Thursday, October 8, 2015

1943 - For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's been over six years now since I began this insane project that I initially thought would last about a year and a half. I suppose, though, if I drag this out long enough, there's at least a tiny chance that I'll make it into the cast of a future Best Picture nominee which, aside from the cool meta nature of having to review a film I'm in, would just be all kinds of awesome.

And in fact, one such opportunity may have already presented itself. Last week, I spent a morning shooting a scene opposite Annette Bening (who was absolutely lovely, I might add) for 20th Century Women, a film directed by Mike Mills. While none of his films have been nominated for the big prize just yet, you may remember that it was his Beginners for which Christopher Plummer won a well-deserved and long-awaited Oscar a few years ago. And Annette Bening is certainly Oscar bait, so it's certainly within the realms of possibility that Mills' latest film could find itself on the Best Picture shortlist. At the very least, Bening herself may be in contention for an award. Of course, judging her performance is difficult since I only have one scene to go on, and it's obviously way too early to speculate - in fact, this film may not be released until next year, making it eligible for the awards season after next, which would mean it's way, way too early to speculate - but this is Annette Bening we're talking about so you can never rule her out.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on 1943's next Best Picture contender...

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Sam Wood
Dudley Nichols
(based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway)
Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Mikhail Rasumny, Fortunio Bonanova, Eric Feldary, Victor Varconi, Katina Paxinou, Joseph Calleia

Academy Awards:
9 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actress (Paxinou)

Based on the celebrated novel by Ernest Hemingway (as all the promotional material points out), For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan (Cooper), an American soldier fighting with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He is tasked with assisting a strategic assault against the Nationalists by blowing up a bridge at the precise moment of a planned air raid, and he is given three days to prepare. His local guide is Anselmo (Sokoloff) who introduces Robert to a gang of freedom fighters and Gypsies hiding out in a mountain cave. Robert enlists the help of the disparate gang, including its leader, Pablo (Tamiroff), an unpredictable drunk, and Pablo's wife, Pilar (Paxinou), a strong woman who is essentially in charge due to her husband's weakness. Robert also finds friendship and, later, romance with Maria (Bergman), a young Gypsy refugee with a horrifically sad story.

As has been discussed numerous times on this blog, films adapted from novels often suffer from a rushed feeling that is almost inherent when cramming a full-length book into two hours of screen time. Not so, however, in the case of For Whom the Bell Tolls, likely due to the source material being clear and straightforward in its own right (although, full disclosure, I've never actually read it). The tension in this story is in fact heightened by the fact that it takes its time. There is a single clear mission for the protagonist and, even if some of the details are a little murky, nothing ever feels hurried. Well, nothing except perhaps the speed with which Robert and Maria fall in love. But whirlwind romances and loves-at-first-sight are pretty much the norm for this age of Hollywood, so that hardly counts.

None of that is to say that the film lacks complexity. On the contrary. There is still plenty of nuance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, most of it found in the compelling characters. It's not always clear cut which of these people are the heroes. For instance, El Sordo clearly sides with the protagonists but the perverse pleasure he takes in his enemy's demise, laughing sadistically at their violent deaths, makes it difficult to get behind him as a hero. Conversely, Pablo commits some atrociously dickish acts, displaying a complete lack of consideration for others, yet he later experiences several crises of conscience, which elicits from us at least a tiny amount of sympathy.

As for the cast, it's a surprising display of diversity. Despite the fact that most of the characters are Spanish, the actors hail from Sweden, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Mexico and several from Russia. The only actual Spaniard is Fortunio Bonanova. Regardless of nationality, there are some truly powerful performances. Akim Tamiroff (pictured) is nothing short of superb as the emotionally erratic and conflicted Pablo. Playing his wife, Katina Paxinou also shines. Both were nominated in the supporting categories, but only Paxinou won. Then there's Ingrid Bergman, who is simply wonderful and often heartbreaking as the sweet Maria, earning herself a Best Actress nomination. In my previous post, while discussing Watch on the Rhine, I pointed out how I could never understand why Bogart didn't win Best Actor for Casablanca this year ... until I actually saw Paul Lukas' performance. In similar fashion, I always had trouble figuring out why Bergman wasn't even nominated for Casablanca. But now I understand. While her Ilsa Lund is still one of my favourite portrayals (and we'll get to that film shortly), her performance here in For Whom the Bell Tolls is genuinely captivating, so I can finally accept the omission. Of course, if the Academy just allowed a single actor to be nominated twice in the same category, then there probably wouldn't have been an issue in the first place, but rules are rules, I guess.

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