The Trouble with Harry (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 May (2.35 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel by British author, Jack Trevor Story, was adapted for the stage, and later Alfred Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and the film probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of the director’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, The Trouble with Harry was one of four movies Hitchcock claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.

Certainly, The Trouble with Harry is a good laugh. It’s simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid among the autumnal trees of a Vermont fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitchcock proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a sublime and playful Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.

Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.

The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing – murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (‘What seems to be the trouble, Captain?‘) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee, perhaps even some elderberry wine. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.

Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident – the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.

Yet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and lovable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent – retaining its trace of his London roots – giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about both Harry and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.

Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. He’s easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. But he just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.

Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about The Trouble with Harry that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. The film is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitchcock made it to shed some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Trouble with Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart within it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was fated to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety five minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.

My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.

The Trouble with Harry: ****

Gattaca (1997)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 19 May (11.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been some brilliant films that depict a dystopian future, Blade Runner being the obvious example, Brazil another. I’m not a big fan of these sorts of stories though, because I like to hope that tomorrow’s generation will get to live in a world that hasn’t turned to shit – call me naive if you like, but I’d take the optimistic Star Trek vision any time, an Earth that has learned the lessons from its chaotic past and created a co-operative, positive future.

Still, some take the concept of a future shaped by present issues and created something really interesting with it. George Owell’s ideas, developed during the 1940s when Communism appeared to be a rapidly expanding, unstoppable force, beget 1984, imagining a nightmarish present where personal liberties, down to one’s very hopes and dreams, no longer exist. And then there’s Gattaca, made in 1997 when advances in our knowledge about DNA allowed for reproductive engineering and the possibilities of human beings ‘altered’ at their genetic level to remove all imperfections. That’s the very world it posits. In the future, humans fall into two groups – those born naturally, with all the defects that such a process entails, and the ones who have had all potential problems taken away. Such tampering leads to society containing two very distinct types of people. The ‘engineered’ are the supermen, taking the top jobs, given the best opportunities, considered for the space programme to explore Saturn’s moon, Titan. The ‘naturals’ take whatever’s left, constantly reminded that their place is and will always be somewhat less.

Enter Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) – naturally born, his parents told at birth that there’s a 99% possibility of him suffering from a heart condition when he’s older, constantly in the shadow of his younger, artificially idealised brother. Vincent doesn’t have much in terms of prospects, but what he does possess is ambition. Lots of it. Via the black market, he’s put in touch with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), someone with perfect DNA but confined to a wheelchair because he broke his back in an accident, and who is now prepared to ‘swap places’ with Vincent in exchange for money. This means Vincent taking Jerome’s identity, to painstaking levels, carrying sachets of his blood and urine so that he can pass the DNA tests, scrubbing himself clean of all loose skin and hair before he leaves the home so there’s less chance of anyone coming across evidence of his real status. And then he goes to work at Gattaca, a space flight organisation, posing all the while as a ‘Valid’, as Jerome. Quickly rising through the ranks due to sheer will and hard work, he is ultimately chosen to be the navigator on a planned trip to Titan.

Everything appears to be falling into place for Vincent, but the murder of a Gattaca administrator changes everything. An eyelash he accidentally sheds at the murder scene is discovered and identified, which makes him the main suspect, but nominally he’s okay as long as the tests for which he provides samples continue to ‘reveal’ him as Jerome. Even the fact the police (led by Alan Alda and Loren Dean) have a photo matters little, as test results count for far more than visual evidence. All the same, the number of tests increase, Vincent having to resort more and more to tricks in order to stay in the clear, whilst he senses the net closing in on him. He also falls in love with a co-worker, Irene (Uma Thurman), who has a heart condition that prevents her from entering the space programme, not realising that beneath his ‘borrowed’ identity Vincent has similar problems.

Gattaca was the debut directorial effort of Andrew Niccol, raised in New Zealand and better known at the time for his work in commercials. It wasn’t a box office success, but it had critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for its art direction, which went a long way with its relatively small budget in creating a realistic near future world, in particular the austere, clinically clean interiors of Gattaca’s monolithic building. I’ve never been a real admirer of Ethan Hawke, finding him to be one of those actors whose range is too limited to be very interesting (surely the great charm of his work in the Before series is that he’s the bland everyman, and Julie Delpy the fantasy figure), yet he’s fine as the narrator-protagonist, with the cause for which he’s fighting – albeit a selfish one within an imperfect world – just about holding everything together. Far better is Law as the damaged Jerome. At the time he was best known for playing beautiful people, notably in Wilde, and there’s something innately tragic about his character in Gattaca, turning to drink and cigarettes after his accident and showing baleful levels of humour to mask the pain he’s been left in. Despite being disabled, Law provides all the life in his partnership with Hawke. Thurman on the other hand has little to do but look gorgeous. There are fine supporting performances by veterans Alda, Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine. The latter stands out as Vincent’s supervisor on the cleaning rounds who later no longer recognises him when he’s in the guise of Jerome.

At the heart of Gattaca is its central conceit, an idea that at the time felt frighteningly credible and could yet become something like reality as health bills rise and solutions for diseases are sought. As entertainment it certainly works, suggesting an essentially paranoid future in which DNA checks are everyday occurrences, meaning that everyone is a prisoner of their own genes. The concept of a society every bit as discriminatory as anything we have today is fascinating, particularly as the disproportionate treatment echoes all manner of current prejudices and yet is one based on advances in science, which is supposed to be benign.

