Monday, December 14, 2015

The Name Is Bond – Ward Bond

By Hank Parmer

Hitler - Dead or Alive (1942)
Story by Sam Neuman. Screenplay by Kurt Brown and Sam Neuman. Directed by Nick Grinde.

I couldn't have been more than five when I first viewed this film, making it one of my earliest movie memories. Not that I remembered any details about it, much less the title, since I only saw it that once. Mostly, what I recalled was that some guys were out to get Hitler, and the hero died by firing squad at the end. It obviously made quite an impression on me back then, to have vaguely stuck with me over so many years after just one viewing. 

So much so that when I recently discovered the title of the film, and found it was in the public domain, I had to watch it again. It soon became apparent that, at five years of age, my appreciation of the finer points of movie-making was not all that highly developed. After reviewing auteur Mark Atkins' inane mashup of Good War cliches and Medieval monsters, P-51 -- Dragon Fighter, I thought it might be instructive to revisit this ripe sample of period cheese.

Especially since fascism seems to be all the rage, this season.

As often happens with cheap-and-quickies of any era, the concept behind Hitler - Dead or Alive seems to have been inspired by two fairly big-budget films of the year before: First, the serio-comedy All Through the Night, which starred Bogart as a New York City gangster who dukes it out with Nazi saboteurs led by Conrad Veidt.  (It was a time when everyone was ready to do their bit, see? Even thugs and mugs, because that louse Schicklgruber -- the biggest mobster of them all -- was muscling in on everybody's racket.)

This movie, and the final scene from the Fritz Lang thriller Man Hunt, when Walter Pidgeon -- playing a former big game hunter who by this point in the film, in addition to all the usual motivations, has a very personal score to settle -- parachutes into Germany on a lone mission to stalk and kill the Führer.

So why not have wisecracking mobsters turned bounty hunters do the same thing? Genius, I tell you!

Quentin Tarantino acknowledged H-DoA as an inspiration for Inglorious Basterds, but don't let that get your hopes up. Just to give you some idea how far down the food chain this production originated, Ward Bond was tapped for the lead.

Bond may be familiar to some of my readers from his leading role as bluff, irascible “Major Seth Adams” in the classic TV Western Wagon Train, or from minor to occasionally supporting character roles in many a film from the 1930s through the 50s, most notably for John Ford and Frank Capra. Just like Fred Thompson was born to play a mush-mouthed pile of deep-fried Southern cornpone, Ward Bond specialized in playing big, beefy guys (often Irish) with a loud voice and a short fuse -- but typically a heart of gold underneath that rough exterior. (In real life, though, he was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Look up “Ward Bond” and “Motion Picture Alliance” if you want to see what I'm talking about. He was one creepy, Red-baiting, anti-Semitic icehole.)

Speaking of which, one of the striking things about this movie is that even though the majority of the action supposedly takes place at or near Dachau, Jews are never mentioned.


Anyway, on with the show:

As the opening credits run, we're treated to a medley of sprightly patriotic themes: Yankee Doodle ... Stars and Stripes ForeverColumbia - The Gem of the OceanDixie ... oh, wait.

Two newshounds watch a B-24 taxi and take off from a field in sunny CA. They admit to sharing a major man-crush on pilot Johnny Stevens.

The airplane is the first of a million dollars worth of bombers reclusive millionaire Howard Hu -- er, Samuel Thornton is donating to the Army. Their nose for a hot scoop tells them there's a bigger story here, and they're not going to be fobbed off with a mimeographed press release!

They go straight to see Thornton. (Played by Russell Hicks, a tall, distinguished-looking actor who often turns up in films of the time as a sharp character -- for instance, the con man who sells worthless mine stocks to W. C. Fields in The Bank Dick -- or the vaguely phony ally who turns out to be a villain in the last reel.) His secretary isn't inclined to let them bother the boss, but while one of the reporters puts his fist suggestively in his coat pocket (reporters were tough cookies, back in them days) the other claims he's Johnny Stevens'  BFF. Well, why didn't he say so in the first place?

