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Judgment at Nuremberg

Wowza!

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A reporter character in Judgement at Nuremberg says he could not give away a story about the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1948 because America had moved on from the war and was no longer interested. If Americans were not interested in the trials then, they certainly had no choice but to be in 1961 with the release of this overwhelming movie.

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so important? Take your pick: the award recognition, the acting or the story. Despite its more than three-hour run time, I was hooked and invested in the story from the start.

The plot follows one specific trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, that sought to determine the guilt of four court judges during the Third Reich and whether they could be held accountable for the atrocities carried out as a result of their sentences. Spencer Tracy plays “backwoods” American Judge Haywood picked to sit on the tribunal with two others and pass judgement on the men. He is put up in a mansion formerly occupied by Marlene Dietrich‘s Madam Bertholt, whose husband was executed at an earlier war crimes trial.

In court, where most of the drama takes place, Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, defend the judges on the grounds that they merely delivered on the laws of the country they loved regardless of whether they were morally sound.  Richard Widmark‘s Col. Tad Lawson meanwhile prosecutes the men on the assertion that they perverted justice in enacting the will of Adolph Hitler and subjecting those who came before them to death and sexual sterilization.

Three of the four judges on trial are immediately unlikable, while a fourth, Burt Lancaster‘s Ernst Janning, refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal and becomes the subject of the majority of testimony we witness through the camera’s lens. We notice early on that Judge Haywood is sympathetic toward Janning and will require undeniable proof that he should be held accountable for the sentences he delivered. The chips seem to be stacked in this man’s favor until a last-minute statement declares his guilt.

The drama in Judgment at Nuremberg is electric. From the moment Max Schell starts to speak in German –hair and spittle flying– one cannot help but be hooked. Director Stanley Kramer used a unique device in allowing audiences to hear the majority of the dialogue in English. The court uses interpreters who translate through headsets worn by whomever in the room does not understand the language being spoken at a given time. During one of Schell’s wild opening lines, his dialogue switches into English as we view him from the interpreter’s booth. Nevertheless, the characters maintain the pretense of relying on the headsets whenever a person of the opposite language is speaking.

Although a number of American actors play German roles, they all do so amazingly. Lancaster is stoic but sympathetic while Judy Garland is a tormented soul on the stand. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, is spellbinding to watch as the prosecution has him explain the trial leading up to his sexual sterilization and the defense forces a near admission of mental insufficiency. Dietrich is her usual brilliant, German self and has grown even more beautiful with age. Try as she might, she cannot turn off the sex appeal.

Judgment at Nurembergis an incredibly emotional story to watch. Toward the end, footage of the English emancipation of one of the concentration camps is brutally painful and it becomes impossible to not side with the bully of a prosecutor in Widmark. The movie otherwise does an objective job of presenting the two sides of the argument, which is no easy feat.

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Don’t Bother to Knock

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Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

     I have very recently changed my tune about Marilyn Monroe after reading a post on Backlots about how she was horribly typecast into all those roles I hate. Although my better understanding of the star does make me more accepting of her work, I still do not expect to pursue her dumb blonde, sex goddess type roles. Don’t Bother to Knock is not one of those despite what the poster might suggest. Monroe had already begun to be blocked into the aforementioned roles but got a great opportunity with this flick to show a more intense side.

 
     She plays Nell, who at the outset shows shades of the ignorant dames we often saw Monroe embody. The girl is niece to an elevator operator in a hotel who has arranged for Nell to babysit a 7-year-old girl while her parents attend an event at the hotel’s ballroom. She comes on her uncle Eddie’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) recommendation, so the man takes a particular interest in making sure all goes well. After reading the girl, Bunny (Donna Corcoran), a story, Nell demands she go to sleep and we see that she is not necessarily fond of children. Left alone in the adjoining room, Nell ends up trying on the mother’s diamond bracelet and earings and before we know it she’s wearing the woman’s dressing gown.
 
