Saturday, November 02, 2013

Judgment at Nuremberg & Odd Man Out

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

I was not too excited at the prospect of another courtroom drama, more than three hours long, directed by Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's most earnest and socially committed liberal of the early 60s (whose films have been turning up in my program at a prodigious rate over the last year), and featuring a cast loaded with superstars signed up for a film which already promised to be more self-consciously important than most people raised in this cynical generation can stomach. In spite of a lot of what one would instinctively dread about this movie being in fact true--it does take itself very seriously, it is grandiose (it opens with a five minute "overture" during which Nazi music plays over a black screen with the word "Overture" spelled out in white), some of the big name stars are a bit too big for the roles they are asked to play, and overdo them--its sincerity and confidence in its importance, and maybe the importance of human existence, are genuine enough, and strong enough, to relegate these potential flaws to a rather minor status.

Stanley Kramer is not a master of subtlety or the small but telling detail, but he seems to have been one of the more sincere directors, and strongest in his beliefs, who ever worked in this country. This is no doubt his magnum opus. Inherit the Wind, which came out the previous year and which I found myself grudgingly admiring in many of its aspects, was a good warmup for this, as there are obvious similarities between the two. Nuremberg has more plotlines and characters and covers quite a lot of ground. One of the most important, and, relating to Kramer, characteristic parts of the movie is the ten minute interlude near the middle where he simply shows the actual documentary footage from the concentration camps, which evidently in 1961 had never been seen by the general public before, at least in the United States. I appreciate the way that it was done. It is not thrust or flung out at the audience demanding that it take in and acknowledge at once all the pertinent facts of the case, and feel viscerally a certain response that the artist or historian thinks you ought to feel but has not adequately prepared you to feel. Kramer is very strong on this preparation, and did not break out the footage until a critical moment arrives in the trial, when its impact will have some weight behind it, and not immediately invoke a purely shocking or emotional response. The effect is more "Can you believe this happened?" rather than "You didn't know this thing I have shown you was going on, well, now you can't plead ignorance anymore, so what do you intend to do, or at least emote, about it? Also feel free to squirm under my moral superiority," which is how I often experience the presentation of atrocities or injustices in films and other public forums.

Burt Lancaster is one of the many big names in this. There was a time, especially in the early 60s, when you could not keep him out of a classic film. I think this is the fifth time I have seen him, with 3 being in the '61-'64 period (the other two being The Leopard and The Train). I didn't recognize him until the movie was practically over, so believable was he as a dignified German. I guess that means he did a good job. Marlene Dietrich was back again,and gave the picture something it wouldn't have had otherwise. Maximilian Schell won the Oscar--he is notable to me as Maria Schell's brother anyway. They were Austrian. Austrians, as actors, directors, composers, etc., I probably don't need to tell you, were prominent, and very able, at all levels of Hollywood in the middle of the last century. The Austrians who came of age in the years just before World War I were one of the more artistically accomplished cohorts in the history of the world. And now they are extinct.

I am falling asleep--but I must finish this post tonight.

Judy Garland was in this, at age 39. She is not terrible in it, as some have written, but they really could have gotten someone else to play the part--they didn't need Judy Garland for it. I also think they may have given her an Oscar for this, which was ridiculous. I feel similarly about Montgomery Clift's appearance to what I do about Judy Garland's. He's not giving you anything you would not have gotten from a relative unknown. Spencer Tracy is the star, which I had not realized beforehand. I won't say that he was miscast, but that his persona seems strange in this setting. He plays his usual upstanding adult middle American role here, fundamentally decent, incorruptible, adhering to common sense and measured, all of which is good and well, but we're trying Nazis here, very brilliant and in many cases intimidatingly accomplished ones. Were amiable provincial judges like Spencer Tracy really who we sent to deal with these guys?

For all this, the movie does work. I think it is because it doesn't just care that the Nazis killed millions of people and got (sort of) punished for it, but it cares about the way that they were able to do it, by perverting the laws and all of the other institutions of society that might have been able to oppose it. And yes, we all sort of know this, but we probably don't spend as much time thinking coherently about it as we should, and the point that Stanley Kramer would make is that if we have any part of a working brain, we are responsible, even if we consider ourselves to be powerless nobodies without proper credentials for critique, for the perversion of these institutions and bulwarks of civilization in our own society; and I actually still believe this to be true, which probably accounts for why I am unable to be happy about anything going on in contemporary life.

Odd Man Out (1947)

This is a good movie, but I am on the clock, so my review is going to be choppy, and brief.

Postwar Britain--set in Northern Ireland, but I assume it was filmed in one of the London studios. Directed by Carol Reed, in one of his warmups for The Third Man, which came out two years afterwards. That time, for me, has in general an atmosphere that I find strongly appealing, at least for the purpose of watching movies, but the atmosphere in this--the relentlessly dreary weather, the darkness, the cold, the dingy houses and apartments and pubs--is really what makes the film. The plot is improbable, but it does not strike me as particularly important. Politics also,surprisingly, don't seem important. The main character, who is played by James Mason, is an IRA type, and the viewer, as well as many of the minor characters whom he encounters in the film, are sympathetic to him, and the police are undoubtedly the villians, but I certainly did not feel that the movie contained any kind of blatant pro-IRA message, nor can I believe any suggestion of one would have been permitted in 1947, the censors in Britain at that time being even more severe than they were in America. The IRA aspect provides a subject and a framework for the director and his assistants to undertake an artistic exercise. Later in life, James Mason apparently said that this was favorite among the films he had been in. I wonder why, given that in most of the movie he doesn't say or do much, drifting in and out of consciousness due to having been shot in the arm and at his most vigorous dragging himself from one hiding spot to another, usually wordless. That is what he felt however.

I watched this on VHS, though the place I ordered it from sent me a burned DVD of the movie as well. I enjoyed viewing it on tape. I cannot remember why. It does fill up the whole screen, or more of it, than most DVDs do.

1 comment:

mm45 said...

I just realized that in that run of movies from '61-'64 Lancaster played a German, an Italian (Sicilian) and a Frenchman respectively. All three of these movies had substantial international casts too.