Gattaca: ***

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

When it’s on: Sunday, 17 May (12.00 noon)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

We didn’t do a lot of work in school on Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed expedition to reach the South Pole. By then, a reassessment of the explorer was underway, his status as a British hero – which had stuck since news of his valiant death was reported in 1912 – undermined by new research that asserted he failed because of his bungling. Should have relied more on dogs. Made fatal flaws during the march to the South Pole. Condemned both himself and his party because of his own mistakes. The charge sheet went on, damning Scott and ensuring we got to hear about other British legends and achievements from our teachers.

Since then, his reputation has been evaluated once again and more favourably, which is probably why Ealing’s Scott of the Antarctic has eased its way back onto the schedules, though it no longer rubs shoulders with other offerings of homegrown pluck and derring-do, such as The Dambusters. Possibly the main reason for this is that it was made (in 1948) at a time when Scott’s status was still secure and somewhat unimpeachable, leading to a work bordering on the reverential, telling the story as a straight one of adventurism and heroism with luck being the main conspirator against his effort. It’s also a strangely tension-free affair, in its narrative relying upon the natural dangers of extreme cold and blizzards rather than using storytelling to increase the sense of mounting odds. There’s little pressure amongst the actors, all blindly following John Mills’s Scott and largely accepting their fates as the likelihood of escaping with their lives diminishes to zero, long after the temperatures have dipped far below that point. Critics have argued that the job should have been given to one of the studio’s more capable directors, Alexander Mackendrick or Robert Hamer, than Charles Frend, who went for a linear approach, involving heavy emphasis on the pre-expedition fund-raising and preparations once they hit Ross Island.

But then there’s the fact that everyone who sees Scott of the Antarctic already knows how it ends. In failure, not just because they didn’t reach the South Pole first (they were beaten, by little more than a fortnight, by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who famously did depend on the power of snow resistant dogs) but the fact they paid for it with their lives. That knowledge works to create its own tension. Watching the film, you are fully aware that no matter how well Scott believes he’s preparing, all the efforts he makes, they will end up dying in a lonely tent just eleven miles short of reaching the supplies depot that could have preserved them.

And for me, the film does allude to the mistakes he made, or at least the decisions that ultimately led to the tragic events that ensued. I’m forced, watching it, to recall that the expedition took place early in the twentieth century, when Antarctica was still an unexplored land and scientific estimates of the best way to traverse it were based in part on guesswork. Easy for us now to heed the advice that it should be tackled using skis and dogs, that motorised vehicles would not work and ponies liable to struggle. No one knew for certain, though you imagine the Norwegians might have a better innate idea of how to tackle it. Scott, growing up in a Victorian era of engineering, would no doubt have felt justified in using snow vehicles fitted with revolutionary caterpillar tracks, at a time when no such things yet existed. The idea of taking ponies harked back to a previous attempt by Ernest Shackleton, which had nearly succeeded.

My impression of the cinematic Scott is that he thought he could succeed through the sheer will and determination to do so, a mindset evolved through notable British successes in conquering previously unreachable parts of the globe. Though the foreshadowing and worrying is done by the mens’ wives, notably Anne Firth as Wilson’s wife, Oriana, there’s little sense of impending danger from Scott, simply a stoical acceptance that the mission will involve hardship and risk. It’s a great examination of the British character and values, and it was prevalent in cinema at the time, that post-war mentality of rolling up one’s sleeves and carrying on.

The location shooting was a combination of stock footage taken at Graham Land, Antarctica, and the Swiss Alps, with much filming also done in the studio with fake snow and actors heavily made up to reflect the harsh conditions through which they travelled. Of the expedition members, James Robertson Justice makes for a memorable ‘Taff’ Evans, chosen to make the final push thanks to his strength yet suffering from a cut finger that leads to gangrene setting in and his death before the others met theirs. Captain Oates is played by Teddy Evans, and there’s an early role for Kenneth More as Teddy Evans, who joins the team but didn’t take part in the five-man push for the Pole.

Every effort was made to tell the story accurately, using Scott’s diaries (discovered in the tent that doubled as his grave), which Mills narrates from throughout, along with recreating the equipment and conditions that were experienced in real-life. The cinematography by Jack Cardiff is outstanding, presenting Antarctica as something close to a deathtrap, the relatively calm conditions on their way to the Pole contrasting harshly with the rising winds that follow them back. But the real star is Ralph Vaughan Williams, the British composer who rarely worked in film, but went on to produce a score that focused on the inhospitability and almost alien world the men encounter. I’m listening to it as I write this, those haunting female choirs accompanying the shots of endless icy vistas that are locked in my memory.

Is it a good film? It’s flawed, certainly. There’s too much focus on Scott’s preparations, which allows for portentous warnings of the difficulties that lie ahead, the decisions he makes that turn out to be his doom, but also makes the viewer wish they’ll reach Ross Island that bit quicker. Yet in telling the story in a style just short of documentary, it manages to say something about the flawed British spirit, men accepting their fate without getting too upset about it, all in the attempt for adventure and to attain some final frontier. Mills, all optimism and pluck before they reach the Pole, intones ‘great God, this is an awful place‘ when they reach it and are confronted with the Norwegian flag, the dog tracks surrounding it, hinting at the desolate emotion that is rarely on display elsewhere.

