The Stranger’s View

Last weekend I went to the cinema to see a movie set in my homeland. I suppose it qualifies as a kind of period piece now, the action taking place over 40 years ago. ’71 is a thriller which unfolds amid the Troubles in Belfast in the titular year. Frankly, it impressed me a lot, and not only because it recreated the world in which I grew up, with its tight pacing and essentially simple storytelling. As I watched it, and then reflected on it afterwards, I was struck by how the film tapped into the mentality of the people, my people, and thus offered a very honest portrayal of the times and circumstances. The director of this movie is Yann Demange, a man of French birth. This had me thinking how some of my favorite films set in my country had been directed by those who were basically outsiders – Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) and The Gentle Gunman (Basil Dearden) – yet managed to get under the skin of the people on the screen and perhaps see us more clearly as we really are.

It occurred to me then that this isn’t some isolated phenomenon confined to films set in Ireland. Hollywood in its heyday was packed with émigré directors who shaped the popular culture of the era. Film noir is one of my own favorite styles and came to be a staple of American cinema in the golden age, yet the movement was largely dominated by those born far from its shores – Lang, Wilder, Siodmak (who grew up in Germany), Tourneur, Brahm, Ulmer and many others besides. Isn’t it a little odd that such men should wind up as the biggest movers and shakers in what was arguably a generic American film movement? The western, which is the genre closest to my heart, has fewer examples of course, but directors such as Lang, Tourneur, De Toth and Fregonese still made significant contributions to its development.

So, I guess that’s the question for the day: is it sometimes more beneficial for a filmmaker to come at their subject, or indeed genre, free of the inevitable baggage an insider brings along? Does distance in some way sharpen perspective and allow a clearer appreciation? I’m not sure  there’s a definitive answer but if anyone feels inclined to offer their thoughts, they are most welcome.

 

Northern Pursuit

Well this is a first for me. The themed blogathon has grown in popularity and I’ve always wanted to contribute to one. The thing is I’ve never been one of those disciplined souls who’s felt able to commit himself to producing something appropriate on a given date. That said, when Kristina, the hostess of the always entertaining and informative Speakeasy, sounded me out and said she was running a blogathon in partnership with Ruth at Silver Screenings, well I thought I’d give it a go. The terms of reference are broad – Canada. I could pick anything I wanted so long as it pertained to Canada in some way. Well, I settled on Northern Pursuit (1943) as it stars one of my favorite actors, Errol Flynn, and was directed by the great Raoul Walsh. It’s a wartime propaganda piece, always interesting in themselves, and a good solid adventure/espionage yarn to boot.

A U-boat punches its way through the ice and deposits a party of German flyers on Canadian soil. The nature of their mission isn’t revealed – in fact, it doesn’t actually become apparent until quite late in the movie – and all we know is they are desperate to press on as quickly as possible into the inhospitable northern wilderness. Eventually the unforgiving conditions take their toll and an avalanche wipes out the whole party, save one man. Von Keller (Helmut Dantine) was the leader of the group and finds himself the sole survivor. He manfully struggles on through the wintry landscape until the elements overcome him. However, he’s a lucky man in many ways and is discovered just as he’s on the point of succumbing to exposure. Steve Wagner (Errol Flynn) and Jim Austin (John Ridgely) are a couple of Mounties out on patrol who happen to cut Von Keller’s trail just in time. The point where Von Keller is taken into custody is, for me anyway, the most intriguing part of the movie. Here we learn that Wagner is in fact of German descent and a sense of ambiguity is built up around the character and his motives. As viewers, we’re faced with a moral dilemma, one every bit as knotty as that apparently faced by the hero himself. Is it possible that the clean-cut and dashing Wagner could really be a Nazi sympathizer? The doubt lingers and is then fueled by the escape of Von Keller and a handful of his compatriots from an internment camp. Frankly, I feel it’s a little unfortunate that the allegiances of all the principals are revealed too early; while the remainder of the picture plays out as a reasonably tense and action-packed affair, the conventional nature of everyone’s behaviour is something of a disappointment after such a promising build up.

Despite the fact the film  was shot on Warner studio sets and on location in Idaho, it still acts as a showcase of sorts for the harshness and primal beauty of Canada’s far north. Cinematographer Sid Hickox captures some wonderful wintry images which are both forbidding and attractive. Walsh’s handling of the action scenes has all the assurance that typifies his work, and the quieter passages also bear his unmistakable stamp too. If you see enough of this director’s work, it soon becomes apparent how much he was interested in faces. There are close-ups throughout, quick cut reaction shots zeroing in on the actors which reveal more in an instant than reams of dull exposition could ever do. Now propaganda films can be a mixed bag, at their worst they can lay the jingoism on so thick it’s a bit of a chore to watch them. Northern Pursuit is one of the more interesting examples though. It gets its message across loud and clear yet there’s a thoughtfulness in the script which elevates it to an extent. For one thing, the grievances and dissatisfaction of the indigenous Indian population is touched upon, albeit in passing. The aspect that particularly drew my attention though was the treatment of Canadians of German extraction. A lesser film might well have opted for the simplistic approach and pandered to prejudice. To this film’s credit, the question of loyalty among the émigré community is dealt with in a balanced and enlightened way. The casting obviously plays a part, but the writers were also conscious of their responsibilities and saw to it that the complexities of such an issue were not neglected.

Flynn was still in his prime at this stage, although the trials and their aftermath would shepherd in his decline with remarkable swiftness. By his own admission, he was often simply walking through roles as his expenses mounted. His part in Northern Pursuit had some meat on its bones, although the potential isn’t fully developed. The first half of the movie holds out the prospect of a nuanced and subtly shaded characterization. That it’s not carried on into the latter stages isn’t Flynn’s fault though; the script moves in a much more traditional direction, and the result is a more one-dimensional (though still perfectly entertaining) portrayal. Helmut Dantine is strong in his role as the driven Von Keller, He also starts out better, coming across as grimly determined as opposed to the cold fanatic he reveals himself to be as the plot progresses. In a sense, the supporting players fare better over the 90 odd minutes. Julie Bishop, John Ridgely, Gene Lockhart and Tom Tully all turn in fine performances and see their roles evolve satisfactorily.

Warner Brothers released Northern Pursuit as part of an Errol Flynn adventure set some years ago, and the film looks pretty good on that DVD. It’s a nice clean transfer of a movie whose elements seem to have stayed in good shape – no distracting damage or major flaws. As far as I’m concerned anything with Flynn is highly watchable – the swashbuckler roles are certainly going to be ones he’s best remembered for, but I always enjoy seeing his other genre pictures. Northern Pursuit probably isn’t that well-known yet any collaboration between Flynn and Walsh is worth investing a little of one’s time in.

Submitted as part of the O Canada Blogathon – you can follow the other posts in this celebration of Canadian influences on cinema by clicking on the banner image below.