Sunday 24 April 2016

Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writer: J P Miller, from the novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, by Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
This review is late for a number of reasons, which ably highlight how important it is to always get ahead of your deadlines, even when they’re self-imposed. I should have posted it sometime during Tuesday, 5th April, to commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Gregory Peck. However, that turned out to be the day before I flew home from the UK after a couple of weeks travelling around Scotland. I’d tried to take care in advance of both films due to post during my trip, but I only managed to watch Terror in a Texas Town. I did review that film on time, staying up late after an all-day wedding, only partly drunk, and posted it in the wee hours. This, however, I didn’t have a chance to watch until the night I needed to post and that proved difficult. My sister’s TV doesn’t have a USB jack, so I borrowed my nephew’s but his wouldn’t pick up the audio. So I watched on his TV but listened on my laptop as I took notes. Security ate our four hour layover in New York and then my laptop died, losing all my notes. So, hello 18 days late.

I picked Behold a Pale Horse because it’s the sort of film I have trouble believing exists and I have no idea why anyone thought it would be a good idea to make. My review of Terror in a Texas Town talked about an era of American cinematic history that was dominated by Communist witch-hunts, the Hollywood Ten and how tough it was for blacklisted artists to find work. So, only six years later, it feels completely surreal to watch Peck, a huge Hollywood star riding high after On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, How the West Was Won, To Kill a Mockingbird and Captain Newman, MD, to mention just the previous six movies he’d made over the previous five years, playing a hero who happened to also be a Communist, a terrorist and a vehement anti-Catholic. Could there possibly be a more unlikely role for a Hollywood star in 1964, especially the year after his Oscar win for playing the iconic American hero, Atticus Finch? I’m a blank and I wonder if it’s why this marks the line between what I know Peck from and what I don’t.
Today, almost everything about the film sets off a red flag (no pun intended) that could have stopped the production in its tracks. It’s based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-born British filmmaker known for the quintessentially British films that he made with Michael Powell, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. These are great classics, but they’re not commercial Hollywood in the slightest. That novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, was loosely based on the life of Francisco Sabaté Llopart, or El Quico, a Catalan anarchist who lived outside the law from the age of seventeen, fighting a guerrilla war against the Second Spanish Republic, the Vichy government and the fascist regime of General Franco, none of which Americans knew or cared much about. They would surely care more that he was an anarchist, a murderer, a deserter, an assassin, a bank robber, a political exile and a public enemy number one. Compared to El Quico, Clyde Barrow looks like an amateur boy scout.

Even if somehow director Fred Zinnemann could manage to tap into an early vein of counterculture anti-hero worship, he had to get the film made first and, utterly unsurprisingly, Franco refused permission for Columbia Pictures to shoot in Spain. In fact, his government blocked distribution of all Columbia’s output in Spain and forced them to sell their Spanish distribution arm. M J Frankovich, a Columbia vice president, estimated months prior to this film’s release that it had cost them millions of dollars in lost revenue even discounting its production cost. They were unable even to screen the film on American television, after a request from the Spanish government. But they continued on with production, shooting exteriors across the border from France, and filming ran a month over schedule. Yet, when they previewed the film to US audiences, they found that nobody knew what it was about, so they had to add an introduction, cut from To Die in Madrid, a documentary on the Spanish Civil War, with overlaid narration in English.
‘These were the men who lost,’ that narration explains of those lined up at the French border, stripped of their weapons and sent into exile. Manuel Artiguez gets to that line, only to turn round and try to walk his way back in to Spain. ‘The war’s over,’ say his compatriots. ‘Why don’t you give up?’ Sure enough, off he goes into France whether he likes it or not. Even in this unspeaking scene, it’s odd to see Peck in this role, not only for the reasons already mentioned but also because his co-star is Anthony Quinn, who could play Artiguez in his sleep. In fact, he’d asked to play the guerrilla, but Zinnemann wanted to avoid typecasting him and so cast him instead as Viñolas, the corrupt but capable captain in the Civil Guard who’s the other player in this game of cat and mouse. And cat and mouse this promptly becomes, as Artiguez is set up to be the Jerry to the captain’s Tom. ‘Everyone who loves Spain and freedom should know who that is,’ little Paco is told, who sees him as a folk hero. ‘Manuel will always come back when he’s needed.’