Scott of the Antarctic: ***

Decision at Sundown (1957)

When it’s on: Friday, 15 May (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Film4 are screening two Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations today – Decision at Sundown, and later Ride Lonesome, which was covered on these pages here. The films have gained in reputation over the years, thanks to Boetticher’s economical approach and an attempt to subvert conventions within the genre. The latter element is, I think important. It’s easy for someone like me to dip into Westerns of the 1950s, its ‘golden age’, and enjoy some classic cinema, but experiencing it at the time must have been quite a different story – Westerns in theatres, Westerns on television, in paperback, on the radio. People ask why the Western movie faded and I wonder if perhaps it simply suffered from saturation. How often was the same story told? How many times was it a case of black hats fighting white hats? For every enduring classic, there must have been a hundred Oaters, so I suggest that by the end of the decade it was more or less exhausted.

The closest current parallel that I can think of is the superhero movie, which makes sense given the advances in photo-realistic special effects allowing those comic book panels to come to gaudy life. I like a decent Marvel flick as much as the next viewer, but I admit I’m getting bored with it all and find something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier to be a breath of fresh air just because it tries to tell a more complicated story than the hackneyed Good versus Evil caper. And even here, with the genre threading its tentacles through television schedules as well as on the big screen, it doesn’t come close to hitting the vast number of Westerns that were being churned out in the fifties.

In a long winded way, that’s my explanation why the Boetticher-Scott films are always worth watching. There are layers of psychological depth here, people you assume to be good who turn out to carry serious shades of grey, villains who emerge as sympathetic, even if they’re still essentially flawed human beings. It’s particularly powerful in Decision at Sundown because the protagonist is played by Randolph Scott, which almost has the viewer instantly thinking ‘right, there’s my hero’ as that’s the character he played. Sure enough Scott’s character, Bart Allison, cuts the archetype – stoical, rangy, weathered, austere use of speech. He refuses to accept a free drink at Sundown’s saloon because he doesn’t like the man who’s paying the tab. All wounded nobility, the impression being that some terrible wrong has been committed, he’s here to right it and he’s justified in doing so.

Or so it seems. Allison has been pursuing Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) for some years and finally tracks him down to the town of Sundown, where he’s set himself up as the boss. Sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) is firmly in his pocket, and he’s about to marry heiress Lucy Steele (Karen Steele) in order to cement his status as the main man. Together with his sidekick Sam (Noah Beery Jr), Allison doesn’t let the fact it’s Kimbrough’s wedding day stop him from attempting to kill him. Soon enough, he and Sam are under siege in the town’s stable, the Sheriff is trying to figure a way to smoke him out, and Sundown’s citizens, oppressed for years by Kimbrough’s regime, are too weak to intervene.

Allison’s motivation is of course revenge; years before, Kimbrough had an affair with his wife and this led to her committing suicide. It’s clear also that Kimbrough hasn’t learned his lesson, carrying on with blousey Ruby (Valerie French) on the very morning he’s getting married. All straightforward enough, but here the picture begins to blur. Sam knows that Allison’s late wife was far from a saint, a point hammered home as the plot develops, leaving his reasons for retribution muddy and confused. Indeed, Scott’s character starts to look increasingly pathetic, building to a booze-addled conclusion when he’s ‘won’ but celebrating a very Pyrrhic victory and appearing to have aged dramatically. At the same time, Kimbrough redeems himself when he resolves to face Allison, knowing it likely means his own death yet standing up to his fate all the same. Perhaps the only real winners are the people of Sundown, who, led by the altruistic doctor (John Archer) come to assert their own authority. By the end, there’s a sense of everyone getting what’s coming to them.

The criticism of Decision at Sundown rests in its script, by Charles Lang, who eschews the more favoured Boetticher Lone Pine locations (as covered by his more celebrated collaborator, Burt Kennedy) for a film set mainly indoors. Boetticher himself wasn’t a fan, believing the story to revolve less around Scott than it should and only taking the job to help the actor complete a commitment with Warner Brothers. Certainly, it looks like what it is – a B Picture with little money behind it – without the director’s talent at papering over the cracks by filming expansive landscape shots. But I think the closed-in feel, the claustrophobia of Allison holed up and alone, works rather well, reflecting his narrow vision and the compressing reality of the truth.

Certainly, I quite enjoy seeing Scott play someone other than the straight guy, not to mention the twists and turns of the plot throwing out a slew of moral ambiguities. Perhaps Decision at Sundown is a film ahead of its time. Like all ‘Ranown’ (RANdolph Scott + producer Harry Joe BrOWN) films, it runs for fewer than eighty minutes, packs in welters of plot, hardly wastes a single shot and doesn’t come close to outstaying its welcome.

Decision at Sundown: ***

Forty Guns (1957)

When it’s on: Monday, 11 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘May I feel it?’
‘Just curious.’
‘It might go off in your face.’
‘I’ll take a chance.’

One of the aspects of the Westerm I find most fascinating is its dying days, the realisation that American expansion has caught up with the untamed frontier, making its ways approach their ending. This is a theme of Forty Guns I really like. Both its hero, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), and rancher Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), have long histories, complicated back stories, and know the elements that have defined their lives are drawing to a close. They’re becoming anachronisms, and their riding off in the direction of California together at the end is symbolic of the dawning new chapter in Arizona’s own tale.

But this is only one aspect of Forty Guns, a film I found very hard to pigeonhole into any single theme. That might suggest a bit of a mess, but it’s anything but, director Samuel Fuller shoehorning just about every trick available into a piece that runs under eighty minutes in length and feels gloriously longer. It’s funny. The slice of dialogue quoted above is one instance of the film’s bawdy sense of humour, transforming a conversation between ex-shooter Bonnell and Jessica about his gunmanship into something quite different and, for the time, close to the bone.

