Marlon Brando had few if any hits in the 1960s, but this wartime spy picture is a not-bad thriller with some tense moments. Both Brando and Yul Brynner have been blackmailed into a risky mission as spy and sea captain; they’re more than a little disillusioned to find themselves transporting a boatload of Nazis and political prisoners headed back to Germany. Persecuted victim Janet Margolin is beyond caring — she’s a victim on a voyage of the damned.
1965 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 123 min. / The Saboteur, Code Name Morituri / Street Date May 21, 2019 / Available from Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring: Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner, Janet Margolin, Trevor Howard, Martin Benrath, Hans Christian Blech, Wally Cox, William Redfield.
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Daniel Taradash from a novel by Werner Jörg Lüddecke
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Bernhard Wicki
The dark, dank, morally murky spy thriller Morituri showcases Marlon Brando, and director Bernhard Wicki gives the intrigues a feeling of importance without becoming pretentious. The dumb advertising tagline was “Brando and Brynner Teach the Nazis an Explosive Lesson!,” words that say little about this intelligent and daring show that puts a novel set of characters into risky spy games on the high seas. A better try would be “Morituri means Danger!” but that one was used several years before by Hatari!
If anything Morituri was too intelligent for its year. Instead of escapism we get moody B&W intrigues between two great actors on a ship moving in perilous waters. For once, a WW2 war-zone drama is refreshingly explosion-challenged. The last Hollywood show I can think of that’s like this was the odd John Wayne WW2 thriller The Sea Chase. Once again we’re on a German boat trying to run a blockade from the far Pacific back to occupied Europe.
Apolitical German Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) is blackmailed by the English in India to change his identity to Hans Kyle, SS officer, and infiltrate the Tokyo-to-Berlin German freighter Ingo carrying a precious load of rubber. His chances of being caught by disillusioned captain Rolf Mueller (Yul Brynner) are increased when it is revealed that a Japanese submarine with German officers is shadowing them protectively. Since he is posing as a haughty SS operative, Kyle gains the loyalty of sniveling first officer Kruse (Martin Benrath). He has potential help from some crewmembers being taken back to Germany as potential prisoners, and eventually from some Allied prisoners they pick up. Among them is an unstable concentration camp escapee, Esther Levy (Janet Margolin).
What initially sounds far-fetched quickly becomes a taut suspense tale with many angles. Besides three kinds of Germans we get American prisoners that in no way act heroically, and a tortured concentration camp survivor presented without the slightest sentiment. While mainstream war thrillers moved toward popular escapism in bright color, like the same studio’s Von Ryan’s Express, Morituri turns to the dark side.
The hero Kyle is a German of questionable loyalties, starting as a selfish fugitive from war and ending as an unaligned humanist. He has to wear and personify the insignia of a feared and despised elite organization. Standing in his way is Captain Mueller, a loyal German resentful of his own command’s lack of faith in his record. Kyle has to evade the suspicion of two high-ranking German naval officers while trying to forge a bond with the disloyal members of the crew — and with the American prisoners locked away in the hold.
For once the mission is too hopeless and the complications too numerous for a simple solution. Morituri is successful because we honestly can’t predict what will happen next. Captain Mueller sneaks through a foggy Pacific by passing his freighter off as an Allied steamer, but detection is always an imminent possibility. He has orders to scuttle the ship immediately if it might fall into enemy hands, but Kyle’s mission is to disarm all the scuttling charges and save the vital cargo for the Allies.
The original story is by the same writer responsible for Fritz Lang’s complicated Indian movies The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. He and Daniel Taradash weave a dozen unstable variables — alcoholic captain, suspicious officers, unreliable dissidents — into a satisfying suspense thriller.
Fox’s German director Bernhard Wicki was simply okay with The Visit and the German scenes in The Longest Day, but only his The Bridge is as accomplished as his work here. Aided immeasurably by Conrad Hall’s stark B&W images and Jerry Goldsmith’s nervous music, Wicki does well by both Brando and Brynner. Brynner is intense and convincing even when he has to throw himself into a drunken rage over a moral issue (his beloved son, a German officer, has sunk an Allied Hospital ship).
