Bruce Kauffman 7:30 a.m., March 11
Grate Cinema: Hitler, Dead or Alive! (1942)
And you thought Inglorious Basterds was the only war film to do away with Hitler before the final fade.
If you worked as a Hollywood contract player during the war years, chances are you encountered a Nazi or two. Bogart, Joan Crawford, Robert Young, Daffy Duck, The Three Stooges, even Sherlock Holmes, all did battle with the Krauts. Prior to public disclosure of the true depths of Hitler's atrocities, Hollywood produced propaganda films that portrayed Nazi's as goose-stepping bozos. None is funnier or more ill conceived than this grade 'Z' programmer.
Fritz Lang's masterwork Man Hunt (1941) tells the story of a British hunter vacationing in Bavaria who draws a bead on Hitler. While contemplating the moral implications of pulling the trigger, he is discovered and a fantastic tale of guilt and paranoia begins to unfold. The idea of hunter-meets-Hitler was probably the impetus for the project. If nothing else, it gave veteran character actor Ward Bond a rare shot at a starring role.
A pair of Central Casting types, hired for their uncanny resemblance to crusading reporters from the National News Service, are unwilling to print a prepared statement on a story that places a bounty on Hitler's head. The duo must track down Dr. Samuel Thornton (Russell Hicks) and ascertain exactly why he's offering to fork over a million of his own greenbacks in return for the capture of Hitler, dead or alive. In spite of the strict instructions Dr. Thornton left not to be disturbed, the mere mention of all-American Johnny Stevens' (Bruce Edwards) name causes his secretary to grant the 'journalists' instance access. That plus the fact that we have a flashback to get to.
Warren Hymer, Ward Bond, and Paul Fix.
Thornton recounts the story of Steve,Joe and Dutch (Ward Bond, Paul Fix and Warren Hymer), three chowder-headed hoods/income tax evaders fresh from a 12-year stretch in the joint, and eager to split a million-dollar reward. Joe is the brains of the group, such as they are, Dutch, the nominal comic relief, and Steve the brawn ("Look, toots,” he barks at a meek secretary, “tell Thornton he can play with his toys later. We wanna' see him now!”) Thornton's brother was killed by the Gestapo and the bounty is his way of enacting his revenge on, "the little guy with the trick mustache." Hitler is a mobster and can be easily had like all other crooks. All's it'll takes is three smart saps familiar with the angles, see?
In light of the trio's proven record of failure, the sales pitch wins Thornton over and he calls his mouthpiece to draw up contracts in order to, "close up that Hitler deal." Don't worry about the language barrier. Steve used to run a beer racket in Milwaukee, and speaks fluent Meister Brau. Sadly, his attempt to convince Thornton to throw a little extra pocket change their way if they make it a Hitler/Mussolini two-for-one deal is shot down with a dissolve.
Here's the plan - by train they "somehow managed" (even the narrator is unsure exactly how) to make it to a recruiting station in Canada and join the RAF. Traveling by convoy (and stock footage) across the North Atlantic, they land "somewhere in England," and become paratroopers. Steve strong-arms everybody off the plane and forces pilot Johnny Stevens to fly them to Nazi Germany. The professional actors were either off fighting or unattainable due to budgetary limitations. The studio had to make due with Bruce Edwards who may look the part, but can't convincingly read dialogue.
Fried Nazi, going down!
With a Gerry hot on their tail, Superman Steve grabs a Tommy gun, flings open the plane's door and commences firing. A little "rat-a-tat-tat" sound FX, some more stock footage and Voila!, another dead Heinie! Do not question the probability of one man standing in the open door of a flying aircraft and successfully shooting down another plane. Nothing can stop these American propagandists on their patriotic, albeit capitalistically motivated, mission.
No sooner does Steve crack a self-congratulatory smile over taking down the Nazi rat than their plane runs out of fuel, forcing a landing 200 miles west of Berlin. Apparently a day-for-night filter was not written into the budget; the clock reads high noon, but a flashlight is still needed to consult the map. Steve pulls over a truck that, as luck and precise comic coincidence would have it, is loaded with beer! In their poorly executed (and lit) mock truck cab, the boys crack open some brewskis, break into a chorus of Ach Du Lieber Halstead Street and steer in the direction of Herr Schickelgruber.
