49th Parallel (1941, Michael Powell)
In only the third Powell & Pressburger film, still in advance of their legendary command of color, their mastery is already firmly in place. Visually striking and tense, 49th Parallel is a direct and troubling propaganda thriller that calls to mind several Alfred Hitchcock pictures from this period, in particular Foreign Correspondent (cut from much the same cloth in terms of its social intentions) and The 39 Steps (and can there be a higher compliment than that?).
At times — with its frantic rush across odd locations and its selection of unusual characters — it’s almost The 39 Steps in Canada, only with protagonists you’re supposed to hate. Those would be an errant U-boat crew stranded by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, who terrorize everyone they come into contact with while attempting to infiltrate the border of the United States, which at the time the film was made remained neutral in World War II. (It wasn’t released until just two weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, and only premiered in the U.S. the following spring, so its anti-isolationist message was by then superfluous.)
The Nazis’ first victims are the entire crew and hangers-on at the Hudson Bay Trading Post, including a wildly stunt-cast (and often half-nude) Laurence Olivier as a French-Canadian trapper; I may get run out of town for saying this, but it may be my favorite thing he ever did. The Canadians serve as mouthpieces for the presumptive audience, decrying the Nazis’ exaggerated brutality, but they also figure in a brilliantly original thriller setpiece inflicted by nothing more than a HAM radio chess game. News has spread to the U.S. that a crew of Germans is missing and assumed to be active, and the chess partner and his wife in Grand Rapids have a field day querying their distant pals about the macabre possibilities while the quintet of Nazi shore explorers looks on sternly.
Subsequent to this comes another staggering action sequence involving a stolen seaplane and an air crash; this is pure cinema that nearly discards all propagandist concerns in favor of the joy of mounting a great thriller. In the best Norman Bates tradition, you want them to take off. More killing follows, more intricate plotting and the fascinating sight of these men both chilled to the bone with fear and anxious to prove their mettle, both to superiors and to the enemy. The film is intriguingly of its time but also engrossing, and at its best it juggles sympathies almost fearsomely, as when they hobnob around an Indian Day celebration and an innocent-looking cafeteria in the large cities they run through (Winnipeg and Vancouver) or when they encounter a Hutterite colony and assume incorrectly that they have found their people. This leads to tentative romance, and a murder of one of their own — a moment of real ugliness, real danger, real sickness.
It all moves along at a clip until the Germans meet up in the nearly deserted mountainous woods with typically tiresome Leslie Howard portraying a ’40s version of Mark McKinney’s Darill from The Kids in the Hall, a hyperactively talkative pseudo-intellectual writer who’s set up camp in the Rockies and whose mission seems to be to destroy the Nazis by boring them to death and/or irritating the shit out of them. The problem is that you’ll want to stuff something in Howard’s mouth just as much as they do. Perhaps this is the peak of Powell’s instinct to allow us to scare ourselves by feeling for the villains. Not long after this, with only Hirth (Eric Portman) still in tow, the film finally goes full bore on gung-ho Americanism by letting him come to blows with a spirited Raymond Massey aboard a train passing through Niagara Falls and into — horrors — the U.S.A.
No matter about old Darill or the unavoidably uneven nature of the narrative. Anyone interested in the period, in episodic thrillers, or in the travelogue elements of the breezier Hitchcock pictures should see this — it’s well-defined and consistently weird and human throughout, with a few great comic touches. Even The Great Dictator can’t express all this insanity as succinctly as Powell does when Lieutenant Hirth gives a nutso fascist speech to the Hutterite colony, and is faced with the resultant awkward silence. It’s strange to call this a fun movie, but it is.