After a political movie that sidesteps its own subject matter (The Ugly American) and a hopeless effort with Charlie Chaplin, Brando is excellent in a clearly-defined genre role. His German accent is much improved since The Young Lions. We spend many anxious moments watching his face as his character talks and balks his way out of one verbal trap after another.
The most disturbing part of the story is the Jewish torpedo survivor Esther Levy, played by the excellent Janet Margolin (David and Lisa, Take the Money and Run). Already the victim of a gang rape and deranged by the death of her brother, Esther has a mad gleam in her eye as she helps Brando in his hopeless mutiny. When the American sailors refuse to join in she perversely offers herself to them — as a group — for the promise of their participation. It’s eerie not because the movie even allows such a bargain, but because she seemingly offers herself willingly. Nothing in the script or direction ‘places’ her action as a glorious sacrifice, as in the WW2 melodrama Cry ‘Havoc’. In that show a U.S. nurse’s suicide date with a perverted Japanese officer is just one more grotesque wrinkle in an awful situation.
This unexpected harshness likely repulsed audiences in 1965 — Morituri is not a feel-good show. Today it comes off as serious and thoughtful, if perhaps a bit leisurely paced. The grim title is taken from the gladiator’s oath to the Emperor, Morturi te Salutant: We Who Are About to Die, Salute You. Although I wouldn’t change the movie, commercially speaking it might have done better if it were ten minutes shorter.
Trevor Howard gets high billing but exits the film almost immediately in the ‘mission setup’ scene set in Brando’s home in India. Martin Benrath is good as a weasely first officer, and Wally Cox tries once again for a dramatic hit as a ship’s doctor addicted to morphine. Cox and Brando had been roommates as struggling actors back in New York. Spotted in smaller bits are favorite ’40s Nazi Martin Kosleck as an embassy official and Hans Gudegast (Eric Braeden of The Rat Patrol and Colossus, the Forbin Project) as a radio man. Hidden among the faces of crewmen are Gary Crosby, Paul Baxley, Roy Jensen and George Takei.
Pretty much stealing the picture below Brando and Brynner is familiar face Hans Christian Blech, remembered from substantial parts in Battle of the Bulge, The Longest Day, and The Bridge at Remagen. Blech may have his best international role here as the leader of the dissident German sailors — he easily holds his own, even opposite Brando.
The polished production makes us feel that we’re on (and in) a large ship. Fox avoids most of the technical problems that dog otherwise good movies like Andrew Stone’s maritime mutiny story The Decks Ran Red. When Brynner’s captain camouflages the Ingo to resemble a Swedish vessel with paint and fake structures on the deck, it’s more than convincing. I found only two odd visuals to speak of. When the ship slips into a fog bank, an optical fog effect is used well, until the filmmakers lay it over a ship interior shot as well. The producers appear to partially sink a real ship for the finale, but a dramatic aerial swoop down the length of the Ingo reveals that the shot was printed in reverse — the fire and smoke go backwards.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Morituri lets HD encoding give a big boost to this show simply by better showcasing Conrad Hall’s cinematography. The lighting in the labyrinthine interior of the freighter is a last gasp of monochrome artistry before Color by Deluxe took over most everything. An isolated music track allows us to appreciate Jerry Goldsmith’s interesting music score. The composer successfully substitutes acoustic and electric guitar work for martial clichés.
A trailer is included that pushes the film as a powerhouse action spectacle between two actor-titans, a marketing sell that the moody photography and brooding performances just doesn’t support.
Julie Kirgo’s incisive liner notes once again nail the aspects of the movie that appeal and call out the merits of artistic contributors. Ms. Kirgo also sees Marlon Brando ‘trying harder’ in this show although she reports that he still gave his director a hard time — as he did Carol Reed on the expensive epic Mutiny on the Bounty. Julie has been generating these excellent liner note essays for a full ten years now, and they’re as much a marker of Twilight Time’s brand of quality as are the careful transfers and unique isolated music tracks.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, trailer, essay by Julie Kirgo.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 21, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson