Saturday, March 1, 2014

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Director: Herman Shumlin                                Writers: Dashiell Hammett & Lillian Hellman
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Merritt Gerstad
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Beulah Bondi

Watch on the Rhine is a strange film, a family drama full of the aristocratic snobs that Lillian Hellman liked to write about so much. This time the author of The Little Foxes takes on World War II in a story of allegiances prior to the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Lucile Watson is the grand dame of a Virgina plantation and her daughter, Better Davis, is coming home from Europe in 1940 with her German husband, Paul Lukas, and three children in tow. Watson’s younger son, Donald Woods, is a lawyer in Washington, just like her late husband who died in World War I. Woods, however, is infatuated with one of their house guests, Geraldine Fitzgerald, who also married in Europe and has returned home with her Romanian husband, George Coulouris, who seems to have been playing both sides against the middle back home, Nazis against the Romanians, and suddenly finds himself destitute and without a country as a result.

It’s fairly clear on the train ride to the East Coast that Lukas is working for the underground in Germany. And this sets up a natural conflict with Coulouris, who is attempting to get back into the good graces of the Germans by playing poker with them at the embassy. Once he suspects that Lukas is an anti-Fascist, he attempts to learn the man’s true identity so that he can turn him over to the Nazis in the embassy and, somehow, benefit from their appreciation. At the German Embassy there are several interesting stereotypes. The admiral is played by King Kong captain Frank Reicher, while Henry Daniell plays the aristocratic military man who hates the low class Nazis but knows that he must work with them. Kurt Klatch, though not identified as anything specific, seems Gestapo-like in his knowledge of everything about the people around him and yet is clearly not enthralled by Hitler.

One is so used to seeing Bette Davis as a shrew or a flirt or the center of some major deception, that it’s almost surprising to see her in a role where she genuinely loves a man, and that the circumstances in her life count for nothing as long as she’s with him. Seeing her in this new light, one wishes she could have played the part more often. Paul Lukas does a fine job as well, in the kind of role usually given to Paul Henreid but better for the lack of ego that the later actor usually exhibits. Mary Young has a small role as one of Watson’s friends who happens to be a major gossip, and as Watson’s French companion is the great Beulah Bondi who, it’s painful to say, has a very poor French accent that sound like a cross between a Swedish lilt and an Irish brogue. But then all of the accents in the film are a mess, especially the German. Daniell speaks with his usual stiff upper lip British while Lukas, originally from Hungary, sounds almost like Bela Lugosi when he gets riled.

It’s a very obvious propaganda piece, but the aim is noble, for the United States was already deep into the war by 1943 and at times the desire for Americans to give up their sacrifice at home must have been strong. This story of soldiers from the underground continuing at all costs, regardless of the dangers, is still strong stuff. But the real focus of the film is on the duplicity of Coulouris and the threat that unknown sympathizers represented even in this country. The film could have been called Watch on the Potomac. Hellman’s common law husband Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay from her Broadway play. He toned down some of the comedy and beefed up the patriotism as well as Davis’s role. And while the emotions are a bit overlarge, the ending is quite daring for a film made during the enforcement of the production code and all the more satisfying because of it. Watch on the Rhine is a strange film but it does have a lot to recommend it. It’s not quite entertainment, but that obviously wasn’t the goal. As a piece of wartime propaganda, however, it is quite fascinating.

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