It’s also beautifully filmed. The opening, pre-credits sequence is breathtaking, three men driving a wagon slowly across the plain and then abruptly a large posse of cowboys surround them and ride past, led by Stanwyck’s character. Fuller shoots the moment from all sorts of angles – beneath the wagon, at the riders’ height, from a bird’s eye perspective – dragging entirely the sense of confusion and menace from the scene as well as focusing on the wagon’s screaming, terrified horses. The meaning is obvious. This is her land and the men on the wagon had better know it. And it’s only the most celebrated from a number of inventively shot sequences. I love this bit, surely ripped off in various Bond flicks, where Bonnell’s brother Wes (Gene Barry) sparks off his own romantic liaison with the town’s pretty gunsmith (Eve Brent) when he stares at her through the barrel of a rifle:

Given the short running time, the film isn’t given space to offer too much exposition about its characters and does the work through action instead, which is always better. We realise Bonnell is badass early, when Jessica’s out of control brother Brockie (John Ericson) kills the marshall just for drunken kicks and then starts tearing up the town. Bonnell marches up the street to stop him, even though Brockie’s holding a loaded gun, and they can tell from the way he’s walking (it’s a sequence that seems to take much longer than it realistically could), the cold resolve in his eyes, that he’s been there and dealt with much bigger men many times. It’s so assured that Bonnell is able to walk right up to Brockie and pistol whip him, ending the disorder.

But because he’s Jessica’s brother, she has to use her influence to get him released and that brings her into the orbit of Bonnell, who’s soon sparking a romantic relationship with her. Again, it’s clear that he must be some man to exert any sort of desire. The ‘forty guns’ of the title refer to Jessica’s personal army of ranch hands. Bonnell arrives at her house, a palatial pile that was modelled on Tara from Gone with the Wind, to arrest one of her men and finds them all sitting at the dinner table, immaculately dressed with Jessica naturally at the head, which emphasises her power. His arrest warrant is duly passed along the table, a long tracking shot that sees each man glimpsing at the name on the paper before Jessica gets it and reacts, every inch the queen bee.

Stanwyck, 49 when Forty Guns was made, fits the part beautifully as the middle-aged yet still beautiful and commanding Jessica. It was a role coveted by Marilyn Monroe, though it’s hard to imagine anyone but Stanwyck owning it so effectively. Despite her years and fame, she was unafraid to get her hands dirty, volunteering over the stunt performers to act the scene where Jessica is dragged along the ground by her horse during a tornado storm. It’s another great moment, the storm violent and brutal, narratively developing the romance that grows between her and Bonnell as they shelter from the winds in an abandoned building.

The block to a happy ending comes ultimately in the shape of Brockie, too hot headed to handle and nicely juxtaposed with Bonnell’ kid brother, Chico (Robert Dix), who similarly wants in on the action despite his better wishes. Brockie’s increasingly erratic actions lead to tragedy and then the final showdown, a superb climax that shows entirely the justice meted out by Bonnell when he’s ultimately driven to act violently.

I’ve read that Forty Guns is a veiled riff on the Wyatt Earp legend, and perhaps that’s there, but I’m not certain I’ve ever seen it told so winningly. I can only imagine the number of renowned Western directors who watched it and realised the game had suddenly been upped within their genre. There’s a cavalcade of minor characters, all in some way corrupted by the town and its imbalance of power, and the presence of Bonnell to set things straight. Stanwyck’s character was originally intended to die at the end but instead enjoyed a happy finale, and I’m glad about that. Corrupt she may be, but there’s also hope and the note of optimism that closes the film gentles its bittersweet denouement.

As highlighted on Riding the High Country, Forty Guns is due for a release on Blu Ray shortly to take full advantage of its expansive Cinemascope filming. It’s definitely on my list; its influence can be felt on the work of, amongst others, Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom held deep respect for Fuller’s masterly camera work and economical storytelling. For one things, it’s impossible to picture Leone filming the classically wordless opening sequences to his Westerns so confidently without the marker set by Forty Guns.

Forty Guns: ****

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

When it’s on: Sunday, 10 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

The Plague of the Zombies was, even by Hammer’s thrifty standards, made on the cheap. Filmed back to back with The Reptile and making use of the same sets, along with a cast that slipped from one production to the next, it was intended to be released as a B-movie partner for Dracula Prince of Darkness. Though its low overheads are occasionally shown up in the final movie, The Plague of the Zombies naturally turns out to be a much better and more interesting affair than the illustrious vampfest. According to the various fansites and reviews I have read, it is much loved, and the reason is simple. It’s nothing more or less than pure entertainment. It has the usual Hammer staples – creepy atmosphere, ‘ye olde worlde’ setting – and attaches these to a plot that never lets up, making full use of the limited running time and some very good performances.

The film is set in a tin mining community of Cornwall, sometime during the nineteenth century. People are dying at an epidemic rate, and bemused doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) is at a loss to explain the causes. When his young wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) also begins to express the fatigue and listlessness that are the typical early warning signs, he writes to his old mentor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to lend a hand. Sir James agrees, taking his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) with him.

The pair’s first encounter with the community is with its upper class. They comes across a fox hunt, led by the retainers of local Squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Hamilton clearly has the town in the palm of his hand. His henchmen have no regard for the people, demonstrated to ghoulish effect when they pass a funeral and force the coffin to crash into a ravine, revealing its occupant. Peter explains to Sir James that he’s unable to carry out autopsies on any of the corpses at Hamilton’s behest, who along with his other duties is the closest they have to a coroner. Without proper research, there’s no way he can work out what’s happened to these people. The pragmatic Sir James offers a solution – they’ll simply have to dig one up for themselves.

