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Edge of Darkness

by Glenn Erickson Feb 15, 2022

Righteous propaganda fuels the patriotic fire: Lewis Milestone and Robert Rossen’s blood-soaked ode to Norwegian resistance goes way over the top. These Norsemen and Norsewomen take up arms to fight their Nazi occupiers tooth and nail. Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan star; some of Hollywood’s best partake of the rah-rah celebration of suicidal vengeance: Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky, Charles Dingle, Roman Bohnen, Richard Fraser, Art Smith, and a very young Virginia Christine. We’re all anti-Fascist freedom fighters on this bus!


Edge of Darkness
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1943 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 119 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date January 18, 2022 / 21.99
Starring: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky, Charles Dingle, Roman Bohnen, Richard Fraser, Art Smith, Monte Blue, Henry Brandon, Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kurt Katch, Kurt Kreuger, Torben Meyer, Helene Thimig, Peter van Eyck, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski.
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Director: Robert M. Haas
Film Editor: David Weisbart
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Screenplay by Robert Rossen from the novel by William Woods
Produced by Henry Blanke
Directed by
Lewis Milestone

It’s big and it’s violent: for wholesale machine-gun killing and apocalyptic massacres Warners didn’t make anything as rough as this until 1969’s The Wild Bunch. The Production Code gets bent like a pretzel as well, all in the interest of fueling audience bloodlust against the Nazi occupiers of Norway. It’s shrill, obvious and perhaps takes itself too seriously, but Lewis Milestone and his stars are committed to a fantasy resistance scenario that makes a small fishing town into a major battlefield.

The dashing Errol Flynn was plagued by bad-boy legal troubles during WW2, but his reliability in action programmers made him one of the most popular stars of those years. Whereas John Wayne’s range was limited to All-American Navy, Marine, Army and Air Force roles, Flynn frequently portrayed foreign-born heroes fighting for the Allied cause: an Australian flyer, a Norwegian fisherman, a French crook, and a Canadian Mountie. Imagine being a defense worker in 1943, punching out of your shift at 2 a.m. and heading downtown, where huge crowds packed movie theaters that never closed. And there’s the dashing Flynn, kissing the girl and winning the war.

 

Not all wartime combat pictures are alike. In the hectic, days after Pearl Harbor the newspapers reported one bad-news headline after another. The studios were tasked with raising spirits and reassuring the folks back home that all would work out. Thus 1942 saw the grim realism of Wake Island but also home-front musicals and light comedies downplaying the significant casualties our armed forces were suffering. Positive morale building was made to order for Flynn, who was of course the king of escapist costume adventures. In fact, Flynn didn’t click as sober characters in serious dramas. Fans preferred him to remain mischievous and good-hearted, like his trickster pugilist Gentleman Jim.

Errol Flynn’s first WW2 thriller Desperate Journey takes nothing seriously — it’s a preposterous impossible mission of Allied derring-do behind enemy lines, and Flynn and his gung-ho buddies make fools of the Nazis in their own back yard. His next thriller Northern Pursuit is a little more rational, if far-fetched: Flynn is a Canadian mountie tracking down Nazi saboteurs on a snowy trek into uncharted territory to foil a diabolical sabotage scheme. It’s quasi- replay of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel.

But the previous Spring Flynn appeared in Edge of Darkness, a lavishly- produced big-scale wartime thriller with a different agenda, concentrating on the wartime experiences of foreign countries. Americans were reminded that occupied Europe had it much, much worse than us. Frenchmen were now depicted as suffering under a cruel enemy tyranny we weren’t experiencing. The same kind of treatment was given freedom fighters in other countries, where it seems that everyone is a resistance activist.

 

The word apparently went out to champion the valiant Norwegian resistance on film, which is actually pretty inspiring. I don’t know if Shirer’s 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is still considered the last word on the subject. The depressing impression it made on me as a teenager was how easily the Germans took over country after European country with ‘diplomatic’ tricks and empty promises. Most folded without a fight until Norway slammed the door shut, passive-aggressively. The Germans thought they could pull off the same kind of bureaucratic takeover, but the Norwegian monarchy and government slipped away to Sweden, leaving the Nazis to start from scratch. Most of the resistance was passive but firm. The occupiers did some terrible things in Norway, but they never felt secure there, either.

Warner’s Edge of Darkness was an expensive film; the studio wisely decided that the arid San Fernando Valley couldn’t pass for forested Norway, and filmed some of the picture on location way up on the California coast in beautiful Monterey and Del Monte. Even so, much of the movie makes extensive use of miniatures and special effects, giving the show an ornate, somewhat artificial look. It’s an occupation saga as only Hollywood could make one, with scores of name actors and a couple of major stars trying their best to be ‘ordinary’ good-hearted foreigners.

