Director: Bernhard Wicki
Writer: Daniel Taradash
Cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a decent film from 1965, when black and white productions were at their peak. It involves Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) as a bourgeois German pacifist living in India, blackmailed in some way toward using his engineering expertise to destroy a German Merchant ship by placing TNT in select areas. He battles Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner), who wants to keep an orderly ship and finish the mission, while harboring anti-Nazi sentiments. There are prisoners below, which Crain then recruits to help him with the mission, along with a Jewish woman Esther (Janet Margolin), who’s been raped and tortured, having lost her parents in the concentration camp, with an incredibly dark and cynical view of the world, refusing to trust anyone - even after Crain admits to his double crossings.
I was drawn to the film after watching The Enemy Below, which came out about eight years earlier. I’m not sure what I was expecting, and although Brandon provides a great performance, and counter to what’s mentioned in my thoughts on Where Eagles Dare or Enemy at the Gates, he performs with a German accent that I would bet is near flawless. Looking at Brando’s filmography, I’ve discovered that this was made in a kind of dark period, where after Guys and Dolls in 1955, The Fugitive Kind in 1959, and Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962, Brando didn’t really match his 1950s work until The Godfather in 1972. Morituri is a good movie, but little beyond that. The battles between Brando and Brynner are worth watching, especially as Brynner spirals out of control, but beyond these two powerhouse players I wasn’t really all that captivated. Even with its beautiful direction and photography, the story itself felt formulaic; as though I knew where it was all headed, hoping for something better to develop or occur, rather than watching Brando nearly get caught for the fourth time, to know that eventually all the bombs he planted would explode and the mission would be accomplished.
The greatest part of the film is Brando's performance. Crain is constantly trying to evaluate the ways in which he could survive the situation, with enough arrogance to make him make silly mistakes when he talks to the Nazi sympathizing officers and other visiting Germans. This urgency seemed like it could have worked so well - he’s setting the bombs, the Germans have called Berlin inquiring about Crain’s credentials, and Crain is struggling to find a way to get to an island after blowing up the ship. Yet it often gets lost with tropey reversals and additions. I couldn’t exactly tell you what happened with the prisoners or the new prisoners or why Brynner suddenly turned to the bottle, coming around. I’m sure I could connect the dots, but I just wasn’t interested in exerting the effort. It’s a beautiful film with a few great performances and an amazing set piece, but the narrative falls victim to its own complications, and like a battered hull, brings the whole ship down as a result.
BELOW: Nice zoom, Conrad
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Thoughts on films, old and new
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