt doubles. This is one of only two fiction films directed by Riefenstahl, and it differs from other Mountain films in that it tells a folk tale/fantasy tale rather than having a reality-based disaster theme. A couple arrives at the quaint mountain village of Santa Maria and find portraits of a sad-looking young woman named Junta (Riefenstahl) all over the place. An innkeeper gives them a Bible-sized book which tells the tale of this fabled figure, a simple girl who lived with Guzzi, a young boy who is a shepherd in the higher reaches of the mountains (and who may be her younger brother, though that was not clear to me). The villagers call her a witch and she is treated like an outcast. It seems that at the full moon, a bright blue light emanates from the top of Mt. Cristallo and it is rumored that there are great riches to be had there, but whenever a young village lad tries to scale the mountain, he dies in the process (and is then mourned by the villagers with the sculpting of his Christ-like figure in rock). Parents actually drag their sons inside, away from the siren-like allure of the blue light, but each month, someone tries and is found dead the next morning. Only Junta can get to the top, hence the villagers' resentment. Vigo (Mathias Wieman), an artist, visits the village and is enchanted by Junta, as are the animals, who seem to listen intently to her when she tells stories to Guzzi. Although they do not speak the same language, Vigo decides to stay with her and paint her portrait. At the next full moon, Vigo follows Junta to the top and discovers that the blue light comes from a huge bank of crystals. With good intentions, Vigo shows the villagers a passable route to the top, but when they get there, they plunder the cavern of all the crystals, sell them, and soon the villagers are rolling in dough. When Junta discovers this violation of nature, she feels as if she herself has been violated and leaps off the mountain to her death.

Riefenstahl does much better at directing than acting; to indicate the otherworldliness of her character, she usually just stares at the camera with a slightly dazed look. The other actors are adequate, though Wieman makes a bland romantic figure. But the film is beautifully shot, with breathtaking views of the mountains, a waterfall, and the misty village at night, and the story does have a nice magical aura, even though there is a rational explanation for the blue light phenomenon. There is less footage of mountain climbing and bad weather here than in the usual Mountain movie, but the theme of the purity of nature versus the impurity of civilization is intact, and represented not just in the conflict of Junta with the villagers, but also in the failed relationship of the artist with Junta, the force of nature. Better actors and more character development would help, though that would also take the story out of the folk tale realm. The version I watched (on DVD from Pathfinder) has full sound, though it feels like all the dialogue was post-dubbed, and looks great; a shorter silent version is included, but it's in terrible shape. [DVD]

Monday, January 07, 2008


Interesting variation on the Mountain movie: instead of a man vs. mountain background, it's man vs. ice, in the form of glaciers, icebergs, ice floes, and just damned cold water. The Kino DVD has two distinctly different versions of this film: the German-language film, almost 90 minutes long, and a shorter English version with the same basic story and cast, but a different actor playing one of the main characters. Prof. Lorenz (Gustav Diessl) has left his fellow explorers in an uncharted area of Greenland and is excited to witness the birth of an iceberg, a chunk of glacier that falls off into the water, but soon he discovers he's lost and his fellows have abandoned him. Back home, Dr. Krafft (Sepp Rist), the leader of the team, sees his reputation is taking a beating for abandoning Lorenz, and when he gets word that Lorenz might still be alive, the team goes back to Greenland. They discover journals left by Lorenz that indicate he's only a few days away so they set off across a line of moving ice floes through open water to find him. Krafft and his men find Lorenz, with a badly wounded leg, on a large iceberg which is threatening to break apart. Krafft sets out alone to cross a fjord to get help from an Eskimo village. Lorenz's wife (Leni Riefenstahl) hears that the team is lost and takes it upon herself to fly off solo to find all of them, which she does, except that her plane catches fire and she winds up as helpless as the rest of them. The cold, the hunger, and the nearby polar bears all wear the team down (and result in some deaths) until a bunch of pilots come combing the area and pull off a rescue of the survivors.