"It'd be a real shame if something happened to that fancy stapler, now wouldn't it, sister?"

Just like everyone else, Thornton's a big fan of Johnny Stevens. So he makes an exception to his no-reporters rule and allows them into his laboratory, where he's been puttering around with his flasks and test tubes and Bunsen burners. Ushered into the presence of the great man, Johnny's "buddy" reveals their unbreakable bond of brotherhood was forged when the reporter met him and had a few words with him, before Johnny climbed into his airplane.

The reporter desperately covers for having played somewhat fast-and-loose with the truth by buttering up the millionaire. Not only did he give a million dollars' worth of bombers to the Army, but a few months ago, he offered the same amount to anyone who could bring in Hitler -- dead or alive. (Not even three minutes on the clock, and you've worked the title in. Good job, Sam and Kurt!)

The reporters demand to hear the story straight from the horse's mouth. Thornton decides he'd best toss these slavering newshounds a meaty story, if he wants to get any work done. He explains he's donating the bombers as "a monument to three men men who undertook to satisfy a bitter and thoughtless hatred" -- Thornton's hatred, he says, of Hitler. He knows better now, and who our real enemy is.

With this, the film dives into a flashback narrated by Thornton: One day, shortly after he put that bounty on Hitler, he was experimenting in the laboratory, dictating notes to his secretary (or so he claims) when three men appeared in the outer office.

Their dialog quickly establishes them as lovable hoods: Joe "The Book" Conway (Paul Fix - the brains of the outfit) begs Steve Maschick (Ward Bond) to forget about it -- there are lots of easier ways of making money. Hans 'Dutch' Haverman (perennial stooge Warren Hymer - muscle and gap-toothed comic relief) knows of a bank they could be knocking off. But Steve -- who makes like he's too tough to need a criminal nickname, yet is deeply hurt because they never gave him one -- reminds them he was never interested in the small-time stuff.

Since they're a fairly polite trio of gangsters, they knock on the door of the laboratory first and wait. The secretary answers, but tries to blow them off by claiming her boss is busy with an experiment. Steve and Dutch are itching to start right in with a little intimidation, but Joe saves the situation by introducing everyone nicely and informing her they're here about the bounty on Der Führer.

While the secretary goes off to clear it with her employer, the boys fondly reminisce about the good times they once had: Penthouses and dames ... diamond-studded swizzle sticks ... all the goniffs they could eat ...

Thornton receives them in his laboratory.

When Steve demands to know if the bounty is the real deal, Thornton explains he's doing it because the Gestapo murdered his brother, an exchange professor in Germany. He's deposited the money in an escrow account, to be paid out to anyone who brings in Hitler or proof that he's dead. Steve declares himself convinced Thornton's for real.

However, Thornton's not so sure about the boys' qualifications for the job.

Joe proudly points to the back pages of today's newspaper: Steve was once a big-time underworld kingpin. He and his two lieutenants have just been released, after eleven years on The Rock. (I bet Dwayne Johnson is mighty relieved.) The article highlights the gang's activities -- heists, rub-outs and assorted mayhem -- providing the boys with a jim-dandy prospectus for this potential client.

Thornton's impressed -- what dynamic businessman wouldn't be? -- but not completely sold. Steve closes the deal by pointing out that Adolf's just another mobster. Steve says he knows all the angles, and when he takes a job, he gets results.

Possibly because he's itching to get back to experimenting with his secretary, Thornton gives in. He promises he'll have the contract drawn up in the morning. But no dice: The Chief of Police has given the boys just 24 hours to clear out of town. Since it appears to be the only way to get rid of these bozos, Thornton calls in his lawyer.

After drawing up the agreement, contingent upon them producing Der Führer or satisfactory proof of his demise, Thornton's lawyer comments that it's probably not enforceable. Joe counters with some blatant nonsense, claiming what they're doing is insuring Hitler for a million dollars, with Steve, Joe and Dutch as his beneficiaries in the event of his death. The lawyer is highly impressed by Joe's legal acumen. He wants to know where “The Book” studied the law.

