Monday, May 6, 2013

The White Tower (RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The White Tower, a 1950 RKO production in color (which gave us a rare opportunity to see the RKO “beeping tower” logo in color) directed by former cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (he had been the D.P. on Hitchcock’s Notorious and as a reward for its success RKO had promoted him to director, in which capacity he’d done the marvelous 1949 film noir The Window and then got this) from a script by Paul Jarrico based on a novel by one James Ramsey Ullman. The White Tower is a U.S. studio’s attempt to do, of all things, a mountaineering film. In the 1920’s and 1930’s mountaineering films had been the bread-and-butter of the German film industry, much the way Westerns were in the U.S., and quite possibly for the same reason: since they took place out of doors, they could be filmed exclusively (or almost exclusively) with sunlight and therefore the studios that made them didn’t need to buy or rent lights. Probably the most famous mountaineering movie from Germany was Die heilige Berg (“The Holy Mountain,” which gives you an idea of the importance of mountains in the German mythos), directed by Arnold Fanck in 1926, which made an overnight star of Leni Riefenstahl, who played the pure, virginal heroine that was generally a cliché in the mountaineering genre. One wonders if German audiences responded to this film the way American ones would have to a German attempt at a Western! The White Tower is the name of a mountain in the Swiss Alps that has never been climbed before. Prior to World War II the legendary mountaineer Alexander Alton tried it but never returned — it’s not known whether he croaked before he got to the summit or he reached it and then died on his way down, and his body was never recovered (hardened moviegoers were probably bracing themselves for the he-never-really-died-and-he’s-going-to-turn-up-alive-at-the-end cliché, but Ullman and Jarrico didn’t go there, praise be).

After the war his daughter Carla (Alida Valli, loaned out from David O. Selznick’s company and billed, as usual in her American films, only by her last name, “Valli”) returns to the small Swiss village at the foot of the White Tower and assembles the usual ill-assorted six-person mountain-climbing party with the usual ill-assorted mishmash of accents: real-life Italian Valli as a Swiss woman, top-billed Glenn Ford as American adventurer Martin Ordway, British-born Claude Rains as French author Paul DeLambre (who’s finished all but the last chapter of a book on the White Tower and wants to climb it to furnish him a spectacular ending — much to the understandable disgust of his wife, played by June Clayworth), Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Dr. Nicholas Radcliffe (what attracts him to the expedition to climb the White Tower remains a mystery), Russian actor Oscar Homolka as Carla’s servant Andres, and American actor Lloyd Bridges as German Dr. Hein, whom Carla doesn’t want on the expedition because she suspects he was a Nazi and who gets to utter a number of master-race platitudes along the way, including his repeated slogan, “To rest is not to conquer.” Midway up the mountain he chews out Glenn Ford’s character, saying that he has a purpose in climbing the mountain and Ordway is only doing it … “to get laid,” I couldn’t help but joke, since it’s pretty obvious throughout the movie that Ordway’s main motivation for the climb is to get into Carla’s pants. I also joked about Bridges’ presence in this movie versus his most famous role in the Sea Hunt TV series: “What does he know about mountaineering? He’s a diver!” The best aspect of The White Tower is its physical look; according to the film’s page they actually shot it on location in the Alpine community of Haute-Savoie, France (though there are some pretty obvious studio interiors and process shots), and the color (late three-strip Technicolor) is absolutely ravishing both in its own right and as a dramatic contrast to the horrible green-and-brown color schemes which dominate today’s movies. Tetzlaff and his cinematographer, Ray Rennahan (who had stepped down from his job as color consultant for Technicolor but, because of his long history with them, remained the industry’s go-to guy for color movies even after it was the studios, not Technicolor, signing his paychecks), give us one spectacular vista after another and take our minds off the comparative banality of the human relationships in the film.

Not surprisingly, the ill-assorted mountaineers and wanna-be mountaineers don’t get along all that well, and as the climbers get higher, the environment gets colder (which one expects) and windier and foggier (which one doesn’t, though it’s de rigueur in a movie), the “dramatic” clashes between the people also get nastier. Hardwicke’s character is the first to bail — about halfway up he changes his mind and goes down again — and Rains’ character drinks the two bottles of brandy he was carrying, writes the last pages of his book, then tears them up again and throws them into the wind, and exits in an ambiguous final scene that makes it look like he’s committing suicide but making it look like an accident for his wife’s sake. (I’d have liked the scene better if he’d preserved the last pages of his book and the other climbers had discovered them and presented them to his widow at the end so she could go ahead and make some money getting the damned thing published.) Bridges’ character decides to abandon the others and make a try for the summit on his own — of course he doesn’t make it and he does a great double-header fall off the mountain and into a chasm (an “goofs” poster said it looked like a rag doll — I thought it was an articulated wooden dummy, but either way, the effect of Bridges’ fall was singularly unconvincing), and the other three make it within hailing distance of the top but give up because Carla has decided it’s more important to minister to Ordway, who’s gone snow-blind (the other two had yellow-green goggles to shield their eyes from the sun and its reflection off the white snow surfaces of the mountain, but Ordway’s had got broken along the way — though I’m not sure if they just broke or Bridges’ character deliberately sabotaged them; the outcome made me wish that Bridges’ character had died but not fallen, so Ford’s character could have grabbed his goggles and the remaining three could have made it to the summit together), than to reach the summit. So the movie fails to reach its obvious climax, but Ford and Valli are clearly headed for a climax of their own at the end — in a charming little tag scene with them on a train, on their way to get married, that anticipates the famous ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest nine years later. The White Tower isn’t much of a movie but it’s sure pretty to look at!