Peter and Sir James go about their grisly business, and sure enough the grave they exhume is empty. Worse still, their antics have spiked the attention of the local bobby (Michael Ripper), who turns out to be on their side once the doughty Sir James explains their intentions. In the meantime, Alice slips out of the house, and starts making for the woodlands that surround their community. Sylvia shouts after her, but Alice doesn’t appear to hear. When the former resolves to pursue, she runs afoul of Squire Clive’s malevolent retainers who summarily whisk her off to the big house. Alice, in some sort of trance makes for an old tin mine, where she’s about to come a cropper at the hands of a monster, but is the ashen-faced zombie the real creature, or are both victim and attacker being manipulated by something much worse? The goodly Squire, perhaps? Back at his house, Sylvia is in some trouble. Teased by a gang of toffish rakes, all Sylvia’s high-minded confidence seems to vanish until she is rescued by none other than Clive Hamilton himself. The Squire is mortified at her treatment – he can’t be bad, can he? Maybe not, but the sliver of blood he collects from her during a later meeting tells an altogether different story…

And that’s just the first half of the movie, breathless swathes of story hurtling past whilst its horrors are introduced at a masterfully gradual rate. The suspense builds steadily. By the time the zombie makes its first appearance – actually quite a scary sight – we already know roughly what’s going on. We have a pretty good idea who the baddies are, what’s happening to the dying folk and it remains to see how Sir James will resolve all this. As a result, much lies on the shoulders of Andre Morell, a veteran actor who chews up the scenery to delicious effect. There’s a scene where his character is trapped in a room that’s on fire – as he tries to find a way out, Sir James grows more desperate and almost feral. It’s a classy moment, the camera simply pointing in the right direction and following his movements.

Talking of cinematography, the film is another example of the crew effectively making much from a small budget. Though the Bray Studios sets ought to be familiar to any seasoned Hammer viewer, they’re used exceptionally well, never more so than in the little graveyard that features prominently in a number of scenes, each one nudging up the horror a little further. The village is nothing more than a studio backlot, but it looks authentic enough, and with scenes set in the local pub and police station it develops a real sense of small town community. Better still are the moments of claustrophobia that are captured during the film’s more frightening sequences. The bit where one of the main characters comes to undead life is creepily effective, the camera jumping from the face of the reanimating corpse to close-ups of Sir James and Peter, filming them from a slightly askew angle to unbalance the viewer. Simple stuff, but played brilliantly.

Credit goes to the crew responsible for creating a late nineteenth century backdrop to the action. The costumes add to a detail of authenticity, and the film’s largely rural setting means much of the shooting can take place in the wild and makes The Plague of the Zombies appear to have a much broader setting than it actually does.

Not that it’s perfect. In terms of its acting personnel, the film gives us a mixed bag. Carson is fine as Hamilton, and makes his character more three-dimensional than you might expect for a B-movie baddie. Check out his wooing of Sylvia. It’s almost possible to believe he has some genuine affection for her, but of course he wrong foots both her and the audience. Pearce is great as the dying Alice. She’s given some stock ‘waking up screaming from a bad dream’ bits to do, yet shows sufficient vulnerability during her early scenes to show why Sir James invests so much of his time and energy into getting involved, and later in the film puts in one of the sexier undead performances to be committed to celluloid. Weaker are Williams and Clare. The former should aim for an air of exhausted frustration, which would happen if you’re the local doctor working in a village where death after unexplained death is taking place, yet he never pulls it off, instead maintaining an expression of vague concern throughout. As Sylvia, Clare looks suitably scared when the scene calls for it, though otherwise she’s monotonous and rather blank-faced, her lines spoken like blank, wooden readings.

Thankfully, Morell holds it together. Not only does he manage to dish out some of the fairly silly dialogue with a straight face – ‘I find all kinds of witchcraft slightly nauseating and this I find absolutely disgusting‘ – but he exerts a degree of elder statesman authority from the moment he steps foot into the village. It’s his turn that really elevates the film, and perhaps it’s the fact he was cast in this rather than The Reptile that makes this the more memorable piece of work.

The zombies look great, mainly because they’re genuinely scary. With their ashen faces, bulging white eyes and staggering gait, they set a template for much of zombiekind – you can see their performance in many subsequent entries. The Plague of the Zombies was released two years before George A Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, a similar instance of a director putting his tiny budget to good use. And though it isn’t quite up to the standard of Romero’s subversive, politically-charged shocker, which took the genre on an entirely new tangent, it’s possible to see Gilling’s shuffling automatons as benchmarks for every walking dead that followed.

The Plague of the Zombies: ****

The War Lord (1965)

When it’s on: Thursday, 7 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

In my reading about The War Lord, I came across a quote from anongst the user reviews on IMDb that stuck with me – ‘This is the role Charlton Heston was born to play.’ Bold statement, but the more I thought about it the truer it rang. Heston was of course the star of some of Hollywood’s biggest ever movies, of which The War Lord is not one, with its more modest budget and smaller sense of scale, also the fact it remained unreleased on DVD until 2010. But it does play to the actor’s core strength, that of playing someone torn between duty or ‘path’ and his desires. This, essentially, is the film; Heston’s status as the eponymous war lord ensures that every decision he makes causes ripples for everyone around him.