This is Paco Dages, a young orphan who travels over the border to Pau to track down ‘the great leader of the guerrillas’, so he can ask him to kill Viñolas. After all, the captain beat his father, José Dages, to death in an attempt to drum Artiguez’s location out of him. Paco doesn’t find the hero he expects, even asking him, ‘Are you his father?’ The supposed ‘great leader’ is a slouchy and grouchy man rotting in his garret with a smoker’s cough; he’s quick to anger and he promptly throws the kid out. By comparison, Captain Viñolas is bursting with life. We meet him on horseback warming up a bull for a matador, then he goes to romp away the day with his mistress. Quinn wasn’t the star that Peck was, though he already had a pair of Oscars under his belt, but he was still well established over a decade since Viva Zapata! He plays the captain with ease, but for a plastic tricornio that looks like the headgear of an alien race in a cheap sci-fi movie, while Peck consciously tries not to play Artiguez like his co-star would have done.
So, as we’re introduced to Pilar Artiguez, the catalyst of the story, we find ourselves oddly sympathetic to Viñolas but indifferent to Artiguez. The captain enjoys who he is, even if he takes bribes and cheats on his invalid wife and can’t see the irony in taking his mistress on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. His exiled opponent, however, is a frustrated and angry man who’s relinquished his fight as twenty years have taken his heart out of it. Discovering that Pilar, Manuel’s mother, is seriously ill and not expected to live long, Viñolas has her put in the San Martin hospital and locks it down. He smuggles word to Artiguez that she’s there, as he will surely try to come and see her, thus giving him the opportunity he needs to set up a sting to take him down. The guerrilla has two things going for him. One is that Paco knows the hospital well, as he snuck in to see his father before he died. The other ties to the third star of the film, a very young Omar Sharif as a Catholic priest named Father Francisco. Without his usual moustache, he reminds of Tony Curtis.

While Peck and Quinn are both given opportunity to build depth into their characters, Sharif is gifted with a peach of a part that’s full of complexity and, once he’s introduced, over forty minutes in, it’s hard to see anyone else as the lead. Pilar Artiguez, played with surprising passion by Mildred Dunnock, given that she is bedridden and immobile for the entirety of her small part, has no love for the clergy. She tells a priest who attends her, ‘Go bless the rifles of the firing squad, Father.’ But, hearing that he’s substituting for Fr Francisco, who’s about to leave for Lourdes, and knowing that the other will have to go through Pau, she requests his presence and, right before she dies, asks him to fulfil her last wish. She knows that Viñolas has set a trap for her son and that he’ll walk into it, so Fr Francisco should take the news of her death to him and thus save his life. The priest thus finds himself in the horns of a dilemma, torn between duty to his God, to his country, to the law and to the last wish of a dying woman.
And it only gets more complex from there because the script refuses to take all the easy ways forward. It could have been a predictable ninety minute film, but J P Miller, who adapted Pressburger’s novel for the screen, knew what had to be predictable and what didn’t and so his script takes a winding route to get to it’s relatively predictable ending, a winding route that constricts like a snake on characters like Paco and Fr Francisco. While the story pits Artiguez against Viñolas in a battle to the death that’s twenty years due, neither is remotely as interesting as either the priest or the child. Both of them have competing loyalties to confuse them and complicate their actions. Both of them struggle to do what they believe is right and what they go through in this picture challenges their beliefs. Marietto Angeletti, appearing in his last role at the ripe old age of fourteen, does well as Paco but Omar Sharif’s believably tortured performance as Fr Francisco dominates the film, especially when we leave San Martin and Capt Viñolas behind.

The loss of screen time hampers Quinn as much as his tricornio because, as capable as he is as Viñolas, we find that we don’t miss him when the story takes us to Pau and Lourdes. Peck, on the other hand, has more resonance when he’s offscreen than when he’s on it, because he’s clearly miscast as Artiguez and he struggles to sell the role to us. As an actor of serious talent, he gives it his best shot, but he’s just too morally upright to carry a role that has him kidnap a priest and slap him across the face. We don’t buy it, even as we utterly buy Omar Sharif’s lack of similarly violent response. Peck is at his best when Artiguez begins to think, because there’s admirable subtlety in his body language, but the louder he gets the less credible he becomes. I presume Peck took the role as a challenge and an opportunity to diversify parts, but it didn’t work. Fortunately for him, few people saw the film in 1964 and he stayed as popular as ever. Quinn, of course, walked easily between heroic and villainous roles and this didn’t hurt him at all.
To my mind, Omar Sharif steals the show and it makes me realise that I’ve seen a lot fewer of his movies than I have Peck’s or Quinn’s. Even those I have seen, like Juggernaut, Top Secret! or Oh Heavenly Dog, I doubt he’d see as his most memorable roles; I was knee high to a grasshopper when I last saw Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago and they were too long and too artistic for my tastes at the time. Outside the cast, it’s Jean Badal and Maurice Jarre that I’d commend over more obvious names like Fred Zinnemann’s as director. The former was responsible for the stark black and white camerawork, the latter for his score which relies on unusual instruments for a thriller. Zinnemann, an important and versatile director with a pair of Oscars already to his name, recovered surprisingly well from this misfire because his next picture landed him two more. That was A Man for All Seasons and it was as clearly appropriate a title to shoot in 1966 as this wasn’t in 1964. So this remains an oddity, out of time and place even before it was made.

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