Saturday, May 11, 2013


In 1943, Dave and Jim, two British POWs, have escaped and are hiding out in a rather unsavory quarter of Marseilles. While waiting to be smuggled out in a fishing boat, they are given a room in a shabby apartment building next to a whorehouse which is frequented by German officers. The handsome, dashing Dave (Stephen Boyd) flirts with a blonde beauty named Lise (Anna Gaylor); the slightly less handsome Jim (Tony Wright) forms a bond with an older British woman (Kathleen Harrison) who lets him share her bed and pose as her husband when the Nazis come parading through the building. In a separate plotline, the Germans are trying to find out why almost a hundred people have vanished without a trace. They suspect a serial killer and they're right; the kindly Dr. Martout (James Robertson Justice) has a nice evil business going. He gets a man named Blanchard to send him desperate refugees trying to escape; Martout promises to help them, gets them to bring all their cash or gold, gives them a glass of poisoned cognac, and kills them, throwing their bodies in a lime pit in his cellar. When the Germans decide to evacuate the neighborhood and blow it up to get rid of two problems (the refugees and the killer), Dave and Jim's paths cross with Martout's.

For a while, this is a different and intriguing take on the traditional WWII resistance movie—with a dash of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. The narrative takes its time developing and we meet several interesting side characters: Blanchard (Eugene Deckers), the man who sends refugees to Martout, thinking he's being helpful, unaware of their fates; the colorful madam of the whorehouse (Katherine Kath) who has good survival instincts; Schlip (Martin Miller) and Bourdin (George Coulouris), two refugees who wind up drinking Martout's cognac; and a German soldier named Eric (James Kenney), a skittish 20-year-old virgin who is out of his comfort zone at the whorehouse and who later accidentally shoots and kills a child, an act which has more reverberations then you'd guess. All the actors do fine jobs. Boyd (pictured with Gaylor), though hunky, is a bit on the bland side, but Wright and Gaylor take up the slack nicely, and Harrison is fun as always. Justice is excellent as the seemingly civilized but cold-blooded doctor who tells Schlip that he's doing him a favor, poisoning him rather than sending him to Auschwitz. Kath stands out in her few scenes as the madam—most fun in a scene in which Harrison discovers that there's a secret passage between her spartan bedroom and Kath's ornately decorated bedroom next door. The movie feels a bit long getting to its climax, and the some of the destruction effects are lame—obvious rear projection or matting of exploding buildings. This doesn't crop up much, so it's worth catching it the next time it does.  The best explanation I've seen for the original British title is that it might be a reference to a verse in the Book of Revelation about seven thunders being heard at the time of the apocalypse. [TCM]

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