We now plumb these pictures for their psychology: what’s the specific morale-building mission?  This film’s intent is clearly to build up a major hate for the Nazis: when the final battle begins 1943 audiences were primed to react with a patriotic fury. It’s even stronger than later, more violent combat romps: when John Wayne took personal vengeance on ‘evil’ Japanese soldiers, the cheers were really for him, the All-American superman. These Norwegian partisans fight as fiercely as General Patton’s spearhead forces, all to raise U.S. tempers and sell War Bonds. Lovely Ann Sheridan slays enemy soldiers with a sniper’s rifle.

 

This is Errol Flynn’s one WW2 combat film movie not directed by Raoul Walsh. The filmmaker of note is Lewis Milestone, who had a terrific career considering his reputation as an uncompromising artist who often fought the studios for control of his films. The ruthless moguls knew talent when they saw it, and Milestone found steady work. His WW1 combat classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a masterpiece and pinnacle of humanist filmmaking; it’s still the most influential film with a pacifist message.

In no way does Edge of Darkness echo the position of Western Front. The German enemy here are barbaric swine that need to be patriotically resisted to the bitter end. Screenwriter Robert Rossen’s unsubtle, humorless screenplay takes every Nazi-imposed hardship in deadly earnest. Made by committed talent that would later come under fire for being ‘prematurely anti-Fascist,’ Edge can’t help but seem a little Pink. The resistance it depicts is something a whole community gets behind, a full-on communal-social movement. The Norwegian villagers learn to be ruthless: collaborators and informers are shown no mercy. Yet Edge isn’t nearly as radical as Fritz Lang’s Hangmen also Die!, which was released almost concurrently. The Czech resistance fighters in that film are unmistakably a Communist cell.

1942. Norway has been occupied for two full years. The German occupation of the peaceful fishing town of Trollness has been aided by the owner of the local cannery Kaspar Torgersen (Charles Dingle of The Little Foxes), a Quisling determined to prosper no matter who rules Norway. Fisherman Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn) and young Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan) are brought together by the resistance movement. Karen and her doctor father Martin Stensgard (Walther Huston of The Furies, in an imposing beard) are distressed when her brother Johann (John Beal of The Vampire), a known collaborator, returns from Oslo. Torgersen easily arranges for Johann to become an informer for the local German overseer, Captain Koenig (Helmut Dantine of Operation Crossbow).

Koenig is a rabid Nazi ideologue trying to earn reassignment to a combat front. He responds to sabotage in the cannery by keeping the fishing fleet in port. When things get worse he prepares to execute hostages. A shipload of guns for the rebellious patriots arrives just as the entire town reaches the boiling point. Koenig arranges his executions to take place in the public square, on the waterfront. As our heroes are forced to dig their own graves, open warfare breaks out. The local Pastor (Richard Fraser of Bedlam) has a surprise for everybody: after preaching passivity to his flock, the churchman fires the first shot from his church tower — with a machine gun.

 

Edge of Darkness doesn’t soft-sell Naziism, no way. With their vicious ‘Master Race’ BS those occupiers make human dignity and decency impossible. Every Trollness family fears for the life of a loved one taken hostage. Stoic solidarity is the only response; as the screenplay emphasizes the need for a communal vengeance. Except for the two leading stars, the show is an ensemble effort, partly cast with prestigious stage actors: Judith Anderson of Rebecca, Ruth Gordon of Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Bohnen of Brute Force, Morris Carnovsky of Gun Crazy. All tremble in fear and simmer with hatred for the dastardly, uncouth occupiers. Carnovsky is the local schoolteacher singled out for harassment and abuse by Koenig, to intimidate his neighbors.

In a scene that tips the film all the way into propaganda territory, Ann Sheridan’s Karen is raped by a loutish German soldier, in the vestibule of the church no less. The fact that our glamorous Ann Sheridan is the victim makes everything personal, maybe too personal. Such scenes were so infrequent in the Code era that 1943 audiences must have been at least mildly shocked. Karen then takes part in the decision to condemn her brother Johann, for the good of the community.

Each great actor poses nobly to deliver a quiet speech or two of personal solidarity. Proof of the ensemble format comes when Errol Flynn’s Gunnar becomes overemotional about the assault on Karen and must be talked out of taking immediate vengeance — Flynn isn’t normally that un-cool. It’s unusual to see him in action minus his impish personality touches — Northern Pursuit even has an in-joke about Flynn’s amorous-legal difficulties.

 

“Forward! They can’t stop men who want to be free!”

 

The revolt of the townspeople is very much a fantasy, depicted with graphic, formal clarity: determined partisans march screen right and German bayonets march screen left, that sort of thing. Very ordinary folk are suddenly transformed into determined ‘freedom fighters,’ attacking with guns they’ve never been trained to shoot. The civilians overwhelm various outposts and converge on Dantine’s headquarters, a lodge hotel on a densely forested hill. There must be two solid reels of fighting; German soldiers fall like tenpins.

Many fall and a few survive; every patriot that’s killed does so with a gesture of selfless fury. Everybody’s a martyr: previously timid old ladies fire from their windows. Even John Beal’s guilty informer shows that his heart is in the right place, and turns patriot in the heat of battle. To the film’s credit, Flynn is not shown doing extraordinary feats of derring-do. It’s a group effort all the way.