"Eleven years -- at Alcatraz," grins the bespectacled gangster.

Joe thinks they should make some arrangement about the money, if they manage to off Hitler but don't make it back to collect. Dutch suggests they could have a swell funeral, but Steve isn't worried: With a million bucks waiting for him, he's coming back. But if they don't, he says, build us a monument.

Ah, but the lawyer brings up an important point: How will the boys know they've got the real Hitler? It's a well-known fact he uses doubles.

"Don't you worry your pretty little heads about that," replies Steve. "I'll know him when I get my hands on him."

Well, who could possibly argue with that?

The lawyer suggests they may run into a bit of a problem with the language, but Steve's ready for that one: He and the boys used to run a beer racket in Milwaukee. That means they know how to beat the stuffing out of barkeeps, toss bombs through windows, mow down rivals and hijack their shipments in more than one language. We'll make out fine, he assures Thornton and his lawyer.

With these inconsequential details resolved, the contract is signed and the boys are ready to leave. They plan to do a stick-up for old time's sake, just for a little traveling cash, you understand. But Thornton says he wants them to concentrate on the job at hand. So he forks over an advance.

While heading out the door, Steve has a bright idea: Since we're already gonna be over there, he asks, how much for Mussolini? Greedy … greedy …. get out of here, you nut!

The boys hop a train to Canada and join the RCAF. They're sent to England, where they train as paratroops. One night they're up for a practice jump in a minimalist plane set, and the pilot is -- Johnny Stevens! Admit it: You thought the story had forgotten about him.

The boys are quick to seize their opportunity. They hustle the captain out the exit -- fortunately, he's wearing a parachute -- and inform Johnny at gun-point that this plane has a new destination: Germany! In the first of many hints that Johnny is a bit deficient in the brains department, he doesn't even think to point out that if they shoot him, they won't have anyone to fly the plane. So it's off we go to the Third Reich!

While cruising over Germany, they're attacked by a cheesy stock footage simulation of a Luftwaffe BF-109. (I think it's actually a pre-war Curtiss P-36.) Wedging himself in the door, Steve casually knocks it down with a quick burst from his tommygun.

"Last week I shot down a squadron of Stuka dive-bombers with my Greenie Stick-M cap gun!"

(This hapless pilot, Manfred "Crazy Eyes" von Gestunken, had actually been voted "Most Likely to Get Shot Down in an Utterly Improbable Fashion" by the graduating class at flight school.)

What adds even more to the hilarity of this sequence is watching Steve attempt to simulate the recoil from his non-muzzle-flashing, invisible-shell-casing-spitting Thompson submachine gun by jerking his shoulder. Completely out of sync with the sound effect, of course, because let's face it: the only way one can get any Whiter than Ward Bond is to be born an albino, in rural Ohio. The boy just ain't got rhythm.

With superb timing, their airplane chooses this moment to run out of gas. Everybody bails out.

Once on the ground, Steve checks their equipment: a flashlight, a map and some dough. So they've got everything they need, right? Johnny's less optimistic, though, muttering darkly about firing squads, and being a major buzzkill by noting they're lost and on their own, somewhere in the middle of Nazi Germany. Steve has him look at the map. Johnny guesses their current location as two hundred miles west of Berlin. Easy-peasy, says Steve, we'll hitchhike!

Still wearing their flight suits and leather helmets, they soon stumble onto the nearest road. A military truck happens by at exactly that moment and Steve flags it down. Luckily, a squad of stormtroopers doesn't come piling out of the back; there are only a couple of soldiers in the cab. He distracts the driver by demanding to see his pass. In ludicrously accented English, or maybe he's switched to Milwaukeean, and we're not supposed to notice. Either way, a sort of ersatz-Prussian pidgin will do, until the pretense that anybody in the Third Reich speaks German is completely abandoned.