Morning finds the enemy in hot pursuit. Those Nutzys were smart enough to create a master race and exterminate millions, but they are still no match against our four knucklehead heroes. Not only does charmer Steve talk the head monkey out of gas and grub, he also coaxes a personal escort. Sealing the deal with a couple of "Heil Hitler's," our heroes are taken directly to Dachau.
Feigning allegiance to the Nazi flag, the boys face interrogation under the monocled-eye of Col. Klink prototype Colonel Hecht (Felix Basch). Leave it to wacky Dutch to lighten the load. When asked what base he left from, the lunkhead cracks, "Alcatraz," a fact Hecht immediately makes note of. After being placed in protective custody until a meeting with Hitler can be arranged, the wacky comic foil quickly finds the bugging device in his cell and uses it to call room service.
Hecht confesses his jealousy of the Americans to shapely Countess Greta (Fee 'Faye' Wall). Knowing that these men are exactly the type the Fuhrer would employ for a desperate mission, he cringes at the thought of their bringing Hitler the message that could spell victory. Thank goodness Greta is a right-thinking Nazi-ess who places her love of country over that of a bald, one-dimensional kartoon Kraut. Greta consents to one kiss, but when it comes to seconds, Hecht is shown both an outstretched arm and the door. As soon as he's out of the picture, Greta's Butch, necktie-wearing lover comes out of hiding. Before turning to execute her orders, the inexperienced actress shoots a "How did I do?" glance directly into the camera.
Back in their airy, sun-drenched cell the boys gripe about prison food. A playing card found in the gruel raises no questions of espionage (or hygiene), and Johnny tosses it to the floor. His sudden return to prison life causes Bond to go all “Felix Unger” and complain about keeping the quarters clean in fear of attracting ants. Only after the card is returned to the table and passes through three sets of hands do these cretins finally get around to noticing the message printed on it. (How these dolts manage to coordinate their right foot with the right shoe, let alone tracking Hitler, is a bigger mystery.) Using the mush to muffle the microphone, the boys, probably too illiterate to make it through a sentence, phonetically sound out the two-word message which is signed simply, "Rosebud." It's bad enough that I cited cinematic deity Fritz Lang as a possible influence on this slop. To evoke the 'K' word would be unclean.
Overpowering the umbday uardgays, all but low-man-out Johnny get to don spiffy Nazi uniforms. What better way to foreshadow an upcoming shift in tone than by killing off your comic relief? While making their escape, Dutch falls from a moving car as the Nazis air condition it with bullets. As fate, along with budgetary and creative restrictions, would have it, Rosebud Greta is the one passenger left on board. She convinces them to lay low until a daytime hiding place can be arranged. "What a dame! More dangerous than a pocketful of loose razor blades."
Another sun-drenched nightfall gives Steve and Johnny a chance to mourn the passing of poor old Dutch: "A man can't ask of a better way to die than protecting his friends." I don't know. Old age springs to mind.
Suddenly we hear the first seven notes of "Yankee Doodle," "the only tune no Nazi would ever whistle." It's Greta's emissary Meyer (Frederick Giermann) dispatched to find them. Still believing the boys were sent to deliver a message to Hitler, Greta must make her hatred of Nazism explicit. Steve reveals his plan: after any big shot is assassinated, it generally takes 10 to 15 minutes for witnesses to return to their senses. Knowing that he can capitalize on this time, Steve just needs to "get close enough to whisper in Hitler's ear."
Ward Bond's emphatic pleas for the "Keeeeeeds!" are so compelling, they should have rewarded him with hosting duties of a Telethon.
Following a good night's sleep (and a shave in an ominous cracked-mirror), Steve and his confreres chow down. As Meyer waits on them, the messenger tells his story of saving Hitler's life 20 years earlier. After delivering a beer hall speech, some angry students beat der future Fuhrer with broken beer steins that left a permanent scar on his upper lip. Young doctor Meyer nursed Adolf back to health, but his gratitude turned to hatred over the disfigurement. It was Meyer's botched handiwork that forced Hitler to grow his trademarked electrical-tape mustache.
Hecht and a bunch of goons appear and it's about now that the laughs quicken to the point of delirium. Steve overhears talk of slaughtering the innocent. Ward Bond's pathos-laden delivery of "Women, and...kids!" cannot be described in print and must be experienced to be believed. The way he punches, "Keeeeeeds!" is a scream, funnier than even Mr. T's pronunciation. An enraged close-up follows: "Just let me get my hands on that Hitler. Just once!" he growls shaking his fist. Why you, I oughta’! Ward Bond, phenomenal in character roles, could not carry a serious feature, let alone this pap, by himself. Aptly-named director Nick Grinde lacks the skillful sentimentalism behind the camera that John Ford intuitively brings. When Ward goes soft and sloppy, he doesn't have the range to back it up, and the nitrous-perfume of tough guy turned maudlin ham dizzies the viewer.