One of the armed town ladies is Helene Thimig, the wife of dramatist Max Reinhardt. Among the younger female cast members is Virginia Christine, a favorite later seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and who would later reach immortality in Folger’s coffee commercials. Group Theater actors Roman Bohnen and Art Smith (of In a Lonely Place) would later become notable casualties of the blacklist.

 

Some wartime propaganda films clearly received a no-questions pass from the Production Code. The film’s most unusual character is Nancy Coleman’s Polish girl Katja, Commander Koenig’s ‘guest’ up in the Nazi lair, the lodge hotel. Emotionally disturbed, Katja is shocked when told that she can’t go home as promised: she doesn’t realize that she’s little more than a sex slave. If she causes trouble Koenig will throw her to his enlisted men. Although Katja is never seen in a compromised situation her duties are clear. A strong screen presence, Ms. Coleman never reached major star status. With her haunted eyes, she’s best known for playing women under pressure or driven to the edge of madness: Kings Row, Her Sister’s Secret.

Director Lewis Milestone keeps the tension up, bolstering the drama of each scene to make Edge of Darkness effective patriotic propaganda. Many things are overstated, to funnel our emotions into the big fracas of the final two reels. Again, Milestone’s direction is formalistic. He arranges the action scenes in geometric terms: the line of citizens to be executed, the resolute ranks of partisans advancing on the nazi chalet out in the open, in a suicidal frontal attack. Milestone keeps his camera moving in the action scenes, grossly over-using the signature fast-trucking shot he introduced to startling effect in All Quiet on the Western Front. Shot after shot rakes across lines of charging patriots, turning the camera into a machine gun. Every other angle seemingly becomes a lateral truck emphasizing the idea that the camera is only catching impressions of a bigger, all-consuming conflict.

Cameraman Sid Hickox frequently employs a zoom lens, a gadget that showed up in the silent era but didn’t become a general tool until the 1960s. When Richard Fraser’s Pastor appears with his machine gun at the bell tower window, the camera view zooms upward from the scene below. The effect now is almost comical — the churchman might say, ‘Oh yeah, let me introduce you to The Lord’s little friend!’

 

The technically slick movie employs plenty of dramatic miniatures that by modern standards are fairly unconvincing. Lawrence Butler (Things to Come) and Willard Van Enger (Casablanca) are credited with special effects that must have been the work of a hundred studio model propmakers and artists. Future director Don Siegel is credited with the film’s dynamic montages, along with James Leicester, future screenwriter of Most Dangerous Man Alive.

It’s possible that Jack Warner looked at the finished Edge of Darkness and made a note not to okay any more ‘noble bloodbath’ epics. Told as a flashback, the story begins as some dopey Germans discover the entire town square blanketed with at least two hundred dead bodies. It’s all very civilized-looking: no struggling wounded, no blood, as if they were all under a spell from Sleeping Beauty. The extras are arranged around the large outdoor set in a decorative way, for Milestone’s camera to truck through oh-so-respectfully.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Edge of Darkness is a stunning encoding of a fine remastering job on this handsome feature; older TV prints of this one were just so-so. Sid Hickox has about forty actors with speaking roles to light; Flynn and Sheridan are of course given special consideration but everybody else looks good too. Hickox adusts well to Lewis Milestone’s detail-oriented direction. By the time the big action scenes begin, we’re already familiar with the waterfront-town square area and the layout of the Nazi headquarters. All those miniatures look exactly like what they are; the cameramen get away with using the very big miniature layout to serve as the view from the German scout plane as it arrives in town.

The audio is particularly robust. Around this time the Warners sound department honed in on a recording and re-recording formula that gave added definition to sound effects and music. Franz Waxman’s stirring soundtrack score adds yet more emphasis to Milestone’s emphatic direction. The opening notes of the main title track behind the WB logo cut through clearly: all brass choral effects.

We’re given a pair of WB short subjects from 1943. Gun to Gun is a strange ‘historical’ tale of early Los Angeles. Cattleman Robert Shayne romances the Señora Dolores, played by the lovely Lupita Tovar. Hooray for Lupita, even if her contribution is only decorative. The storyline concerning unfair taxes makes a confused statement about the old California land grants. The Elmer Fudd – Daffy Duck cartoon To Duck … or Not to Duck is a Chuck Jones effort with some great Mel Blanc ‘laughing fit’ gags. Both extras relate to Edge of Darkness through content — there’s a lot of shooting guns going on.

I’ve never seen the Edge of Darkness trailer before: it begins with Ann Sheridan playing sniper with a high-powered rifle. The second image is a patented Milestone lateral trucking shot, and the third a zoom!  A trailer-exclusive shot is present as well, with the main players posing atop a rooftop with their rifles. The trailer’s narration is un-subtle, and a little condescending:

“Simple little people are turned to giants by their imperishable love for freedom!”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Edge of Darkness
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Short subject Gun to Gun; cartoon To Duck …or Not to Duck, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 13, 2022
(6668edge)CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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