Monday, March 08, 2010


Few well-regarded actors can bore me quite like Paul Muni. Aside from I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, I have not enjoyed any picture of his. Here, the problem isn't just Muni (though he is still a major bore), but also the stagy screenplay, based on a play, which has not been expanded well enough to sustain a 90 minute movie. In 1942, the Russians are in the middle of a secret project involving the underwater building, at night, of a bridge in order to carry troops across the river to engage the Germans. A partisan group, including Muni and Marguerite Chapman, parachute across the German lines to prepare for the invasion and during fierce battling, the two wind up trapped beneath rubble in a basement with a group of Nazi soldiers. As German troops slowly begin cleaning up the village, the rest of the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Muni and Chapman (the only ones with guns) and the Nazis (including George Macready, Ludwig Donath, and Rudolph Anders) as each group tries to get information out of the other, mostly using psychological tactics. The rest of the film takes place in the basement, with occasional short peeks outside to see the progress of the bridge, and the progress of fellow Russian Larry Parks who, with the help of a very smart dog, is trying to reach Muni before the Nazis do. As the hours stretch into a couple of days (I assume—I don't recall knowing exactly how much time is passing), hunger, fatigue, pride, and frustration all take their toll on the group, and eventually Anders is convinced by Muni that he should join up with the Russians; then Muni spills the beans about the bridge to the Nazis, so everything depends on who will reach the basement first, the Russians or the Germans. The film does have its tense moments, and Muni does a good job conveying bone-deep tiredness near the end of the film, but it's still a fairly unexciting stage play, with interesting roles for only a handful of the actors. Chapman and Parks in particular have thankless parts. Years later, the movie's pro-Russian stance would be instrumental in getting the writer (John Howard Lawson) and actor Parks blacklisted. [TCM]

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