Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Emeric Pressburger, story co-written with Rodney Ackland
Stars: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns (The Court Jester)
The Story: A Nazi U-Boat crew, after getting bombed in Hudson Bay, must smuggle themselves across Canada, seeking the safety of neutral America across the titular line. What they haven’t counted on is the bravery of the Canadian people. One by one, the crew gets picked off as they flee through a series of Canuck communities.
How it Came to be Underrated: Though it did win a screenplay Oscar, Americans aren’t big fans of movies that imply we’re a bunch of Nazi-loving shirkers who lack the courage of our neighbors to the north. As a result, this hasn’t been re-run anywhere near as often as other WW2 classics.
Why It’s Great:
- Powell’s more personal movies, like Black Narcissus, were bizarrely expressionist, but he was equally good at making straightforward nail-biters. Of course, they always reflected his ear for ironic dialogue, his love for quirky personalities, and his flinty humanism.
- Since it was a good script for a good cause, this attracted an all-star line up both in front of and behind the camera (it was edited by David Lean and shot by his future collaborator Freddie Young) Olivier was the biggest star at the time but he gives the weakest performance, chewing the scenery as a broadly-sketched French-Canadian trapper. He doesn’t stick around for very long, though, as there’s still a long parade of heroic Canadians to showcase.
- Though the Nazis were bombing the hell out of Britain and the writer was of Hungarian Jewish extraction, they still choose to create three-dimensional villain-protagonists. How better to condemn villains than to humanize them? Monsters can’t be blamed for their actions, but humans who choose to do evil are fully culpable.
- In one neat little scene, the Nazis have taken refuge with an unsuspecting community of Hutterites. One complains to a local about the terrible bread, which leads to an explanation of how work is assigned on the commune, each according to his ability. And what do you do? Well, the local admits with some embarrassment, I’m the baker. It’s a nice reminder that each bit of dialogue can have its own beginning, middle and end.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: In rapid succession, Powell and Pressburger made four crackerjack thrillers about the courage of various peoples that were standing up to the Nazis in the early days of the war. The other movies were Contraband (the Danes), The Spy in Black (the Scots), and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (the Dutch). This is the best but they’re all great.
How Available Is It?: It’s got a Criterion Collection DVD and it’s available to Watch Instantly (as are most of Powell’s films!).
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