The Storm troopers are issued their orders. "Search everywhere! Miss nothing! Be quick about it!" Showing off in front of the dame, Hecht is pleased to report that the house passes inspection. He arranges for Greta to dance with Hitler at a "coffee and" at Dolf's country home later that evening. We soon discover that not unlike the Munster's pet Spot, the boys are kept beneath a trap-door staircase. Figuring the only way into the gala is via disguise, they waylay Greta's musicians and, with the help of the studio's makeup department and some monkey suits, masquerade as a quartet. (Johnny's sideburns are particularly convincing.)
Bobby Watson and Bobs Watson.
At last the time arrives for the appearance of our title character. Playing Germany's #1 Nazi is Bobby Watson, Hollywood's #1 Hitler. Between 1942 and 1962 Watson was cast a record ten times in the role of Best Fascist Dictator. Don't confuse Bobby with Bobs Watson, the nauseating tyke who steals gumdrops from Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, and gets dragged through the streets of Dodge City in order to provide motivation for Errol Flynn's revenge.
Hitler enters to music best befitting a Walter Lantz cartoon. As the leader of free, Aryan Germany, Watson is all about exchanging "D's" for "Th" (dem, dis), transposing "W's" for "V's" ("Vee vill conquer de vorld!"), and siphonous "sh's." His dialogue is the stuff newspaper headlines are made of. When Steve is finally able to get his mitts on Adolf, Watson's cries of "Stop shootin'! Stop shootin'" sound more like a wail from a Hoboken heroin den. One slip up and Hitler will "be turned into dog meat. And not very good dog meat at that." Watching Watson squirm as Bond's captive marks the film's funniest moment.
Hitler loses his personality.
Joe is killed and Johnny and Greta make it to the plane leaving Dutch and Steve to look after Hitler. The duo manages to bring "old drizzle-puss" back to their hideout. A quick shave proves Hitler to be the real deal. Steve even goes so far as to snip that famous tussled lock rendering Dolf all but unrecognizable. Proving that it's never too late for a touch of expressionism, no matter how cheezy, Hitler's death at Hecht's hand appears visually out of synch with everything that came before. Hitler runs into a frame containing two black-barred windows and a curbside horizon line. Splattered across the wall are reflective shadows of dancing flames. When did the concept of composition suddenly enter this movie?
Here's the hilarious, heart-tugging kicker. We hear infants crying, yet only adolescents are marched into a frame similar to the above-mentioned one. Cut to a horse-choking close-up of a stunned Bond and brace yourself for another, deeply felt, unbearably maudlin, "KEEEEEEDS!!!" Ward is thrown his last bit of speech-making and only a bullet can finally shut him the hell up. Even so, he manages to finish one last line of precious dialogue before finally collapsing. I'd hate to have to clean up the shell casings left over from the dialogue bombs these actors were paid to proudly propel.
Dr. Thornton's closing summation of the events proves he knew what a dispensable, jar-headed dupa Steve was. "So Steve died, voicing in his own crude way the conviction of millions." In his final, Oscar-deserving close-up, the good doctor admits that killing one individual could never end war. He also manages to turn the guilt on an audience compelled by what they just witnessed to get out there purchase war bonds. It's a lot easier than buying into Ward Bond as Simon Wiesenthal.
No mention is made of what became of Johnny and Greta. Who cares? They were Natzy rats in need of being dealt with, and in the end, their destinies were slighted in favor of gung-ho producer Ben Judell's propagandistic message. I fell in love with this film the first time I saw it on USA's Night Flight. My VHS copy has more creases than Oprah’s tuchas, and I was delighted to find it on DVD, even in its current fuzzy condition. Until Criterion stops putting out all those sub-titled, hand-held picture shows, and turns their attention to poverty row pulp, we'll have to make due with Alpha Video's badly telecined, ninth-generation bathtub dupe.
Viewer indiscretion is advised.
This column is a revised version of a March 25, 2005 review from the now defunct Emulsion Compulsion blog.
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