RETR0-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
Our Man Brierly turns his sights on a couple of key films in the career of director Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann’s filmmaking career lasted nearly three decades, during each of which he mastered a different genre. He came to prominence in the forties with a string of film noirs (1948’s Raw Deal and 1949’s Border Incident but two among many) that rivaled Hitchcock’s for style, suspense and hard-boiled atmosphere. In the fifties, Mann applied his noir sensibility to a series of lean, hard-bitten Westerns starring James Stewart, Winchester ’73 (1950) foremost among them. As the sixties dawned, Mann proved himself one of Hollywood’s most adept directors of big screen blockbusters with the likes of El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Linking such disparate films and genres was Mann’s trademark blend of narrative-driven visuals and keen psychological insight.
Although never regarded as an auteur during his lifetime, his films were popular at the box office and generally well received by critics, his last two features being notable exceptions. Both The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and A Dandy in Aspic (1968) have long been considered failures. The former is a war film about Norwegian resistance fighters; the latter one of the bleak spy thrillers common during the sixties. Intriguingly, Mann invests both films with a paranoid tone reminiscent of the nail-biting noirs he cut his teeth on during his first Hollywood decade. A close reading of the films also reveals their stylistic and thematic consistency with his previous, more celebrated work. Now that both are available as Region 2 DVDs, it’s time for a long-overdue reappraisal.
The Heroes of Telemark (1965) Carlton Visual Entertainment (Region 2)
The Heroes of Telemark focuses on the efforts of Norwegian resistance fighters to destroy a heavy water factory being used by the Germans to develop atomic weapons. It was based on true incidents, and while it strays from the facts from time to time, it essentially captures the spirit of the original events, which historians generally concede played a fundamental role in the eventual outcome of World War II. Although the film could fairly be described as a spectacular, it eschews grandiose battle scenes and cardboard heroics in favor of daring, small-scale raids and fallible, morally conflicted characters. The film’s widescreen format is just about big enough to accommodate the outsize egos and talents of co-stars Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, who reportedly clashed early on during the filming. Their off-screen antipathy actually served to intensify their scenes together.
KIRK DOUGLAS AND ULLA JACOBSEN
Douglas plays self-centered, sybaritic scientist Rolf Pedersen, who would rather wait out the end of the war in the arms of as many women as possible than help fight Germans. He must be shamed into doing so by resistance leader Knut Straud, played with charismatic brio by Harris. But Straud is no boy scout, either. He’s committed to doing whatever it takes to prevent the Germans from getting needed supplies of heavy water, even putting the lives of innocent women and children at risk during the film’s climax. Providing excellent support to the two leads are Ulla Jacobsson as Pedersen’s ex-wife, Michael Redgrave as her father, and Eric Porter and Anton Diffring as suitably menacing Nazis.
Like the characters in Mann’s noirs, the resistance members in Telemark live in constant fear of discovery and death, not only from the occupying German forces, but also from Norwegian fifth columnists. Mann’s direction effectively evokes the nightmare quality of their existence, even though the film is set amid open, snow-covered Norwegian landscapes rather than enclosed urban environments. The film’s tense mood is further enhanced by its refusal to ignore the consequences of the resistance effort, as the local German commander doesn’t hesitate to order the execution of innocent civilians in retaliation for each act of sabotage.
Mann’s penultimate film also benefits from cinematographer Robert Krasker’s superb filming of the numerous action sequences, whose impact is made all the greater for their modest scale and understated staging. Of particular note are an allied forces glider operation that goes tragically wrong and the successful sabotage raid on the heavy water plant. The most memorable section of the film, however, is a deadly ski chase in which Straud and Pedersen flee from a squad of German pursuers. The sequence, excitingly shot and edited, foreshadows a similar pursuit in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Mann shoots much of the chase in long shot, silhouetting the skiers as dark figures against the blank whiteness of the snow, emphasizing the vulnerability of the two resistance leaders. All of these sequences are virtually silent, save for Malcolm Arnold’s evocative music, underscoring Mann’s belief in the supremacy of visuals over dialog.
The Carlton Region 2 DVD presents The Heroes of Telemark in its original 16:9 letterbox ratio. On the plus side, the picture is generally sharp throughout and preserves the film’s naturally grainy texture; on the minus side, the colors appear to be a little washed out. The special features are pure gold, however, and include over one hour of black-and-white location footage and interviews with the stars and director, all staged outdoors in manifestly frigid conditions. Mann talks about his filmmaking philosophy and the challenges of shooting in such rugged locations, and shares his insights on the Douglas-Harris feud: “Those boys are fine actors. They’re both tough and strong personalities. They clashed a little sometimes, but that was good. Tension was the keynote of this film.” Harris projects a refreshing honesty and cheeky charm in his interview segment, even asking himself a question at one point! Douglas is equally charismatic, if a little more calculated in his awareness of the camera.
The Heroes of Telemark wasn’t particularly successful outside of Norway, despite its compelling storyline and charismatic lead actors. If it proved less potent at the box office than other sixties war films like The Great Escape (1963) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Telemark nonetheless remains an exciting and generally authentic portrayal of one World War II’s most momentous yet overlooked chapters.
