Thursday, September 24, 2015

1943 - Watch on the Rhine

With baby number two due in about a month and a half, I'm trying to cram in as many movies as I can before spare time becomes even more scarce. So let's get straight to it.

Here's a look at another 1943 film shortlisted for Best Picture...

Watch on the Rhine
Herman Shumlin
Dashiell Hammett
(based on the play by Lillian Hellman)
Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson, Beulah Bondi, George Coulouris, Donald Woods
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Lukas)

It seems somehow appropriate to follow up The Ox-Bow Incident with this picture. Both are confronting tales that deal with serious moral issues, albeit Watch on the Rhine leans more towards the political. Anti-Fascist activist Kurt Muller (Lukas) and his American wife Sara (Davis), arrive in Washington, D.C. with their three children after leaving a devolving Europe behind. They stay in Sara's wealthy family home with her mother (Watson) and brother (Woods), who Sara hasn't seen since she left America 17 years ago. Their arrival is complicated, however, by another house guest, Teck de Brancovis (Coulouris), a slimy Nazi sympathiser who threatens to expose Kurt to his German Embassy friends.

Watch on the Rhine is another in a long list of stage play adaptations that inherently suffers from its source material's wordiness. It's slow-moving, particularly at the beginning as the plentiful characters are introduced (many of whom turn out not to be all that important to the story, anyway). And with very little action, most of the major plot points are revealed merely through shocking announcements. In spite of all that, the picture remains intensely captivating, no doubt due to its grave central issue. Consequently, in what might seem contradictory to the film's slow pace, I hardly noticed its two hours go by.

This happens to be the first time I've seen this film and it had been on my watch list for a very long time, mostly because I've always wanted to see the performance of the guy who stole Bogart's Oscar. Starting with that bias, it's easy to write off Paul Lukas (pictured) as merely adequate. After all, his character is relatively calm and not overly emotional, requiring little nuance from the actor. Ironically, however, this composure only serves to accentuate the powerful intensity that Lukas reveals in the last few scenes of the film. Consider me a convert. I'll always love Bogie's Rick, but I'm humbled to admit that Lukas' performance is also award-worthy.

As the wonderfully pompous woman of means, Lucile Watson received the film's other acting nomination, and deservedly so. She delivers her catty lines effortlessly, but later is afforded the opportunity to show a soft interior, providing a well-rounded characterisation that is a pure joy to watch. Bette Davis, too, turns in a terrific performance in what is essentially an underwritten supportive wife role (despite her top billing). I guess her peers agreed since her performance also went unrecognised by the Academy.

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