The Great Commandment
The top-drawer material c. 1940 is laid out in a crackerjack side-splitting style. Maurice Moscovich has his way with it as the father of a wayward son who’s following Jesus in a time of Roman occupation (his other son is killed by them). “I’d have him up for judgment!”, says the father to the son in a street of Jerusalem. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” is heard from the rabbi preaching nearby. They walk over to meet him, the father asks the camera what is the greatest commandment, and is told the parable of the good Samaritan, as it pans right among the onlookers, then left, tilts down and then up, slowly, to conclude on the face of Moscovich, transformed.
The son gives comfort to an ailing Roman (Albert Dekker) who has killed his brother, and not only that, he’s put to death Jesus and even pierced him on the cross with a spear. The son is arrested for his own protection.
“Can’t eat?”, says the centurion-warder, “well, I can!”, and takes up the roast fowl he’s brought to the prisoner. The recovered Roman bethinks himself on the founder of the feast, to whose teachings he owes his life.
Father and son are reconciled on this point, and the latter traipses off among the Christians. Pichel’s command of the idiom is the starting-point for the really original conception in the subjective camera shot. Jesus, the son of man. The light, easy yoke of Hollywood style is made evident by its rapid-fire comedy and quick thinking throughout.
Mountain-climbing above a glacier in Switzerland. Murdered by a former mistress in Paris.
Ghostly preparations for a trial and unmasking. Rehoboam, spiritual converse with the widow, raising up a fallen dovelet. Released during the German invasion, just after Dunkirk (it gives August 17th, 1940 as the date of the murder).
Nine months before Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel, the conception of Canada, around 1667. Pichel has surprising arrows in his quiver, this awe-inspiring masterpiece is one of them.
Amidst the political blindness of European rulers and their representatives, Radisson works out the modus vivendi of the nation.
The cast of equals is led by Paul Muni, with man mountain Laird Cregar, John Sutton the English lord, Gene Tierney his London fiancée, Vincent Price King Charles, and Morton Lowry the evident inspiration of Brando’s Fletcher Christian going aboard.
A masterpiece by Lamar Trotti to begin with, then the actors and Pichel, all that remained was for The Archers to record Canada itself.
Bosley Crowther delivered himself of the stupefyingly moronic opinion that it was stale and unprofitable, “a disappointingly cut-and-dried job” (New York Times). Halliwell’s Film Guide says a bit more, in its cut-and-dried way.
The Moon Is Down
The Nazi Occupation of Norway begins with Hitler’s crawling hand upon a map and ends in unmitigated disaster. “But they told us there WASN’T any more RAF!”
“Well, the reorganization will take some time. The New Order can’t be put into effect in a day, can it.”
A deeply-studied film in itself and by other directors, Peckinpah in Cross of Iron for example, Chomsky in Holocaust. “I had a funny dream,” says the hysterical subaltern, “I dreamt Hitler was crazy!” Melville in Le Silence de la Mer is perhaps another example, certainly the same tone is achieved. “They think that just because they have only one leader, everybody’s like that.” The narrator of Ford’s How Green Was My Valley keeps a public house on the same set, consciously. “And now,” says Plato’s Socrates, “o men who have condemned me...”
Nunnally Johnson screenplay from Steinbeck, cinematography Arthur Miller, score Alfred Newman, a kaleidoscopic treatment of actors, each brought into play as needed.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “a picture which is the finest on captured Norway yet.” Variety, “the story is the thing here and the way it’s treated on casting, direction, sound and production justifies 20th-Fox’s investment of $300,000 for the basic film rights.” Leonard Maltin, “fine drama”. TV Guide, “an outstanding film, tautly directed by Pichel.” Mark Deming (All Movie Guide), “downbeat drama”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “sombre, talkative, intelligent”, citing Crowther in his hat.
The life of a Navy sailor killed in the Pacific is examined in memory and seen to have expressed itself satisfactorily against the enemy. This prevents a second casualty, the sailor’s grief-stricken father.
And Now Tomorrow
The first phrase young Nabokov taught Berliners learning Russian was, “Madam, ya doktor, vot banan” (Madam, I am the doctor, here is a banana”). And then there’s the man with a banana in his ear, someone points it out to him on the street and he says, “I can’t hear you, I have a banana in my ear.”
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, was that man. “As you may guess,” he wrote, “this is a very stupid picture.” Also Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide. “Romantic twaddle,” says he (Halliwell likewise).
A Medal for Benny
Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman has this for a precedent, in a certain way, and there are others, no doubt.
In a rare, very perceptive review, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times saw through it all and even his own folly perhaps to the remarkable achievement of a biography in which the subject never appears.
Arturo de Cordova is especially fine, of course, as the rival, all the performances are exactly like this, however, each at the top of its form individually for the expression of the film, which adds to the life a civic manifestation, just up the coast from Tortilla Flat.
“Effective,” says Halliwell’s Film Guide, “but not memorable.”
Tomorrow Is Forever
The Pichel theme (Happy Land) is perdurability, the transformation of doughboy (Orson Welles) into war refugee is an effect of the Second Thirty Years War. It is important that a grieving war widow not grieve so much she becomes a victim herself, lamenting her past and withholding the future.
This was regarded as a “weepie” by Variety and the New York Times, even. It is the only sensible thing on the subject, and really the opposite of the Times’ critique.
