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Claude Rains

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

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“Rope of Sand” – Burt Lancaster in North Africa

Rope of Sand (Olive)

Set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of Casablanca, Rope of Sand (1949) recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains). She’s a beauty, to be sure, and plays the part as a sex kitten with claws, but she’s not convincingly worldly next to the display of hard-bitten survival from the rest of the veteran cast.

The echoes to Casablanca (which was also produced by Hal Wallis) are unmistakable, and not just from the North African setting, expatriate characters and battle of wills. Rains plays Martingale as a cousin to Casablanca’s Louis in the corporate world, with a little more venom but just as susceptible to dramatic romantic gestures, and fellow Casablanca vets Paul Henreid (this time as a villain) and Peter Lorre (all drunken melancholy as a well-informed underworld hustler) fill out the top-billed cast. Even more fun than the battle of wills between the embittered Mike and Henreid’s vain, vicious Commandant Vogel (not a Nazi but certainly symbolically channeling the role) is the gleeful gamesmanship of Martingale, who hires Suzanne to play the two off one another for his own amusement (he delights in humiliating Vogel) as much as for business.

Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world with intimate indoor scenes in pools of illumination and outdoor scene played in the shadows as lights cut the darkness, in particular a muscular fist-fight in the desert lit by the headlamps of a halftrack. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir and a terrific rediscovery debuting on DVD in a fine B&W edition. No supplements from this bare bones Olive Films release.