The global political climate was dramatically changing in 1940 especially in Europe. The Nazi machine was already wrecking havoc and the United States was a little over one year away from entering World War 2. It was during this time that “The Mortal Storm” was released. When reading up on the film I learned that this was one of few openly anti-Nazi movies to be released prior to America’s entry into the war. The film and subsequently all other MGM movies were soon banned in Germany.
“The Mortal Storm” was directed by Frank Borzage, a filmmaker I was relatively unfamiliar with but who had a lot of success during the silent era and with early talkies. Here he tackles very potent and relevant topics of the time – Naziism, the rise of Adolph Hitler and the effects these things had on families and friendships. It’s a sincere and effective adaptation of Phyllis Bottome’s 1938 novel and it’s full of passion but also tragedy.
The film is set in 1933 and takes place in a small Bavarian town. The opening ten minutes cleverly sets up the gut punch we get later on. We’re introduced to a prominent science professor named Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan). It’s his birthday and we get a series of playful scenes revolving around that. At his home later that evening we sit in on his birthday dinner with his family and old family friend Martin (James Stewart). We see his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan) become engaged to the cordial and mannered Fritz (Robert Young). Everything is painted as happy and intimate.
But one radio broadcast changes that forever. During their meal it is reported that Hitler’s power has grown and the Nazi party has become the one German political party. In an instant the happy moments at the table turn tense and contentious. Fritz and Prof. Roth’s step-sons show their previously unseen support of the Nazi ideals. Martin and Prof. Roth show concern and hesitation over embracing Hitler and his direction for Germany. From there things only get worse and the once joyous and united household is torn apart by intolerance and strife.
The story takes several interesting turns including a romance angle that at first seems wantonly obvious. But the romance doesn’t smother the film’s bigger points and instead is used to serve them. It’s also interesting to see how the film tries to soften the edge of its message while still pounding it home with clarity. For example the term “Jew” is never used in the film, but Dr. Roth and others are called a “non-Aryan”. The implication is clearly there. Also the film rarely uses “German” or “Germany” in its dialogue and the setting is rarely discussed. But these things do nothing to dull the blade the film uses to cut into Naziism and a different sides of its influence.
One of the few difficulties I had was seeing the cast as German citizens. Think about it, Jimmy Stewart, not even attempting an accent, with that distinct voice of his being a German farmer. This really stood out to me. But that doesn’t mean the performances are bad. Quite the contrary, they are fantastic. Margaret Sullavan shines as the lovely and conflicted Freya and the seasoned Frank Morgan is the beating heart of the story. Also look for a young Robert Stack playing one of Prof. Roth’s sons. It was his second film performance.
This was the last of Stewart and Sullavan’s four movies together. Shortly after the film Stewart would enlist in the military and fight during World War 2. Sullavan made only five more movies before sadly being engulfed by personal issues. Still “The Mortal Storm” is a fine reminder of their beautiful chemistry. But it’s also a gutsy film with a much stronger message than people were accustomed to hearing. And even today the film stands strong as a testament to the persuasive power of the movies.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
In most conversations about Alfred Hitchcock’s films, “Vertigo” often finds itself mentioned as the quintessential Hitchcock movie. It’s called a masterpiece and is considered by many to be one of the best films of all time. While I don’t personally agree with that level of praise, there’s no denying that “Vertigo” is a cleverly crafted and stunningly stylized psychological thriller. “Vertigo” can never be branded as shallow or conventional. It has it’s fair share of mystery and suspense while also delving into more disturbing subjects such as mental breakdowns and romantic obsession. It’s takes it’s time playing out, but it’s still quite rewarding for those who appreciate it’s complexity.
The great James Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective. Scottie struggles with serious acrophobia which ends up contributing to the death of a police officer during a rooftop chase. The incident combined with his ailment cause him to retire early from the department. That’s when Scottie is hired by an old acquaintance named Gavin to follow his wife who he suspects has been possessed. Scottie doesn’t buy the supernatural assertion but still agrees to help. This sets the movie down it’s first of many twisty, unpredictable paths.
It’s said that Hitchcock later stated he thought Stewart, who was 50 years old at the time, was too old and many critics initially felt he was miscast. Personally I think Stewart is fantastic here and it’s nice that over time his performance has garnered more appreciation. When first released, “Vertigo” was dismissed by most critics and Stewart became the easy scapegoat. The movie does have it’s flaws but it’s hard for me to associate any of them with Stewart’s performance. He’s grounded and believable and Stewart never loses control of his character even as things unravel around him.
Kim Novak plays Gavin’s wife Madeleine. She wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice for the role but she ends up making the character her own. It’s impossible to talk about her character without giving away too much but Madeleine isn’t what she seems. A lot is required of Novak as her character branches out into several directions and for the most part she succeeds. She icy cold and mysterious yet we also see her as pitiful and sympathetic. She’s an essential character and while not as polished as Stewart, Novak’s performance works.
“Vertigo” is a technical marvel with some truly gorgeous camera work. Hitchcock keenly uses trickery and sleight of hand in several scenes to enhance the effects. The well-known vertigo zoom shots are still mentioned in most conversations about the film and the surreal use of lighting really dictate the tone of several scenes. I also love the wonderful locations. Hitchcock includes several San Francisco landmarks in the film and he uses the camera to accentuate the city’s beauty. Other small but effective devices include the use of reflections and clever elevated camera angles. It’s just an incredibly attractive film.
Some have described “Vertigo” as a meditation. Others have called it an observance. One reason these descriptions fit is because of the movie’s deliberate pacing particularly in the first half of the film. I felt it took a while getting it’s footing and the lackadaisical first 30 minutes could have been tightened up a bit. I was also a little surprised to see the timing of the big reveal. I certainly don’t want to give anything away but what I thought was the biggest red herring turned out to be no red herring at all.
For me “Vertigo” isn’t the perfect movie that many believe it is. That being said, it’s still a remarkable film that delivers despite it’s few flaws. It has the appearance of cinematic art with Hitchcock showing what skillful uses of a camera can bring to a movie. Stewart is brilliant and his performance immediately draws you into the picture. He’s the linchpin that keeps this dark but riveting film together. “Vertigo” has earned it’s “classic” label and it’s mandatory viewing for any fan of mysteries or thrillers. And while it’s not my favorite Hitchcock picture, it’s still a rock solid movie that satisfies with each viewing.