A Dandy in Aspic (1968) Sony Pictures Home Video (Region 2)
Mann’s next film, A Dandy in Aspic, would tragically prove to be his last. He died of a heart attack at the age of 60 while completing location photography in Germany. Star Laurence Harvey directed the remainder of the film, a fact that critics have always latched onto when expressing their dislike of it. Yet despite the unfortunate circumstances of its production, A Dandy in Aspic is clearly recognizable as an Anthony Mann film in its visual style, its breathless pace, and its nerve-tautening atmosphere.
The ingenious plot revolves around a Russian assassin named Krasnevin who pretends loyalty to British intelligence under the pseudonym Alexander Eberlin while periodically killing off its best operatives. However, Eberlin has been in the game too long and can feel his luck running out. He wants nothing more than to come in out of the English cold and return to Mother Russia. Even as his Soviet bosses tell him nyet, his British superiors, aware of a Russian threat in their midst, order Eberlin to find and assassinate Krasnevin. He soon finds himself in Berlin, where he makes a pretense of searching for his alter ego while attempting unsuccessfully to cross into East Germany. Meanwhile, Eberlin is pursued romantically by a London photographer named Caroline (played by Mia Farrow), who may or may not be allied with his antagonists. And he’s accompanied by a British agent named Gatiss, who becomes increasingly suspicious of Eberlin’s loyalty to king and queen. The narrative takes many sudden twists and turns before arriving at the film’s jolting climactic revelation.
FEMME FATALE MIA FARROW
Mann applies his usual visual dynamism to this twisting tale of suspicion and paranoia, but also experiments for the first time with a number of stylistic flourishes, including shock cuts, quick zooms, selective focus and sound distortion. The film opens with Eberlin acting as a pallbearer at a funeral for his latest victim. When asked if he ever met the deceased, he replies “Once,” as Mann quickly cuts to an almost subliminal shot of the murder as it occurs. Mann was criticized for some of these effects — which at times make A Dandy in Aspic seem to be channeling television’s The Prisoner — yet they are all narratively justified, and help convey Eberlin’s gradual psychological and emotional disintegration.
Laurence Harvey plays Eberlin smooth and sardonic on the surface, but with an increasingly big crease in his cool as the British get closer to learning his true identity. Harvey underplays nicely, often using just his eyes to register his growing paranoia. His performance recalls his brilliant turn as the brainwashed soldier-cum-presidential assassin in the 1962 cold war thriller The Manchurian Candidate. As the film nears its climax, Eberlin no longer seems to know or care which persona he feels most attached to, his real Russian self or his assumed British identity.
LAURENCE HARVEY AND PER OSCARSSON
A Dandy in Aspic shares the same realistic and morally ambiguous tone of such espionage movies as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and The Deadly Affair (1966). Like those films, it depicts British spymasters as being just as ruthless as their Soviet counterparts, and equally willing to play lethal cat and mouse games with their agents. Yet screenwriter Derek Marlowe, who adapted from his original novel, laces A Dandy in Aspic with a distinctive streak of sardonic humor lacking in those films. On finding Caroline naked in his hotel room bed, Eberlin quips: “Oh, you must be one of those convent girls.” But most of the best lines go to Tom Courtenay, who has a field day as the emotionally constipated, terminally suspicious Gatiss. He sneeringly tosses off the film’s wittiest barbs, especially during a priceless exchange with a troublesome Russian operative played by Lionel Stander.
Gatiss: “Who do you think you are, Al Capone?” Sobakevich: “Who’s Al Capone?” Gatiss: “He was a megalomaniac gangster who murdered anyone who got in his way.” Sobakevich: “Really? What happened to him?” Gatiss: “He changed his name to Stalin and moved to Russia.” Sobakevich: “I thought he sounded familiar.”
The excellent supporting cast also includes Harry Andrews as the devious head of British intelligence, Per Oscarsson as a burned-out Russian mole, and comedian Peter Cook in a relatively straight role as Gatiss’ subordinate. The only weakness from an acting standpoint is Farrow. She’s not exactly terrible, just a little bland, and doesn’t add much to the proceedings apart from looking frail and fetching in a 1960s Twiggy kind of way, and representing for the cynical Eberlin a much-needed yet ultimately unattainable ideal of innocence.
Cinematographer Christopher Challis, who also filmed the eye candy espionage romp Arabesque (1966), brings Mann’s baroque visual conception to life in dazzling Technicolor images. His handling of light and color make A Dandy in Aspic one of the best-looking spy films ever made. And Quincy Jones, whose soundtrack work is deserving of greater attention, delivers haunting, coolly modernist music that perfectly matches the film’s mood and visuals. Sound and image (Dolby digital; enhanced letterbox) are faultlessly presented on this Region 2 disc, which, despite its lack of extras, should be in every spy film fan’s DVD collection. Thanks to Sony for making this overlooked Anthony Mann classic available at long last.
(Both films are available only in Region 2 UK format. This means you must have a Region 2 or Region Free DVD player.)