Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. Every day Monday-Friday I’ll be reviewing a film I haven’t seen before. Each film will be connected in some way to the film before it, be it by actor, director, writer, etc. It’s a great time to be a film explorer, with TCM’s amazing programming, Netflix Watch Instant’s large library and studios starting up boutique burn-on-demand DVD services for their more obscure vault titles. So, I’m going exploring and I hope you guys will join me on my cinematic expedition.]
Obi-Wan as Hitler today! Oh, yes. But first Buster Keaton joins an Indian tribe in today’s BK short called The Paleface which can be found in Kino’s fantastic Buster Keaton Shorts Collection!
I’ve commented on how much Keaton’s work here surely influenced Looney Tunes, but watching today’s short it struck me that I might only be scratching the surface with that comparison. I’m sure Keaton’s humor did influence those brilliant artists and writers, but it’s not just that the comedy is silly. What Keaton (and later Looney Tunes) was so damn good at was utilizing children’s logic.
In yesterday’s short, The Boat, we saw that with Keaton nailing a pancake over a leaking hole in the boat and it working to solve the problem. Here we have a similar use of children’s logic when Keaton is being chased by a pissed off Indian tribe who wants to burn him at the stake. He holes up in a house as the Indians are trying to beat down the door. He finds a roll of asbestos and tailors himself long underwear made out of the flame resistant material and thus survives his own bonfire.
I think this may be the key to Keaton’s longevity. We all have a frame of reference for child’s logic because we’ve all had to somehow survive through that mindset.
Anyway, that’s just an observation.
I know judging only from the above picture you might think this is one of those embarrassing culturally insensitive comedy shorts of the time, but it actually doesn’t paint the Indians in that much of a stereotypical light. They’re actually the victims here, robbed of their land (quite literally as the deed is stolen from one of them by a greedy banker) and when they find out about it the chief (Keaton regular fat-guy-for-all-occasions Joe Roberts) declares that the first white man to step foot past their gates is to be killed.
Enter hapless butterfly catcher Buster Keaton who has no idea why these guys are so pissed off and has to escape them. By crafting his asbestos suit and surviving the bonfire he is worshipped by the tribe and made a member. Together they try to right the wrong of the greedy white man, which leads to a miraculous chase sequence that involves a hell of an amazing stunt.
There comes a point where Keaton has to cross a partially completed rope bridge that only has a few wooden planks. The fall is easily 40-50 feet and Keaton sits on the planks, grabs the two he’s not currently sitting on and moves them behind him and inches back. So he slowly makes his way across the chasm that way. When you realize those planks aren’t in any way secured to the rope bridge (with no hand rails, by the way) it really makes me wonder how the hell he survived that sequence.
So, another winner from Keaton. I’m loving these and I hope some of you are following along as well. Now let’s move on to today’s feature!
I can not understate just how fucking weird it is to watch Obi-Wan Kenobi as Hitler. I don’t mean Alec Guinness, by the way. I mean Obi-Wan Kenobi. This film was just a few short years before he joined up with that silly sci-fi film and Hitler Guinness has all the ticks, body movements and speech patterns as Obi-Wan. I’ve seen many Alec Guinness films, so it’s not that I only associate the man with Star Wars, but when he got to this stage of his career his performances changed across the board. It could be his age, it could be an artistic choice, but whatever it is that meant I got to see Adolf-Wan Kenobi for a couple of hours and for that I’m grateful.
It also doesn’t hurt that at no point at all does Guinness (or anybody else for that matter) try to adopt a German accent and just goes with this natural posh English accent.
The film itself is a little on the weird side. They cut together a whole lotta real footage from WWII, including a disturbing amount of concentration camp stuff. Dramatically it plays out exactly like Downfall, all in the bunker as Hitler realizes the war is lost.
In fact, they even have that exact same scene that has been memed to hell and back… you know the one… Hitler Finds Out About X. (This is one of my favorites.) Beat for beat that scene is in Hitler: The Last 10 Days. Shaky hand removing his glasses, him asking all but the top men to stay in the room, Hitler going into a rage, the reaction shots from outside as people hear the muffled yelling… It’s all here, except in proper English and with Obi-Wan shouting the lines.
A notice at the start of the film claims that everything that happened in the bunker was witness firsthand by Captain Hoffman (played in the film by Simon Ward), which I assume was also the basis of all the material used in Deadfall, so it’s no surprise that the two films are so similar.
One pleasant surprise was just how many great English character actors were in the film. It seemed that all of Hitler’s most trusted comrades made their mark in geek roles, be it Joss Ackland (the bad guy in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), Adolfo Celi (Thunderball) or Julian Glover (Walter Donovan and General Veers in Empire).
The great cast and interesting subject matter really made a difference in keeping the pace up. Hitler was working until the end. Even with the Soviets surrounding Berlin he thought he could still pull the war out. That combination of arrogance and ruthless certainty is quite potent and Guinness milks it for all its worth.
Also to his credit, you kind of feel bad for poor ol’ Adolf when he starts to realize he’s losing control. He slips into delusion quickly, gripping onto any piece of good news he can (like a rumor that the Soviets and US forces are turning on each other), which makes him pathetic instead of the pure evil most of us see him as today.
The way they show his relationship with Eva Braun and how much she adores him also gives us a different point of view on the man. Braun is played by the lovely, but unfortunately named Doris Kunstmann and is strangely sympathetic. Hitler’s never painted in a positive light, but we do see her love of him in a way that isn’t as culty as the rest of the people in the bunker.
Speaking of culty, I had totally forgotten that Hitler had dispatched thousands of Hitler Youth to defend Berlin as a last ditch effort to keep the Allied forces at bay. His cold justification of this is one of the most chilling parts of Guinness’ performance because it’s so casually self-centered that even his higher ups are like, “Dude, kids? Really?”
Simon Ward isn’t given a whole lot to do here besides stand in the background and observe. Since it’s his character that testified to the accuracy of this story I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure out that he leaves the bunker before the suicides start. He is given one moment of disobedience at the end of the movie, but that’s about the only meat the character has.
There’s only one real star of this film and that’s Guinness as Hitler, which is as it should be. Word is that Guinness said this performance was the only one of his career that he felt 100% satisfied with and I can see why. Everything depends on him. The rest of the cast adds flavor, but he’s the focus and everything depends on him.
I don’t know if I prefer his work here to Star Wars, Murder By Death or The Ladykillers, but from an actor’s perspective I understand where he’s coming from.
Final Thoughts: The film is odd with its overuse of actual WW2 footage, but at the end of the day you’re interested in watching it to see Alec Guinness play Adolf Hitler and he knocks it out of the park so it’s an easy recommend. Add in some good dramatic structure and a cast of recognizable English character actors and you have a very solid flick.
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
YOUNG WINSTON (1972)
A REFLECTION OF FEAR (1973)
THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH (1975)
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)
In a nice bit of serendipity we’re following Simon Ward over to Young Winston. We go from Mr. Ward playing a Nazi to Winston Churchill! See you tomorrow for that one.
Previous A Movie A Day (2013) Titles: