Remember Victor Laszlo, the most boring character in Casablanca? If you’ve ever wondered what Victor did next when he flew off into the night with his wife Ilsa, leaving Humphrey Bogart and Claude Reins to play bromantic footsie on the airport tarmac, Watch on the Rhine is as near as you’re going to get to an answer.
Paul Heinried, who played Laszlo, was offered the role of the noble anti-fascist activist hero of Watch on the Rhine but turned it down, claiming he didn’t want to be typecast, leaving Paul Lukas to pick up the work (and a Best Actor Oscar) as the Laszlo near-duplicate, Kurt Muller, a German whose tireless agitating in Nazi-occupied European territories has left him a broken man.
Now, having fled Europe with his American wife and three children, the Mullers have wound up in his wife’s family’s ancestral home, where life goes on and war seems a long way away. Also in the home, also refugees from Europe, are the Romanian artistocratic couple Count Teck von Brancovis (George Coulouris) and his wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Around them spin materfamilias Fanny Farrelly (Lucile Watson), her still-single-but-with-eyes-on-the-countess son David (Donald Woods), a dithery maiden aunt called Anise (Beulah Bondi) plus various servants.
In a house that stands as America – blithely isolated, well-to-do, decent – Lillian Hellman, who wrote the original play, and her lover Dashiell Hammett, who did the screen adaptation, spin a story about war never being quite as remote as you might wish. The count, it turns out, is a Nazi fellow traveller and is scheming with dark forces at the local German embassy. A showdown with Kurt appears inevitable.
It’s hardly a big name cast – most of them had transferred over from the Broadway production – but it does boast Bette Davis as Sara Farrelly-Muller, Kurt’s wife. Davis gets top billing though it’s a second banana role, slightly beefed up just for her, and she took it because she supported the play’s sentiments, and loved Hellman’s writing.
The writing is important, because this is potentially stodgy stuff, which Hellman and Hammett work hard at lightening up – so many characters twinkling away saying wittty things, particularly the double act of Fanny (a particularly good Watson) and Anise (also light as air), while at the German embassy a batch of colourful baddies add extra flavour, particularly the brilliantly sinister Kurt Katch as Herr Blecher (a name that sounds like the act of vomiting), a distillation of the nasty Nazi and everything that Kurt is fighting against.
The director is Herman Shumlin, who’d directed and produced the play on Broadway, and this is his first movie. He does a good job with the camera (thanks largely to assistance by his DP Hal Mohr, who replaced Merritt Gerstad), though fares less well with Davis early on, who is aiming for the back of the circle with a performance of almost insane chutzpah. Either he gets a grip on her or she realises she’s overdoing it, but she does eventually calm down and slot in, in actorly style doing for Lukas what Sara is doing for her husband, being solid support.
The Oscar for Lukas is obviously a bit of virtue signalling by Hollywood – it was ever thus – but he is genuinely good in the role, the insufferable self-sacrifice (noble though it is, it’s never that much fun to watch) tempered with the sense that Kurt has seen terrible things. When it starts to look like Kurt must return to Europe on what is likely a suicide mission, Lukas catches the feeling of a man inwardly quailing but outwardly putting on a brave show.
Kurt isn’t Victor Laszlo Part II – the play that Casablanca was based on was unproduced until the 1990s and Hellman’s play was on Broadway before the movie Casablanca had even been made – but he’s as near as makes no difference. Both dramas have the same subject – selflessness – and both approach the material the same way, filling the screen with colourful characters and witty speeches to sugar the pill. It works in both cases. Not as well here as in Casablanca – one of the most relentlessly rewatchable films ever made – but don’t let that put you off.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022