Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on July 24, 1944
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Written by Helen Deutsch, based on the book by Anna Seghers
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Signe Hasso, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Agnes Moorehead, Herbert Rudley, Felix Bressart, Ray Collins, George Macready, Kaaren Verne, George Zucco, Steven Geray, Hugh Beaumont, Robert Blake
Crystal over at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has once again invited me to take part in one of her fun blogathons, this one spotlighting the films of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, whether they’d appeared together or had branched out on their own. I chose to go with a Tracy solo effort I’d seen many years ago and really liked, and one that many people may not have heard of, but is certainly worth checking out: a World War II prison escape thriller titled The Seventh Cross.
Tracy plays George Heisler, one of seven men who escape from a German concentration camp and try to reach safe haven in another town, where they’ll be supplied with clothes, money, and passports. One by one the men are captured or killed, and those who survive are returned to the camp, where they’re strung up on makeshift crosses and left to die. Heisler is the last of them yet to be caught; exhausted and hungry, he slowly works his way through local villages and across open country, encountering danger at every turn and doing whatever he can to avoid arrest. But always waiting for him, standing a lonely vigil back at the camp, is the one remaining cross…the seventh cross.
One of the many things I liked about this early effort from director Fred Zinnemann was how the story concentrated more on the human side of the war than the action-oriented aspect of it. Specifically, with the grim and determined Heisler, who begins his journey filled with hate, a man ‘beaten to a hollow husk’ by his bleak situation, but who eventually regains his optimism towards life. It takes time, but soon the goodness, kindness, and bravery he sees in both friends and strangers crack his facade, and by film’s end he comes to realize that hope is not lost for humanity after all.
This revelation really grabs hold during the second half of the film, when Heisler runs out of options and turns to a friend he knew years ago for help. The story takes off from here, and was my favorite part of the film; Heisler meets up with the friend, Paul Roeder (played by an Oscar-nominated Hume Cronyn, who was simply outstanding), and from there he’s put in contact with the German underground, who do everything possible—and risk their own lives doing it—to get Heisler safely out of the country. Also offering assistance is a kindhearted housekeeper at a nearby inn, the lovely Signe Hasso, who basically gives Heisler a reason to live.
As for Tracy, I thought he did a great job here, as he’s done with every role I’ve ever seen him in, from Fury all the way to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. What impressed me about his portrayal of Heisler, and was something I didn’t catch until later, was how impassively he played the character at the start, but how his expression and mood began to open up over the course of the film. It took me a while to become aware of this transformation, but it finally clicked, and then I watched as his face became more alive and animated once people began offering their help, and proving to him there was still some good left in the world. Truly the mark of an exceptional actor, and one whose skills were rewarded with a record nine best actor Academy Award nominations over a long and successful career.
This was a superior wartime suspense drama, filled with many small but effective moments, as well as some outstanding performances, solid direction from Zinnemann, and a look at Nazi Germany through the eyes of Germans on both sides of the fence. As I mentioned, I saw The Seventh Cross years ago and really enjoyed it, and this second viewing hasn’t diminished my feelings towards it at all. It may take its time getting to where it’s going, but once there, you’ll find it’s definitely worth the trip. And though I’ve been smitten with Signe Hasso for many years now, I must admit that Jessica Tandy was fairly damn foxy when she was young. (8/10)