Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Errol Fights the Nazis

The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor just passed; our film this week commemorates the occasion with a look back to a film from the second World War.  Edge of Darkness (1943) takes place in Norway, circa 1942.  Told in flashback, the film tells the story of the village of Trollness.  The Nazis have taken over the country, and the populace are being starved and murdered by their conquerors.  Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn) a local fisherman, chaffs at his inability to fight for his country, and is about to leave the woman he loves, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan) to join the resistance in England.  But when word comes that the British are planning to arm the population up and down the coast in an effort start a revolution in the country Gunnar determines to stay and fight.  He becomes the official leader of a resistance movement which includes Karen, Gerd Blarnesen (Judith Anderson), and Lars Malken (Roman Bohnen).  But not everyone is willing to fight. Karen's father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Walter Huston) and his wife Anna (Ruth Gordon) prefer to live quietly within the strictures of the dictatorship.  And there remains the danger from the local Quislings, who include Karen's uncle Kaspar Torgerson (Charles Dingle) and brother Johann (John Beal).

When this film was released on April 24, 1943, America had been at war with Germany for just over a year.  Certainly, there had been films that dealt with Nazi atrocities before (To Be or Not to Be (1942) and The Mortal Storm (1940) are two examples), but this was perhaps the first one to portray ordinary people resisting the Nazi juggernaut.  And a powerful statement it is.  Even though the film starts showing the carnage of a decimated Nazi stronghold, and a Norwegian flag flying above it, we've no idea of who did it and what became of them.  The strength of this movie is the fact that many incidents are unexpected.  It keeps you engaged with both the multidimentional storyline and the characters. For more information on America's view of the situation in Europe during this period, see this New York Times book review of The Holocaust in America.
The depth of the characterizations is best exhibited by the minor characters that we expect to be tropes, but are not.  The talkative grocer, Lars Malken, as ably portrayed by Roman Bohnen, is the best example.  From the minute we meet him, we expect that he will betray the resistance with his anger and his need to express show off his commitment.  Another is the relationship between Gerd and the German soldier whom she loves.  Our initial reaction is that he will come to side with the resistance, and love will triumph.  But this film is not about the standard Hollywood tropes.  It's attempting to create a glimpse into the real horrors of the war in Europe.

Ann Sheridan is an actress who, in my opinion, is not given enough credit for her excellent portrayals, and she excels here.  Especially notable is the scene in which she discovers her brother, who has been working for the Nazis, is returning to Trollness.  Her reactions are subtle, but pointed.  Ms. Sheridan's career began in the sound era (and her lush voice is perfect for sound), and worked steadily through the 1930s and 1940s.  As her film career slowed in the 1950s, she segued into television, including a year on the soap opera, Another World.  In 1966, she accepted the lead in the TV series Pistols and Petticoats, but died of cancer (age 51) before the end of the first season.  She was married three times, including a one-year marriage to George Brent.  Allegedly, it was this film which ended the marriage, as Ms. Sheridan may have gotten a little too close to co-star Errol Flynn.  See this TCM article for more on the sexual shenanigans that plagued this film.  If you are not familiar with Ms. Sheridan, this film is an excellent start.  Then consider viewing The Man Who Came to Dinner, Nora Prentiss, I Was a Male War Bride, and (my favorite of her films) Tropic Zone
We were not as impressed with Ruth Gordon, who plays Ms. Sheridan's mother, Anna.  I personally am not a member of the Ruth Gordon fan club, and this is not a film that will make you one.  Anna is rather whiny, and comes across as peculiar and rather stupid.  Ms. Gordon didn't have an especially impressive film career, but with 33 Broadway plays to her credit (she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi in The Matchmaker in 1956), she kept busy.  She was also writing with her husband, Garson Kanin (they were nominated for three Oscars: for A Double Life (1947), Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).  But Ms. Gordon's film and television performances skyrocketed after she won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary's Baby (1969). You can view her amusing acceptance speech here.  She died, aged 88, in 1985.  She was survived by her husband of 42 years, Garson Kanin, and her son Jones Harris (born in 1929), the result of a long-term affair with producer Jed Harris - though they never married, the couple openly acknowledged their son.
Edge of Darkness is based on William Woods novel of the same name (see this AFI Catalog entry  for more information on the film's background)Though it got a tepid review from the New York Times, we highly recommend it.  With a strong story, and impressive acting, it is definitely worth your time.  We'll leave you with a scene from the end of the movie:

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