The War Lord was directed by Franklin J Schaffner, a half-forgotten name now yet an Oscar winner in his day, for Patton. Looking through his credits, I was surprised how many of his films I had actually seen, from his best known work – Planet of the Apes, another collaboration with Heston – to The Boys from Brazil and the admittedly hopeless Sphinx. This one, however, which he directed with his career in television not far behind him, is a bit of a standout entry. Schaffner’s compositional ability to fill a wide canvas belies all that work for the small screen, opening up the grimy world of the Middle Ages whilst similarly being intimate enough to present those who lived in it as real people with hopes and dreams not so dissimilar to our own. As a surprisingly accurate insight into the medieval existence, it really is riveting, quite ahead of its time – light years ahead, for instance, of El Cid, a more celebrated Heston epic and a favourite within this household – and as removed from the romantic perception of the era as it gets.

The story takes place in northern France in the year 1060. Chrysagon (Heston) is a famed and experienced knight, in the service of Duke William, who is sent to hold a stretch of coastal land against the barbarian Frisians. In return, he gets to be overlord of his new territory, though it consists of little beyond a single stone tower and the nearby peasant village. Nevertheless, Chrysagon is a dutiful servant and, upon arriving sees off the Frisians, even capturing their chieftain’s young son. He then settles down to rule, along with his faithful, largely silent right hand man, Bors (Richard Boone), and his younger brother, Draco (Guy Stockwell). The relationship between the siblings is particularly tense. Draco is clearly jealous of his older brother’s reputation and does all he can to belittle him, but the truth, as it’s teased out along the way, is that he’s been carried by Chrysagon all along; everything Draco possesses is down to him.

In the meantime, life goes on as normal for the people of the village, a sense of their ways changing little no matter who rules them. What’s especially striking is the minimal impact Christianity has had on them; the local priest confesses he has had little success in changing their pagan beliefs. Chrysagon determines to be a good lord, demanding that his men ‘treat them softly’, but then it all gets complicated when he finds himself beguiled by a girl, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Egged on by Draco, he claims the right of ‘first night’ before Bronwyn’s married, the lord’s ancient privilege to sleep with a girl prior to her nuptials. The law’s roots are pagan, so the population agrees to his demand providing he hands her over the following dawn. The twist is that Chrysagon and Bronwyn turn out to be crazy about each other and he refuses to give her up, leading to tensions with the village that spill over into hostility. Bronwyn’s spurned groom, Marc (James Farentino), goes a step further and recruits the Frisians to their cause, with the promise of getting the chieftain’s son back. Suddenly, Chrysagon’s little force is besieged in its tower, an army closing in and no chance of escape.

Battle fans will be delighted with the second half of The War Lord, the result of strains that have been building carefully to this stage, between Chrysagon and Draco as much as his fractured relationship with the locale. Presented as a complicated yet largely good man who wants to do the right thing, Heston’s character is plunged into violent action as a consequence of his succumbing to desire and fully lives up to his title, at one stage defending the tower alone, weaponless and clad in a loincloth. Clearly there’s an element of him that abhors the killing, yet he’s so good at it, adept as a military commander, with the stoic Bors at his side, occasionally offering the merest nod of approval, a result of the latter’s role as someone who has watched Chrysagon mature over the years.

It’s all told against a backdrop of a world that has vanished, northern Europe in its largely pre-Christian state, trees decorated with lurid symbols to show the people’s closeness to nature and emphasising the contrast between them and their Catholic overlords. The score by Jerome Moross is as energetic as one would expect, though at its best when highlighting the tenderness of Chrysagon’s feeling towards Bronwyn.

The War Lord is a great film, punctuated by the complex characterisation of its central character that was a hallmark of films of this era (I couldn’t help drawing comparisons with The Lion in Winter, another entry that drew on its fully rounded people) and an attention to detail that is altogether superior.

The War Lord: ****

The Reptile (1966)

When it’s on: Sunday, 26 April (3.45 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

The economical approach to film making taken by Hammer Studios was the stuff of legend. The Reptile started life as a support feature to the more prestigious Rasputin: the Mad Monk, and was produced back to back with The Plague of the Zombies (itself made as the B-picture to Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the two films sharing the sets, cast and crew in a supreme attempt to cut costs. Ironically, there are many who feel that the supports are better than their main features. It’s for certain that, of the four mentioned here, The Plague of the Zombies was and remains an outright classic. But The Reptile, probably the least known of those mentioned, is no churned out quickie, despite appearing to be exactly that.

It takes place in Cornwall, some time around the turn of the twentieth century. A man walks across the moors to his home, where he finds a note imploring him to come to the palatial Franklyn house. He does. Whilst exploring the dark corridors for some sign of humanity, he’s suddenly attacked by something that leaps out from the shadows, leaving him with a blackened face and frothing mouth, dying from what looks like the bite of a king cobra. The killing is watched by an aghast Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman), along with Indian servant, the Malay (Marne Maitland), who removes the body to the village cemetery and dumps it there. Clearly, this isn’t the first mysterious death this community has seen. No one can explain it, not least pub landlord Tom (Michael Ripper), or eccentric local resident ‘Mad’ Peter (John Laurie). What they can do is warn visitors from staying around, which is what they try to do with the dead man’s brother, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel), who are bequeathed the house.

Spalding is made of sterner stuff and insists on making a go of settling down in the area, despite Tom and Peter’s concerns, along with the way he’s shunned by the villagers. When Peter succumbs to the mysterious illness, Spalding finds himself increasingly in the company of Dr Franklyn, while Valerie befriends his daughter, Anna (Jacqueline Pearce), a lovely yet sad girl who’s in a constant state of near terror. It becomes apparent that the troubles being experienced have their origins in the doctor’s home, something to do with Franklyn’s time spent in India and a curse that has followed him back to England.

