Film Reviews by Peter Mac
Three classic post-war films
The following black and white films are historically connected by the cold war and highly relevant to current events. They’re rarely shown on TV, but can now be seen at cinemas or on DVD.
The Third Man, a 1948 adaptation of Graham Green’s novel, concerns penniless western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) who arrives in bomb-cratered, allied-occupied Vienna, for a reunion with long-lost friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).
Martin learns that Lime has been killed in a car accident, but discovers discrepancies in eye-witness accounts and becomes convinced Lime was murdered. Military police officer Calloway (Trevor Howard) informs him that Lime was involved in the illicit trade in desperately-needed penicillin, stolen from military hospitals and sold in diluted form on the black market with tragic results.
However, after a visit to Lime’s former lover Anna (Alida Vali), Martins catches a glimpse of Lime, alive and well. The police don’t believe him, but then realise that Lime has faked his own death and eluded Martins via Vienna’s vast underground sewerage network.
Martins manages to organise a meeting with Lime, but fails to convince him to surrender. By this time he has, of course, fallen in love with Anna. He agrees to act as a decoy so the police can capture Lime, on condition that they prevent Anna from being repatriated to Czechoslovakia, but Lime escapes into the sewers where a fatal showdown takes place.
The Third Man has a tightly-written screenplay by Green himself, great direction by Carol Reed, wonderful ground-breaking camerawork and lighting by Egyptian-born Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker, and fine acting by the stars – including, in some memorable scenes a two-year old boy and a charming, diminutive cat! It also has one of the most efficient and memorable film scores ever written, played on one instrument, the zither, by Anton Karas.
The film provides a vivid snapshot of war’s tragic aftermath, with wrecked buildings and haunted, ravaged faces filmed on site in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
During the war Soviet Premier Stalin and the dying US President Roosevelt had discussed establishing a peaceful relationship between Western nations and the Soviet Union.
The film, shot in 1948, depicts a relationship between the occupying powers that is still cooperative and relatively cordial, but it’s clear that Anna’s unwillingness to be repatriated is because Czechoslovakia is communist, not because she’s an unpopular German-speaking “Sudetenlander”. The shadow of the cold war is already visible.
Judgement at Nuremberg, filmed in 1961 but set in the western sector of Germany in 1947, concerns the trial of German judges for their alleged complicity in the conviction and sentencing of people accused by the Nazi regime of crimes against the fascist state.
The trial is conducted by obscure, retired US Maine district court judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracey), who finds that some German judges blatantly support fascism’s crimes against humanity, while others claim they had no choice under the law.
German judge Ernst Janning, (Burt Lancaster), refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the tribunal. Defence counsel Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) argues that while acting as a judge Janning did his best to minimise the sentences of the accused, and that none of the judges knew about the slaughter occurring in the concentration camps.
Janning remains absolutely silent in the court for three quarters of the film, a brooding, enigmatic figure, but his final speech, in which he admits his guilt and condemns his fellow judges, is electrifying.
The cold war is a dominant theme. The US had to put Germany’s Nazis and their collaborators on trial, but the film highlights the pressure to which US judges were subjected for the trials to be conducted rapidly, and for the accused to be acquitted or given lenient treatment if convicted.
The objective was for Germany to become a US ally in the cold war against the Soviet Union. The USSR, barely mentioned in the film, had been the primary ally of Britain and the US, had suffered huge losses far in excess of other allied nations, and had made the biggest contribution of any allied nation to defeating the fascist war machine.
Nevertheless, the pressure was successful. As one US official notes, the directors of IG Farben, the chemical corporation that produced cyclon gas for mass extermination in the concentration camps, received light sentences or were acquitted.
The post-war trials lasted until July 1949. Hitler and Goebbels had committed suicide at war’s end, Hess died in Spandau Prison. Speer, Hitler’s architect and Minister for Munitions, was released in the 1980s. But of 99 other defendants, none were still serving sentences by the time the film was made in 1961, and Hitler’s rocket scientist Werner Von Braun had even taken over the US rocket program.