Judging by the example of Germany's fighting men they've so far encountered, it should come as no surprise that Steve is easily able to slug the driver, while Joe and Dutch overcome his mate. Perhaps the less incompetent Nazis are all off somewhere blitzkrieging.

Road trip, everybody! They dump the unconscious soldiers by the side of the lane, kicking them a few times in the ribs as a parting gift, and begin their trek to Berlin. In an ironic development, Dutch -- who's elected to ride in the back -- discovers they've hijacked a truck full of beer. So it's brewskis all round!

Although Johnny's still uncertain the boys aren't traitors, he joins them in cracking a bottle. Swigging their beers and merrily chorusing "Ach Du Lieber, Augustin", the boys and their reluctant accomplice trundle through the picturesque Southern California -- I mean, German countryside.

When they're eventually pulled over by some motorcycle-and-sidecar Nazis, including the whiniest SS guy ever -- he actually complains to the boys about having to chase them -- it looks like things are about to get dicey. Again it's Brainy Joe to the rescue, cleverly hinting they're on a top-secret mission for the Führer and must deliver their message personally. Steve picks up the ball and runs with it, promising they'll allow their captors to escort them to district headquarters -- after the Nazis find some gas for their truck, of course, and treat them to an “armload of breakfast”.

Since these are comic opera Krauts, they're taken off-guard by the sheer audacity of the gangsters' ploy. They hasten to obey, with many a "Ja wohl!" and "Heil Hitler!" On their way to headquarters, munching on his share of the food he'd demanded, Steve promises Johnny that "This is only the beginning, small fry! Only the beginning." (I have a terrible feeling he might be right.)

Taken to Dachau -- which has inexplicably been moved from Bavaria to western Germany -- they're questioned by the Kommandant, Col. Hecht. He's frankly skeptical of their story, thereby firmly establishing himself as the smartest Nazi goon in the immediate area. He locks them up, while he waits for orders from Berlin.

But are the boys downcast about ending up in the slammer again? Nah. These Nazis don't know nothin' about building jails. They can bust out of Dachau --  according to the sign above the gate this really is supposed to be that infamous konzentrationslager -- anytime they want, promises Steve. Easily locating a hidden microphone, he messes with their Gestapo eavesdropper by yelling into it for room service. Wotta card!

Meanwhile, Col. Hecht pays a visit to beautiful, elegant Countess Else von Brandt. Maybe I was just a tad peckish while watching this thing, but I could swear it sounded like everybody pronounced her name as "von Bundt". Though Dorothy Tree is a fairly tasty confection.

Else appears to be a fervent admirer of Der Führer: She confides to the Colonel that she desires nothing more than an opportunity to dance for The Leader. (Look, just 'cause she's a member of the old Prussian aristocracy, it doesn't mean a gal can't show off those great gams. For instance, there was the celebrated Lili von Shtupp ...)

She listens sympathetically as Hecht kvetches about the oddball Americans who've literally dropped on his doorstep. Should he let them see the Führer, or torture the message out of them and deliver it himself, possibly earning Adolf's undying gratitude? He's another Whiny Heinie, bitterly indignant that his unremitting labors on behalf of the Reich have so far gone unrecognized. He feels he deserves something better than this dead-end posting out in the sticks, running a third-rate concentration camp.

But, he muses, the pilot obviously knows nothing (no kidding) and their intelligence reports the other lunkheads really are ruthless gangsters -- just the sort of people the Führer might employ on a desperate mission. Why, they might have information which could win the war! He reluctantly makes up his mind to hold off on the enhanced interrogation.

Congratulating him on his dedication to the Reich, Else manages to get rid of the creep. Surprise -- she's not a Nazi! She tells her secretary the Americans must somehow be freed immediately, and scribbles a message on a card.

Else smuggles her message to the boys through her contact in the kitchen. As luck would have it, it winds up in Johnny's bowl of mush. Though he's got to be aware by now that there's a hidden microphone in their cell, the pilot -- seemingly hell-bent on proving he's definitely not the brightest bulb in this chintzy candelabra --  loudly complains about somebody leaving a card in his food and pitches it onto the floor.