Much of this, like all of the Mountain films, was shot on location in difficult conditions and some of this footage is indeed exciting. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes feels padded out with shots of planes circling over the ice and sea until our group is found. Rist makes an excellent lead, rugged and commanding but not so invulnerable that we assume he can't be hurt. Among the other three team members, the standout is the British actor Gibson Gowland, best known as the lead in Von Stroheim's silent classic GREED, who plays the weak link of the group who goes a bit nuts. Riefenstahl has surprisingly little to do; it's almost like the boys were sorry they even invited the girl to make their movie and cut her part down to nothing. She has even less to do in the American version, in which Rod LaRoque replaces Diessl as Lorenz. Much of the same footage is used, especially on the ice, but the American version plays out differently, fleshing out the background of the first expedition, presenting the deaths of characters in different ways, and making some plot details explicit which were largely implicit or ambiguous in the original. The dialogue is fairly sparse in the German film, but there is more in the Hollywood film (and most of it appears to have been dubbed in for the German actors by others). Both versions are worth seeing, though the German one gets the edge for me. [DVD]

Friday, January 04, 2008


Another German Mountain film, its romance plot not far removed from THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. Hannes (Sepp Rist) is a weatherman who spends months at a time in an isolated mountain weather observation cabin, taking temperature and wind speed readings and relaying them through wireless radio by Morse code to an observatory down in the valley, manned by an astronomer and his daughter Hella (Leni Riefenstahl). Hella and Hannes have never met, but one day near Christmas, on a whim, she hitches a ride with pilot Ernst Udet (playing himself) and drops a mini-Christmas tree down to him from the sky. A couple days later, Hella and her father head up the mountain for a holiday visit that turns tragic when dad dies in a hiking accident. When Hella leaves, Hannes tells her that if she's feeling lonely, she should visit Peterson (Mathias Wieman), a musician friend of his. She does, finds that he's ill, and nurses him back to health. Soon Peterson writes to Hannes to tell him that he hopes to marry Hella; this leaves Hannes distraught and he declines to come off the mountain when his relief weatherman arrives. During a storm, Hannes loses his gloves and gets a bad case of frostbite on his hands. He cannot light matches to start the fire that would normally keep his cabin warm, so he tires to ski (with no poles) down the mountain. Unknown to him, a crucial bridge has crumbled so just as a storm hits, he has to trek back up to the cabin where, in the meantime, the door has blown off and ice and snow have covered everything. Hannes does manage to send an SOS, but will Hella and Ernst arrive in time? As usual with films of this genre, the strengths are not acting (fair) or plot (loopholes and missing information galore) or character (none are particularly well developed), but the mountain action. A frivolous scene early on which shows Hella playfully meddling in a ski race, in which she actually changes clothes with a male skier, is perhaps the best ski scene I've seen on film--not that I gravitate toward a lot of movies with skiing. The storm sequences in the last half-hour are very well done, and I was gasping frequently during the shots of Hannes trying to navigate the mountain without ski poles. Even the scenes inside the snowswept cabin, which were probably done in a studio, are superb. The handsome Rist makes a fine hero and, as usual, Riefenstahl is a little wooden. [DVD]

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


This film announces itself as a "drama poem with scenes from nature." Leni Riefenstahl is a free-spirited nature girl named Diotima who hangs out on the seashore and dances against the waves (rather artlessly, but her odd performance is strikingly photographed). When an mountain climbing engineer known just as the Friend (Luis Trenker) takes his young student buddy Vigo (Ernst Petersen) to see her do her Dance of Desire for an audience at the Grand Hotel, they (and most of the audience) are enraptured, with Vigo saying she is almost holy. The Friend, who spends time in nature searching for himself, is in love with her, but soon, so is Vigo. When the younger man wins a skiing competition, Diotima lets him do a little canoodling; the Friend sees them, not realizing his rival is his friend Vigo, and is distraught (his wise mother has already told him that "the sea and the stone can never be wed"). The two men go off on a dangerous climbing trip, and when the Friend realizes that Vigo is in love with Diotima, he throws Vigo off a cliff. However, the two men are tied together by a climbing rope and an odd stalemate ensues while Diotima leads a nighttime rescue mission.

This is one of the first of the German Mountain films, directed by Arnold Fanck and starring Riefenstahl in her first role in a narrative film (she appeared earlier in a documentary on physical culture). All the elements of the genre are here: men in nature, both inspired and challenged by it; a quasi-mystical female figure (also inspiring and challenging); natural disasters (in this case, an avalanche); stunning cinematography; and great stunt work. The nature/mysticism thing is a bit vague here; the narrative works best if approached more simply as a romantic triangle melodrama. Riefenstahl has a moment when she goes romping manically through an Alpine meadow like a very intense Maria von Trapp. Three impressive sequences stand out: one is a fantasy scene of The Friend and Diotima in a giant ice hall, another is of the ski race, and the third is the rescue attempt, with a long line of men with flares snaking up the hill in the dark. I find myself enjoying these mountain films, even if the finer points of the narratives and philosophies sometimes escape me, and I'll be reviewing a few more soon. Considering her reputation, Riefenstahl is often the weak link in the films, as she is here, though that is partly due to the way her character is developed (or not developed) rather than just her acting. [DVD]