     Meanwhile, Richard Widmark playing Jed is in another part of the hotel that wraps around and allows his room to be opposite where Nell is situated. He has just received a breakup letter from his girlfriend, the hotel singer, and so is intrigued when he spots Nell across the courtyard. He rings her room and the two get to chatting. Next Jed is in her room and Nell’s behavior becomes all the more strange. When Jed speaks about being a pilot, a fog seems to enter Nell’s gaze as she starts insisting that he did not die over the Pacific in 1945. She has transposed Jed in the place of her dead fiancée and so kisses him and he reciprocates. Bunny walks in on this resulting in considerable anger from Nell as the little girl reveals that the woman is wearing her mother’s things and is not who she’s been telling Jed she is. After a tantrum, Jed invites the girl into the main room. She gazes happily outside from the window sill and, with Nell’s hand on her back, looks like she might fall at any moment.
 
     The remainder of the evening is marked by Nell’s increasing disdain for the little girl, the intrusion of Eddie and some nosy neighbors into the goings on of room 809, and Jed’s constant questioning of why he remains in the room. Nell’s psychosis reaches a frightening climax that ultimately mends Jed’s relationship with the singer.
 
     Monroe’s beauty here is purposefully diminished –as much as one can with a looker like she– by a darker hair color and plain, conservative dress. She is a meek character to start, but the anger she showers on the little girl show a darker side perpetuated by her confusion over Jed’s identity. Don’t Bother to Knock could easily have become a campy thriller, but Monroe restrains her performance so that only the subtlest image of an off-center personality shows through. This really was a thrilling picture that consistently sets the audience on edge. I found myself nervous just seeing Nell in the mother’s jewels, fearing she would be discovered. Little did I know how much more criminal the activities would become.
  • Don’t Bother to Knock is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Nov. 26 on TCM.

Saint Joan

Ring a Ding Ding

Saint Joan (1957)

     Given Otto Preminger‘s history with fantastically thrilling mysteries and dramas, I was a bit surprised to find he made a picture based on Bernard Shaw’s play about the plight of Joan of Arc. Possibly of even greater surprise is that Preminger paid for the rights to the play –$100,000 plus 5% of the gross receipts to the Shaw estate. Ultimately, however, Preminger was unhappy with his screen interpretation. In his autobiography, he says during the film’s premiere in France,

(I) started to realize that my film Saint Joan was a failure. Many people blamed Jean Seberg and her inexperience. That is unfair. I alone am to blame because…I misunderstood something fundamental about Shaw’s play. It is not a dramatization of the legend of Joan of Arc which is filled with emotion and religious passion. It is a deep but cool intellectual examination of the role religion plays in the history of man.

      Despite his feelings on the movie, I found it fantastic. It was the screen debut for Jean Seberg, who would find herself permanently fixed in film history through her appearance in the French New Wave stand-by Breathless. She was selected through an open casting call process that included 18,000 rivals for the part. Audrey Hepburn was also supposedly considered for the role but turned it down. Jean does such a unbelievably good job, that one should find it hard to believe she was inexperienced. Her stand-by short haircut fit perfectly with the woman-warrior part as she was one of the few women who can get away with a man’s hairdo and dress and maintain a feminine beauty.

     The story follows Joan of Arc as she approaches the Dauphin of France (Richard Widmark), a man-child whom Joan would convince to pursue being formally named King Charles VII. She also persuades the man to give her an army to run the English out of the country. Once Charles has taken power, however, he casts Joan off having no further need of her. The 17-year-old girl’s action also have made her important enemies who slander her as a witch. Once released from the protection of the king, she is arrested for heresy with the Catholic church standing against her and the voices she hears. She is imprisoned, tortured and given every opportunity to recant her words, but each time she speaks, she further incriminates herself as a heretic. She at one point agrees to recant when burning at the stake is put before her, but when she learns that she will not be set free but instead imprisoned for the remainder of her life, Joan calls for the fire.

     The actual burning scene is intriguing. Special effects depict the flames shooting up in front of Seberg’s face as the girl wilts and passes out before the fire become too mighty to see what lies within. Filming of this instance resulted in the actual burning of the actress when the effects went wrong. Seberg only suffered minor burning on her stomach and hand.

Source: TCM.com

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