So far, so generic, and it would be easy to dismiss The Reptile as a knocked out frightener, short on cash and long on the usual stuff – random killings, a horrific mystery, scared, ignorant locals. What it does have, however, is atmosphere. Bags of it. If the film seems to fail a little when the Franlyn secrets are unraveled, then that’s partly because everything leading up to this point is really quite good. There’s a great sense of closing in doom to the village, its classic Cornish mist, rundown houses and a spooky graveyard at the centre, as though death is the very focal point of the community. Hammer veteran John Gilling directs it as a slow burning thriller, punctuating the mood every so often with a grisly death but letting the tone focus on the contrast between the melancholy locale and its urbane newcomers, proactive and determined to get to the heart of the matter.

Also worth mentioning is the dark underbelly of Britain’s empire building, the possibility that Englanders abroad come into contact with native myths and superstitions and bring back more than they bargained for. The character of the Malay, who barely speaks but continually seems to be watching from the corner of the frame, is fascinating, not least for his status as servant yet the fact he appears to have the upper hand on Franklyn and complete control over Anna.

It’s a great cast. Barrett and Daniel are fine as the outsiders, punctuating their otherworldliness within a superstitious and insular part of the realm. There’s an authentic air of ruin, both morally and physically, to Willman’s performance, the facts of his time in India never fully explained though one can guess, and the tortured relationship he has with Anna just raises more questions. The brilliantly tense sitar scene, set during dinner at the Franklyn’s in a room heated way beyond necessary, where the almost unfairly beautiful Pearce strums away to the rising consternation of her father, the characters glaring intently at each other, exposes levels of exoticism and sexuality that suggest a far more complicated back story than the film ever reveals. Rounding off the cast are an excellent unhinged Laurie, soon to achieve stardom as Private ‘We’re doomed!’ Frazer in Dad’s Army, and the reliable Ripper, the supporting actor’s supporting actor in so many Hammer productions. It’s good to see Ripper get a larger presence than he normally enjoys.

If The Reptile has a weakness, it’s in the denouement, when the mystery has been solved and the the eponymous monster emerges. Though it features a rather striking visual shock when Franklyn goes to the bed of his daughter only to find what appears to be skin without a body inside, the creature’s reveal is more than a little underwhelming, even more so by current standards. I’ve deliberately chosen a poster that avoids an emphasis on the reptile, because I’d rather focus on the story rather than the disappointing make-up. It’s this that exposes the good sense shown by Gilling in under-lighting many of his scenes, ensuring the reptile is shown as often as possible as a creature of the shadows. Its demise is similarly unfulfilling and dealt with a little too quickly.

That aside, The Reptile is a cracking little thriller, no classic but an underrated gem. Sadly, it’s also been unappreciated by its restorers, with my copy of the film – part of the Ultimate Hammer boxset – suffering from colour loss and clarity issues. It deserves better.

The Reptile: ***

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960)

When it’s on: Saturday, 25 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Regular readers of this site might suspect that I have a bit of a liking for films about Robin Hood, and they would be right. Like many Britons I grew up on the legends, read the stories, watched the various TV shows and movies. It probably helped that the HTV Robin of Sherwood series was a Saturday evening staple when I was a child. The mid-eighties show might look a little dated now, and anyone who caught it would be justified in wondering how Michael Praed’s wolfshead maintained such well conditioned hair whilst living rough in the forests of ye olde England, but the production had atmosphere and a nice link between the classic Robin Hood mythology and even older mystical belief systems.

It’s a pity that few film adaptations have been so successful, in fact I have an awful feeling of confidence in suggesting that 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the unimpeachable version. Nothing wrong with that film; it’s a wholly delightful and thrilling piece of work and I love it, but they’ve had nearly eighty years to improve upon it and nothing I have seen in the years since has come close. It was with a growing sense of disappointment that I viewed Ridley Scott’s recent take; such a great pedigree and leading actor, but I’ve never seen it more than once.

Today’s entry, Sword of Sherwood Forest, was made in 1960 as a spin-off from the long-running television series. Its star, Richard Greene, was retained, and indeed he was also a producer of the film; some of the other basic tropes were kept on, such as Alan A’Dale’s little odes to introduce and close the story. Made by Hammer, the production moved to County Wicklow, drafted in both the studio’s A-list director, Terence Fisher, and its most bankable actor, Peter Cushing, to take on the role of the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham.

At a mere 76 minutes long, the film feels like an extended episode, and featured the usual high production values whilst maintaining a strict budget. It says nothing about Robin’s origins, as though Greene is picking up from where he left off on the small screen, and involves him instantly in a tale of evildoers who are attempting to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jack Gwillim), now in effective control of England whilst King Richard is fighting on foreign shores. A fatally wounded man (Desmond Llewelyn) rides into Sherwood where he’s tended by the merry men, who are led by Robin and Little John (Nigel Green). The mystery of his attack seems to lie in a golden amulet, which the Sheriff is after. It turns out he’s part of a plot to kill the Archbishop, one led by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco), who unknowingly recruits Robin because he believes the outlaw’s superior bowmanship will make him the perfect murderer. As Robin’s skills are tested, he uses his time with Newark to gain information about the plan and hopefully foil it.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to Sword of Sherwood Forest. One is that it’s a bit of a stinker, surprisingly slow moving and badly scripted, meaning the tension of Robin’s efforts to save the day get lost amidst an unengaging story. The other sees it as the archetypal slow burner, wringing suspense from Robin’s realisation of how exactly he is to be used by Newark and his cronies (one of whom is played by a foppish Oliver Reed, in an early role, his voice dubbed by an uncredited French actor). I’m afraid I fall into the former camp. At such a short running time, I hoped for an action packed adventure with little room to spare. What I got was a yarn that was too thin, so it’s spread across the film that way, a lengthy portion taken up with the Earl testing Robin’s abilities, even though it’s obvious he’ll never fall in with his schemes. There’s precious little of the merry men, just enough to show that Little John is very strong, that Alan can play a minstrel and that Friar Tuck (Niall MacGinnis) is the butt of every joke, none of them especially funny. It’s as if writer Alan Hackney (who also scripted several episodes of the series) had little interest in this element so barely bothered to cover it, similarly when it came to the part of Marian (Sarah Branch), who has very little to do, and despite her zero chemistry with the much older Greene somehow goes from despising him to suggesting marriage.

