Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SUNDOWN (1941)

I don’t remember why I put this film on my Netflix queue; probably because of keywords like "exotic," "desert," "Nazis," "spies," and "Gene Tierney." As a Nazis-in-the-desert melodrama, it will hold your attention but it's an odd duck, situated uncomfortably between A- and B-movie territories; the production is more than competent but the energy flags a bit more often than one would like. In Kenya, district commissioner Bruce Cabot is not happy that Major George Sanders is sent in to take charge, until he discovers that Sanders is there to nip in the bud a German plan to sell guns to restless native tribes in the area. Gene Tierney, an exotic half-Arab, half-French woman who runs a large trading network, agrees to help the Brits find out how guns are getting smuggled in. Other characters who hang out at the commissioner’s house include Joseph Calleia as an Italian POW who has supposedly “defected” to the Allies side and cooks gourmet meals for Cabot, Reginald Gardiner as a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Carl Esmond as a Dutch scientist, and Harry Carey as a hunter. At least one of these men is not what he seems to be. At a dinner attended by most of the supporting characters, Tierney gets word through the native drummers, who get the word through “Habari,” a kind of native ESP communication, that one of the white men will die, and sure enough, after 45 talky minutes of exposition, Hammud (Marc Lawrence), the suspected gun runner, attacks and one of the men does indeed bite the dust. Tierney figures out who the Nazi spy among them is, but the Nazi also figures out that Tierney knows, and games of cat and mouse take up the last half of the movie. It turns out that Tierney isn’t actually Arab at all, just raised by Arabs, so by the rules of the Production Code, it’s safe for her and Cabot to pair off at the end. The finale also features an odd detour into religious territory as one of the characters, with his dying breath, delivers an out-of-the-blue propaganda speech about good churchgoing people, which is then echoed by a closing speech given in a bombed-out cathedral in London by Bishop Cedric Hardwicke (which perhaps influenced the ending of MRS. MINIVER in 1942). All the actors are fine, although Tierney, who gets star billing, doesn’t get much screen time until the last half-hour, when the pace picks up considerably. There are some nice sets, especially Cabot's circular house and a two-level prison cave in which Cabot and Tierney spend some time. Look for small bits by black actors Woody Strode and Dorothy Dandridge early in their careers. The whole thing might have played better as a down-and-dirty B-flick. [DVD]

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