Welles’ shattering performance is now so recognizable because he incarnates his older self with familiar accuracy, adding a bit of mummery and other business à la Mr. Arkadin in a wartime role distinguished by its relationship to Jane Eyre.
Colonel Effingham’s Raid
Pichel’s understanding of World War II is very local, which is the way Stanley Kramer understands it in Judgment at Nuremberg, a small-town affair writ large.
Critics were incredibly unable to perceive this even as the perfect comedy it is, on top of weak democracy versus a well-oiled machine.
Agents trained from scratch go behind enemy lines to knock out a French railroad tunnel and secure Rhine crossings. How you hold a knife and fork is vital, one agent dies for not observing the European manner.
Another is an artist in plastique, the head of a Nazi puts his eye out and destroys the tunnel, she has a Picasso in her studio.
The Gestapo man wants a hefty payoff, the Nazi art lover tracks down his mistress, a girl from any town in the U.S.A.
The Miracle of the Bells
All you need to know is that this was written by Ben Hecht, the Pudd’nhead. He has what you may say is a positive genius for making himself understood by many at times, and at others by none. It’s paradoxical, if you insist, but there’s Rudolph Maté’s Miracle in the Rain to prove it, and here’s another example.
Hecht grinds his alchemical powders secretmost, mixes in a little wine, then gives the actors to drink. Frank Sinatra is very good in this, fronting the comedy. Joan of Arc in a new film has died, unreleased. The PR agent (Fred MacMurray) goes to her hometown, hires the churches to ring bells in her honor. Two stone figures on either side of the altar revolve as if to regard her. Sinatra, the priest, explains it as the ground settling, caused by the bells vibrating. Nevertheless, the picture’s premiered.
How many films like this one have gone unrecognized for decades? Hooted at, jeered by incompetent scribes, hated to the core? Ask the New York Times, which thinks Hal Erickson knows whereof he speaks, and isn’t talking through his big felt hat.
The Great Rupert
This is unmistakably a response to Preston Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, and as such is introduced with Jimmy Conlin as a former lion-tamer now teamed up with a dancing squirrel.
The style of Sturges is emulated and transformed, providing a direct inspiration for De Sica’s Miracle in Milan and Umberto D.
Jimmy Durante has the lead in a tale of a miser and fool (Frank Orth) who lays up his wealth for the wise. The Marx Brothers receive a distinct tribute.
Bresson seems to have the point in L’Argent, a succession of images conveying the downward spiral of crime, and the point is Pichel’s determinedly realistic view of Santa Monica while the monetary basis of daily life floats away as a young garage mechanic makes a date with an avaricious blonde.
He thinks it’s murder in the end, and flees to Mexico, but as usual he’s mistaken about things, the trail of crimes isn’t so vast, only a few years in prison await him, probably.
The sabotaged rocket test is solved by Perry Mason in “The Case of the Misguided Missile” (dir. John Peyser), which accounts for the prelude and first half of Lang’s Frau im Mond, from which Destination Moon is extensively derived. Midway between Lang and Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), the sparse allusiveness tends toward a more graphical, less surrealistic component style, yet the metaphors vis-à-vis Lang make for a pretty tight symbolism. In spite of Woody Woodpecker and the Brooklynite, Crowther was incredulous.
This is the immediate model for John Osborne’s play (“the cinema was our academy and our cathedral,” he said later). To effectively transmute it to the kind of stage play Osborne wrote is a Shakespearean operation. When his Luther imagines himself “a ripe stool in the world’s straining anus,” you also have a picture of the artist at work.
Dürer opens the film by way of a rostrum camera, exactly as Mike Hodges begins Flash Gordon, and then Pichel shows these woodcuts for sale at a German town market. This is, somehow, among the best of British chiaroscuro, and rather like Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt.
Osborne seems to have been one of the select few who have seen this film. Some few subtleties anticipate Pichel’s next and last film, the equally unknown Day of Triumph. The seriousness of purpose and accomplishment as well as the development in these two films certainly anticipate the latter works of Rossellini.
Day of Triumph
This great and original film essentially depicts the Zealots as prime movers at the time of the Crucifixion, which from their perspective is viewed as a misadventure.
Judas (James Griffith) is one of the happy band, as well as a Disciple. In a burst of inspiration, at which he is overjoyed, he betrays the popular rabbi so as to provoke a general revolt. As part of this, the Zealots naturally lead the cry for Barabbas. They are dumbfounded when the uprising fails to materialize, suffer further setbacks at the hands of the Romans, and sadly muse on Jesus (Robert Wilson) as the Messiah he might have been.
Meanwhile Christ rises from the dead and preaches the kingdom of Heaven. The acting is all brilliant and profound, led of course by Lee J. Cobb as Zadok, the Zealot leader.
Griffith takes high honors here for a minor revolutionary figure with an eye toward cash, not for himself but for the greater good. He is amazed at the Sanhedrin’s nighttime sitting, which interferes with his expectation that the people should free the Master.
If you know Pichel’s work, you are likely to be somewhat less awe-stricken by the dignity and discretion of his representation of Jesus, having seen the rough model in Niall MacGinnis’ portrayal of Martin Luther, notable for its piety and wisdom (and rough only by comparison with this). A great model among others for Rossellini’s later films, and Wilson’s performance is another.