Fisher does his best with the scant material. The sword fight between Greene and the more athletic Cushing offers a hint of what this film could have been, but the climactic duelling is strangely stilted, the actors often pausing mid-combat as though awaiting their cues. Sadly, the Sheriff is on screen little and even suffers the ignominy of being killed off before the finale, leaving the end to involve Robin and the more insipid Newark. It’s a real letdown. Hammer were capable of putting out some fine swashbuckling pictures, as their two Pirates films demonstrated, but this falls short, even compared to the later A Challenge for Robin Hood, of which I thought little but enjoyed more. Alan Hoddinott’s rousing score suggests a much more exciting experience than that shown, which adds to the sense of people making Sword of Sherwood Forest out of obligation and putting little effort – and certainly no heart – into it.

Sword of Sherwood Forest: *

Stalag 17 (1953)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 April (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whilst not on the top table of films directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, for my money) Stalag 17 is certainly interesting and stays in the mind for some time after having watched it. It’s adapted from a play, which was written by two war veterans about their experiences as prisoners in an Austrian camp, by all accounts a tedious and melancholic existence of men cooped up together. I’ve chosen the above poster deliberately as I think it conveys well the cramped living conditions experienced by the men, though don’t be fooled by the blanket wearing blonde – she represents the Russian women who are confined in the neighbouring bunker, distant objects of lust to the men starved of female companionship.

The story takes place in 1944. American Sergeants who have been captured by Germany are being held in Stalag 17 in Austria, and find they’re treated well enough. They can have a laugh with their jovial guard Schulz (Sig Ruman), and the Commandant is a decent fellow (played by Otto Preminger) who only makes one request – no escape attempts. That’s fine where Sefton (William Holden) is concerned. Settling down to an opportunist’s life of organising horse racing events – mice do the racing – and selling moonshine, Sefton is the classic small-time capitalist, happy to eke out the remainder of the war at the Germans’ expense because he knows that if he does get away he’ll be plunged straight back into the conflict, possibly even the dreaded Pacific theatre.

For everyone else, day follows monotonous day. There’s a neat thread of gallows humour in the movie, featuring desperately bored men doing crazy things to have a craic or wind each other up. The Betty Grable obsessed Animal (Robert Strauss) and his pal, Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), come up with an unlikely whitewashing stunt in an attempt to make it into the next camp and acquaint with the Russian women. Life goes on. The trouble is that escape attempts are made. At the start of the film, two men use a tunnel they’ve dug beneath the bunker to flee the camp, only to run into an armed squadron outside, obviously prepared, and they’re gunned down. The clear indication is that someone inside Stalag 17 is a traitor, feeding the Germans information about everything that’s happening, and the finger of suspicion is pointed squarely at Sefton, the one who seems to enjoy the easiest relationship and enjoy the most perks with his captors. Sefton hasn’t helped himself by betting against the escape ending successfully. As the two mens’ bodies are left outside as a grisly warning, the feelings against Sefton start turning violent. It leaves him in the most difficult position, alleging himself to be innocent yet not believed and forced to spend his days alongside people who now hate him.

Stalag 17 is told from the perspective of Cookie (Gil Stratton), Sefton’s dogsbody and an observer who can make out the downbeat emotional tenor of the bunker. It’s his experience we follow, and for the time it was quite new to witness a war film without much action or any real heroics, let alone a character that can be identified as the ‘hero’ figure. That certainly isn’t Sefton, cynical and hard-edged, making it clear that he’s only looking out for himself. Holden was reluctant to take the part, seeing few redeeming qualities in his character, though it can certainly be argued it’s a realistic one and there are moments, as he faces exile from the other Americans whilst siting alongside them, that he can quietly analyse what’s going on to unearth the real traitor. As Stalag 17 did well both commercially and with the critics, Holden clinched an Oscar for his portrayal, albeit one deferred from his previous work with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard, and helped to set the tone for prisoner of war anti-heroes in numerous films and TV shows that followed.

The mystery at the heart of the film is only one element, though, with much time elsewhere devoted to the day to day goings on, the Americans’ efforts to win cheap victories over their captors by masking their smuggled radio wires, the hi-jinks of Animal and Shapiro, the monotonous routines with no one knowing how long they are going to have to eke it out for. Whilst lacking some of the more brutal sights of other ‘prisoner’ films, it sets an atmosphere of quiet despair and rootlessness, and whilst it succeeds in the depiction it takes a very long time to make viewers share their conditions. There’s a much tauter film at the heart of Stalag 17, but any suspense struggles to emerge amidst the drudgery.

Stalag 17: ***