The film leaves uncorrected the impression given by Rolfe that Churchill had praised Hitler in 1938, and that the pre-war German-Soviet non-aggression pact was an alliance between the USSR and Germany. In fact Churchill bitterly opposed the Nazis, and the pact persuaded Hitler to launch Germany’s first attacks against Poland and France, forcing Britain to abandon its policy of appeasement and declare war on Germany.
Nevertheless, the film carries very important messages. The judiciary must be independent of government. Laws that seek to legitimise discrimination and the violation of human rights must be disobeyed and overturned. “I was just following orders” is no excuse for following those laws. The deliberate promotion of public fear to justify introduction of the laws, and the imposition of secrecy concerning their implementation, must be denounced and reversed.
Judgement at Nuremberg has great performances from Tracey and Lancaster, and from Maximillian Schell, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland.
Inherit the Wind, originally written as a play, concerns the trial of a young man in Tennessee for teaching Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, which contradict the literal interpretation of the Bible.
The play by Nathan Douglas and Harold Smith, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, was based on the notorious 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Ohio of young high school biology teacher John Scopes.
In the play and film Scopes is renamed Bertram Cates, counsel for the prosecution William Jennings Bryan becomes Matthew Harrison Brady, counsel for the defence Henry Darrow is Henry Drummond, and journalist HL Menken is EK Hornbeck.
In the film, leading scientists whom Drummond had enlisted as witnesses to explain Darwin’s theories, are forbidden from testifying, on the grounds that their testimony would be irrelevant as to whether Scopes had actually broken the law.
After a blazing row with the judge Drummond decides to call as a witness an expert on the Bible, Brady himself! Brady is astonished, but cooperates enthusiastically.
It’s a big mistake. During cross-examination Drummond tears to pieces Brady’s literal interpretation of the Bible’s account of the creation of life.
The jury still finds Cates guilty, but the judge, who is painfully aware that the trial has become a national scandal, imposes a small fine. Drummond declares that no fine will be paid and the matter will be taken to a higher court. Outraged at the leniency of the sentence, Brady begins an incoherent rant defending the literal truth of the Bible, but dies in mid-sentence from a heart attack in the chaotic courtroom.
The performances of Spencer Tracey as Drummond, Frederic March as Brady and Gene Kelly as Hornbeck are terrific, as is Stanley Kramer’s direction and the screenplay by Douglas and Smith. The brilliant courtroom dialogue is an almost verbatim version of the 1925 courtroom transcript
The play was written in 1950 and first performed in 1955. An instant success, it was written as an allegory in protest against the anti-communist, anti-intellectual witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s and 1950s. The film was made in 1960.
Nowadays there’s little chance of success in court for anyone arguing that a literal interpretation of Genesis is a valid account of human creation.
But in 2005 a religious group in Pennsylvania argued unsuccessfully in court that “scientific creation” should be taught in public schools alongside genuine science. According to two polls conducted in the US that year, 38 percent of teenagers interviewed said they believed that “God created humans pretty much in their present form within the last 100,000 years or so” and 54 percent of the adults expressed doubt as to whether humans had evolved from earlier species.
The messages of Inherit the Wind are certainly still relevant today.
Inherit the Wind and Judgement at Nuremberg have been released along with the trivial comedy Desk Set (in which Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn squander their prodigious talents) on the DVD “Films of Spencer Tracy”.
Palace cinemas are currently screening The Third Man, as follows:
Melbourne: Brighton Bay: Friday April 21, 10 am; Monday April 24, 12:15 am
Melbourne: Balwyn: Monday April 24, 2:15 pm, Wednesday April 26 10:00 am
Brisbane: Centro: Monday April 24, 2:15 am, Wednesday April 26, 10:00 am
Adelaide: Nova, April:12, 10:00 am