Steve chides him for throwing food around the cell. Why, it could attract ants and other pests! This hygienically-minded mobster retrieves the card and tosses it into the middle of the table. Dutch is creeped out because it's the ace of spades, but Johnny, puzzled, scrapes off the mush and blurts, "Hey, there's writing on it!"

Forget flying an airplane, it's amazing they let this guy feed himself with a knife and fork.

Steve tries unsuccessfully to inject a little class into the proceedings with a snide remark about bridge -- and Johnny playing the dummy. Although if you ask me he's not got much to brag about, himself.

He blocks the microphone with a handful of mush, and they examine the card more closely. In a loud voice, so as not to make their guard suspicious (I'm not joking) Steve recites the cryptic missive: "He knows. XX. Signed, Rosebud."

Although I believe this movie would only be improved at this point by turning into a surrealistic version of Citizen Kane, in which the sled's been caught having a torrid affair with Dorothy Comingore,  the boys instantly tumble to what's really going on: It's the Criminal Code. They quickly decipher this seemingly incomprehensible message to mean "Hecht's on to you and plans a double-cross -- in spades!" (har)

Johnny excitedly identifies "Rosebud" as the mysterious lady who's rumored to head a network that helps downed pilots get out of Germany.

Steve decides it's time to crash out of this jernt. He tricks the guard into reaching through the bars for the card. (And who could blame him? In sixty years, Rosebud's signature should be worth a fortune on eBay.) Steve grabs his arm and holds him fast while Dutch produces a pry bar from beneath his pillow -- a gift from the Thug Fairy, I hope, because otherwise I really don't want to know how he got that past the guards -- and springs the lock.

They yank the guard into the cell, strip him of his uniform and tie him up. The Nazi who's supposed to be listening in to the boys -- and doesn't even attempt a German accent, and was apparently in the john when Johnny opened his big yap about the card -- reports that the microphone is on the fritz. Two more Fritzs are sent to investigate. The boys get the drop on them as well, and confiscate their uniforms.

Disguised as SS, with Johnny pretending to be their prisoner, they march out of the prison. Steve figures they could use a hostage for insurance, so he orders the others to hide in some nearby bushes while he kidnaps Col. Hecht. "In broad daylight?!?" protests Dutch. That's the best time, explains Steve, because they won't be expecting it.

Steve sneaks into the Admin building. Standing outside Hecht's office, with the door ajar, he hears Hecht's subordinate, Capt. Kuhr -- pronounced "cur" ... oh, ain't we clever? -- telling someone on the phone that the Colonel isn't there, but is expected to arrive at any moment. He hangs up, but notices Steve as the big lug tries to close the door quietly and tiptoe away. Calling him into his office, the hauptmann demands to know why our hero was lurking in the hallway. Steve fakes him out with the old "Drop my identity papers and clobber the guy when he bends down to pick them up" routine. Is there any gag so moldy these Nazi numbskulls won't fall for it?

Steve shoots the lock off a cabinet and relieves it of pistols and a bundle of Reichsmarks.  (The sound of gunshots emanating from the Kommandant's office is apparently nothing out of the ordinary.) Rejoining the others he distributes the loot.

Col. Hecht, accompanied by the Countess, arrives in his stylish double phaeton limo. He orders his driver to take her home, then enters the building. The boys take advantage of this golden opportunity to steal the car and kidnap Else. On their way out, Dutch wants to relive old times and ride on the running board while blazing away with his gat. He's wounded, and falls in the street. Valiantly holding off the Nazis, he buys time for his pals to make their getaway. So much for our comic relief.

Crashing through a gate constructed of the stoutest of balsa one-by-twos, they make good their escape. Shortly afterwards, two motorcycles go roaring after them. They're briefly pursued through the rolling Southern California hills by the motorcycle Nazis, who break off the chase as soon as Steve shoots back at them. Something tells me they won't be getting any golden swastika stickers this week from Col. Hecht.

