Awkward, but affecting, Jean Renoir’s second American film, co-produced & scripted with Dudley Nichols, is a WWII resistance story set ‘Somewhere In Europe.’ (Read France.) Charles Laughton, by turns embarrassing & revelatory (often at one & the same time), is a pathologically timid schoolteacher with a mother complex and a crush on fellow teacher Maureen O’Hara. He’s put to a stress test as the town splits between get-along types; self-justifying collaborators like O’Hara’s fiancé George Sanders; venal collaborators (like the Mayor); and heroic undercover resistance fighters printing subversive leaflets or throwing bombs (like O’Hara’s devil-may-care brother Kent Smith). Nichols' script works up considerable narrative tension pulling these dramatic threads in front of the nose of Nazi Officer Walter Slezak, but then hurts his own cause overwriting character & motivation. We keep stopping for a clarifying speech. And no one gets more of them than Laughton, especially when uplifted to patriotic conspirator, grabbing the martyr’s torch at his murder trial. It’s a stunning display of courtroom theatrics, as is his fear-induced blubbery panic attack during an air raid, and a masterful coughing fit upon trying a first cigarette (a truly inspired scene). But when did he earn this degree in theatrical public speaking? Just too many fits & starts in Nichols’ script. While Renoir, though the film did nicely on its small budget, is ill at ease working inside the Hollywood system, and in spite of some notable action sequences, unable to find a French walking pace working in English.
DOUBLE-BILL: *The same year saw fellow filmmaking exiles Fritz Lang & Douglas Sirk, in HANGMEN ALSO DIE/’43 and HITLER’S MADMEN/’43, release similar Nazi Occupation stories.
LINK: And 1943 also saw the release of Humphrey Jennings’ documentary-styled THE SILENT VILLAGE, which used the town of Cwmgiedd, Wales to tell of the Nazi annihilation of Lidice, Czechoslovakia.