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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Counter-Attack (1945)

In 1942, Russia was getting ready to turn back the German advance and if the opening scenes are anything to go by that turnaround were organised and completed by a bunch of Brits and Americans. Entering from the wings comes my top pet peeve for war films: the general inability to work out which side is which. I'm no expert on military uniforms or insignia. Nazi uniforms tend to be pretty recognisable but everyone else's tend blur into one for me so I usually work by accents and it doesn't help when they're all wrong.

Though only a few attempt to sound remotely believable, these Brits and Americans are playing Russians and they're going to turn the tide by building a bridge underwater, using the sense of touch alone. This way the bridge will be built, under the unseeing eyes of the enemy, and will sit there effectively invisible just below the surface, ready for Russian tanks to roll over along with the element of surprise when mounting their counter-attack. The big surprise here though is that we don't get to see much of this counter-attack at all because we end up stuck underground instead.

The star here is Paul Muni, playing a Russian sailor called Alexei Kulkov, and he really ought to sound authentic given that he was born in a town that is now part of the Ukraine (it was Austria-Hungary at the time). Kulkov and his colleagues were apparently sunk on day one of the war without knowing that the war had even begun. So they left the sea, became paratroopers and were dropped in to make the difference by building the underwater bridge. Kulkov misses out on all this because he's caught in an artillery barrage that buries him in the cellar of a building. He's a tough cookie, tough enough to keep a bunch of Germans prisoner who are buried along with him. At least they sound generally authentic.

He has a gun of course and the assistance of a young lady who was to act as their guide, but that's not the point. It's strength of will that does the job and he has the brains to do more than just keep them prisoner. While they're all apparently regular soldiers, with the highest rank being a corporal, Kulkov is convinced that one of them is really an officer so he uses psychological tactics to work out which one it is and to get information out of them. In other words this war film is really a detective film, the point merely being to find out something other than whodunit.

The setting is highly restricted so works well as a play, and it's hardly surprising to find that this was based on one. Surprisingly for an American film it's based on a Russian play, written by Mikhail Ruderman & Ilya Vershinin. Then again back in 1945, the Russians and Americans were on the same side, so the most surprising thing is that it's a war film about Russians and Germans without any Americans to leap in and save the day. Even the star is Ukrainian (or Austro-Hungarian, or whatever he was in 1942), but Paul Muni was never the standard Hollywood star anyway. He could act, for a start.

I'm nearly through the whole of Muni's career. Unlike most Hollywood actors of his era, he didn't make that many films, having only 22 of them to his name. This makes 15 for me, with only a handful to go. I've found that he spent most of his time playing other nationalities, often wildly so (such as Mexican in Juarez or Chinese in The Good Earth), but Russian fits him well. He was also able to wildly overact, such as in Black Fury, but he's restrained here as a careful man trying to keep his wits about him and not to fall asleep.

The rest of the cast are made up of character actors, most of whom I don't recognise. The sole female presence in the film is Marguerite Chapman as Lisa Elenko. I know her best from her last film appearance, top billed in Edgar Ulmer's The Amazing Transparent Man. She doesn't get too much to do, but then neither does anyone else really: these performances are measured in subtleties not flamboyance. Most obvious is Ludwig Donath as Prof Müller, one of the German soldiers. The only names I know are those of Larry Parks, George Macready and so far down the list that I didn't even notice him in the film, Darren McGavin. This one firmly belongs to Muni though.

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