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Rep Diary: Nazis, Noirs, and Getting Lucky at MoMA

By Frank Ombres on November 20, 2013

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Among other things, the wide-ranging lineup of To Save and Project depicts the effects World War II has had on our national consciousness—from the fearful anticipation leading up to the war (anti-Nazi propaganda) to the cratering disillusion in its immediate aftermath (film noir) to the use of violence for personal gain (Lucky Luciano). Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934) is generally accepted as the first U.S. anti-Nazi film, released shortly after the institution of the Motion Picture Production Code. Censored soon after its release by a number of theaters for fear of angering the German government, it would effectively be lost for nearly 75 years, until a print was re-discovered in a Belgian cinematheque. The years of neglect and probable re-edits are evident in the dropped frames, shoddy audio, and abrupt transitions, which engender a certain camp charm. Directed by Mike Mindlin and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., the pseudo-documentary combines stock footage with studio-shot re-enactments and simulated news reports of Hitler’s rise to power. The elfin Hitler stand-in with a New York accent provoked more than a few chuckles from the audience—but the reports are chillingly accurate in predicting the Nazis’ systematic abuses of human rights and international law.

Hitler's Reign of Terror

Reign of Terror portrays the Führer as a rare and terrible blend of Huey Long’s rapacious authority, Al Capone’s thuggish savagery, and Billy Sunday’s feverish rhetoric. I Was a Captive in Nazi Germany (1936) by contrast recounts the sensational real-life story of Isobel Steele—a journalist who was briefly imprisoned in Nazi Germany on charges of espionage. Steele stars as herself in a crude yet unusual docudrama that employs a cast and crew which remains anonymous (which, the film claims, is for their own protection). Though she is no actor, Steele does possess a certain girl-next-door charm in front of the camera. But it’s unnerving to see her mechanically re-creating what must have been the most harrowing experience of her life. As if to reassure the audience, the filmmakers include an interview with an unperturbed Steele in a newsreel introduction, which muses: “The truth is often stranger than fiction.”

The only known 35mm print of Crashout opened the film noir segment of To Save and Project, part of a spotlight on Cy Endfield. A blacklistee and director in his own right, Endfield was an uncredited screenwriter on Lewis R. Foster’s jet-black noir about convicts on the lam. Crashout opens in media res with a frenetic prison break—and never lets up. There’s no pretense to downplaying the degeneracy of its central characters—a motley crew led by Van Duff (William Bendix), a beast of a man who epitomizes the never-say-die credo. Gradations of morality exist within his gang, but all the men know their lot and readily embrace it. Arthur Kennedy is especially convincing as Joe Quinn, the film’s de facto world-weary anti-hero; the range of age and attitudes among his criminal colleagues enhances the escalating tension within the gang. This rough-hewn noir gem mines tension from the small details that many contemporaneous crime films gloss over: going stir-crazy in a cave hideout, or the challenge of unobtrusively obtaining a tire for an escape car. Crashout is shocking and thrilling in its matter-of-fact brutality.

Try and Get Me

The Sound of Fury (1950, aka Try and Get Me) was directed by Endfield not long before his blacklisting and exile to England, and was adapted by writer Joe Pagano from his own 1947 novel The Condemned. Recently restored by Paramount and TCM, the film is based on an actual 1933 incident in which a town mob broke into a San Jose jail and lynched two men who had kidnapped and murdered the son of a local wealthy department store owner. (Fritz Lang had offered his take on the events in 1936 with Fury, starring Spencer Tracy.) Preachier than Crashout, The Sound of Fury employs didactic techniques of staging and composition. But Frank Lovejoy is right at home as Hank, a hapless everyman pulled into the seedy yet lucrative life of crime by the flashy and unapologetically sadistic Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges). The film hits a snag whenever it switches to the world of righteous journalist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) who is covering the story, but the leaden subplot comes to life when Hank and Gil finally cross paths. In a tour de force finale in Hank’s cell on death row, the two share a heart-wrenching exchange. For Endfield, The Sound of Fury marks a shift toward pessimism that becomes even bleaker by Crashout. Though he may have seen himself in the progressive Gil, Endfield’s fate during the blacklist would arguably have more in common with Hank’s. Despite its heavy-handedness, The Sound of Fury is a faithful yet gripping account of an actual moment when malice prevailed over justice.

A crime film of a different stripe, Rosi’s Lucky Luciano (1973) is a sleek and fierce merger of reportage and histrionic storytelling styles. Luciano’s world is authentically recreated in convincing detail, and its nonfiction detail is augmented by an introductory news report, detached narration, and actual Congressional hearing footage. Though Luciano was a primarily American mobster, his influence was global. His ascent from mid-level prostitution racketeer in America to “high priest” of a billion-dollar international heroin ring was ironically made possible by his pardon from a 50-year prison sentence by the American government; he conducted his operation while in exile in Italy. The biopic deftly immerses us into a bustling world of political corruption and organized crime through balletically violent editing that decenters our sense of time and space. Rosi’s film (which was released in the U.S. one month before The Godfather: Part II) cuts from the New York harbor in 1946 to an Italian trattoria in 1936, and switches among the perspectives of a news reporter, an undercover cop, and the titular gangster, all in a flash.

Lucky Luciano

Lucky Luciano

A Naples native, Rosi brings credibility to the depiction of Luciano’s return home in exile. Elderly widows wail at their murdered sons’ tombs while Luciano makes a pilgrimage to his birthplace; a little Italian boy brushes the face of a black American GI as if he were some exotic superhero. At once grounded in reality and dizzyingly heightened, Rosi’s film makes use of slow motion in operatic flashbacks of mafia assignations (probably an influence on similar montages in Scorsese’s gangster films). Gian Maria Volenté is captivating as Luciano—cool, calculating, and insidiously charismatic. We don’t learn much more about this master manipulator and charmer than what he lets on; Luciano can commandeer a pesky press investigation just as effectively as he can take on the role of lovable emcee at a dinner. Perhaps the greatest shock of the film doesn’t come from the crimes that he commits, but from the way the world, knowing all that he has done, stubbornly embraces him.

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