Tag: Geraldine Fitzgerald

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

The Pawnbroker (1965)

The Pawnbroker Header
Rod Steiger is superb in Lumet’s drama of grief, The Pawnbroker

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Rod Steiger (Sol Nazerman), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marilyn Birchfield), Brock Peters (Rodriguez), Jaime Sanchez (Jesus Ortiz), Thelma Oliver (Ortiz’s girl), Eusebia Cosme (Mrs Ortiz), Marketa Kimbrell (Tessie), Baruch Lumet (Mendel), Linda Geiser (Ruth Nazerman)

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) lost his entire family – including his wife and two children – in the Holocaust. Previously a University professor, he has now cut himself off from engaging with life by burying himself in a dingy pawnbroker’s shop in Harlem, where he treats his desperate customers like “scum”, offering them nickels for their goods. On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Sol confronts his own grief, tensions from local crime boss Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the offer of a friendly ear from new neighbour Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the unwanted friendship of his assistant Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez).

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that all of this does not end well. The Pawnbroker is almost unrelentingly grim and bleak. Shot in a harsh black-and-white – superbly lensed by Boris Kaufman – it mixes French New Wave realism with a punishingly cold New York aesthetic that catches every grain of dirt on the streets. The past is virtually a character in the film, the events of over twenty years ago having far more importance than many of the trivial events Sol encounters in the present.

The constant presence of the Holocaust, and the scars it has left, are kept in our mind by the film’s constant use of quick – almost subliminal – cuts from current day events to snippets of Sol’s past. Hands pressed against windows turn briefly into hands against barbed wire. A young lady flicks back and forth into Sol’s wife. The sounds of a train inevitably transform into a transport train. Lumet makes it clear to us that everything Sol sees and encounters in the modern world, no matter how small, is just a continual reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust that defined his life.

This isn’t something as ‘simple’ as survivor’s guilt. It’s clear that, while his body survived, Sol effectively died in the camps and what we are seeing is his walking corpse. He’s deliberately alienated himself from the world and his concern, with no real desire to live but also no will for self-destruction. Perhaps he sees his continued existence as a punishment for failing to save his family. This has developed into a loathing for the melting pot of Harlem, a stubborn, conscious refusal to feel any empathy for anyone living there. Instead, he works hard to loath them as much as he loathes himself. Trapped by guilt and grief, Sol slaps away any offers of friendship, pity or warmth.

The film’s greatest strength is Rod Steiger’s towering performance. Normally Steiger was an actor who never shied away from the possibility of over-playing. Here, he’s so buttoned down and spiritually dead, every single movement like he’s walking around in a physical and spiritual straitjacket. Sol scuttles around the cages of his pawnshop, like a guy who has never left the camps. His performance is a masterclass in precision, of carefully restrained movement, gruff speech and eyes that stare into a dread a thousand miles away. Every step Steiger takes is weighted down by an impossible burden of grief, anger, despair and self-loathing.

It also avoids completely easy sentiment. For all that we see the suffering slowly revealed of Sol’s past, Steiger isn’t afraid to show Sol as a difficult, arrogant, even unpleasant character. The defence mechanism of hostility and non-engagement of the world has only increased his prickly aggressiveness. But yet, he remains sympathetic as Steiger also conveys the deep pain Sol spends every single minute of his life suppressing and controlling to stop it overwhelming him.

If there is a fault with the film, it’s that it goes about its carefully bleak and hopeless journey through a few days in Sol’s life with slightly too much precision. The Pawnbroker sometimes mistakes grim, hard-hitting and misery for emotional investment. For all that the film is a difficult, searing watch – and the terrors of the flashbacks are ghastly – it’s somehow not quite as moving as it should be. Perhaps this is because the present-day plot never quite takes off and the other characters – with the exception of Peter’s chillingly ebullient but dangerously violent Rodriguez – don’t quite connect. Fitzgerald’s social worker Marilyn is a character we don’t quite get to know. Not quite enough time is spent with Sol’s in-laws (despite good performances from Marketa Kimbrell and Lumet’s father Baruch Lumet) for their story arc to move us in its own right.

Similarly, the Holocaust sequences – brief and interspersed as they are – sometimes overplay their hand, particularly the rather heavy-handed opening sequences showing the Nazerman family playing in the field minutes before the Germans arrive (accompanied by a thudding musical score – and Quincy Jones’ score sometimes tries to do much work for the viewer). It would be hard not to make The Pawnbroker at least a little bit moving, but Lumet’s film bludgeons us with misery so heavily, that there is no sense of the lightness or warmth of life that has been lost. Scenes of the Holocaust of course are hard to watch, but The Pawnbroker bashes us with them to make us feel things. It’s a film that’s tough and leaves you in no doubt of the horror, but doesn’t always make you feel for individual. You need a touch of what was lost to be truly moved: with no real sense of that, we can’t grieve with the characters.

But, The Pawnbroker is still a daring film that leaves a lasting impression. Lumet’s direction has a New Wave freshness and an immersive sense of the New York Streets. Steiger is fantastic in the lead role – his most restrained (and greatest) performance ever. The film broke new ground for sexuality – including making Rodriguez a non-camp, intimidating homosexual – and while the final beats of inevitable tragedy aren’t quite earned by the events we see, it’s still a grim and powerful look at the lasting damage the past causes the present and the crushing legacy of grief.