The Countess speaks up, advising them to turn off on a side road. Steve demands to know what for. She quickly proves she's "Rosebud". Following her directions, Johnny takes the side road and they park in some woods. Else tells them they should hide out here, while she gets ditches the car and arranges for someone to help them.

There's a brief scene in which clueless Col. Hecht  is comforting the distraught Countess. He takes a short break from his “There ... there ...”'s to rail at a henchman over the phone for letting the gangsters escape. She clearly has him completely bamboozled.

Then it's back to the boys. It's nighttime. Steve and Joe reminisce sadly about Dutch, who always wanted a fancy funeral, and now it looks like they won't be able to give it to him. And they'd planned one so often …

Suddenly, they hear someone whistling "Yankee Doodle" -- a sure-fire indication, Joe declares, that it can't be a Nazi. (Every two-fisted American knows that for any true follower of the Führer, the tune is like garlic to a vampire!)

Fortunately, Joe's right. Steve gives the counter-whistle, and their contact, Meyer -- cleverly disguised as a brownshirt -- conducts them to the secret hideout in the Countess' basement, where she's waiting for them. Johnny, obviously smitten, tells her they're grateful she was there, and just in the nick of time. She replies that was planned, but they moved faster than she thought possible.

Now hold on a minute: Col. Hecht told his driver to take the Countess back to her home immediately after they arrived at his Dachau office. He didn't say "Hang around here until somebody comes along to carjack you." If they'd busted out even just a few minutes later, the getaway car and the Countess would have been long gone. The only way this could have been part of a "plan" was if she'd timed it with the precision of a casino heist, presumably by telepathic communication. I guess some people just have to horn in on the glory.

Else tells Steve he'd better come clean about this message racket. Steve tries playing coy, but she's adamant. Else reveals she's Hitler's implacable enemy. She warns him that if they are bearing information which will help the Führer, she'll see they never live to deliver it.

Considering she says this to three armed men, two of whom have already been described to her as ruthless gangsters and for all she knows might actually be Hitler fanboys, when there's only her and her unarmed, paunchy, middle-aged faux-brownshirt compatriot Meyer there to make good on her threat, I have to admire her self-confidence. I doubt she's got a tommygun concealed under that dress. Maybe she's got a sixteen-ton weight hidden in the ceiling, or wired the place up to twenty tons of gelignite ...

Steve admits their real objective is to rub out Hitler. The Countess rightly believes he's out of his tiny little mind, and doesn't hesitate to say so. But Steve's certain he can pull it off: Why, he knew a guy who got in his hair, once. The guy had an armored car and lots of bodyguards, but all Steve had to do was get him to let our hero whisper something into his ear, while they were somewhere private.

I can see there might be might have some initial difficulty in setting up an assignation with Adolf, back when they didn't even have the internet and Ashley Madison. But you know, it's just crazy enough that it might work. There's always the Der Sturmer Classifieds.

Steve asks Else if she's ever seen a big shot knocked off. No. Well, he says, everybody goes nuts. He'll have ten, maybe fifteen minutes before anybody starts thinking straight, and that's all he needs to get away.

He'll then have to make his escape from a totalitarian state crawling with Staatspolizei and informers, but that's a minor detail. Given the Nazis have so far proven themselves to be even bigger nitwits, he might be on to something. I bet we could have armed a couple dozen wise guys with sticks with a nail in them and trash can lids and cleaned this bunch out in a week. Two, tops.

The Countess brings the first whiff of anything remotely resembling reality to this movie by declaring that although she and millions in Germany agree with Steve's sentiment, killing the Führer probably won't end the war. If anything, the military would likely do better without Hitler calling the shots. She's clearly disappointed when Steve replies he couldn't care less about that, he's only in it for the million.

That's the end of that conversation. She graciously gives the boys the run of her basement hideaway until she can arrange to get them out of the country. On her way back upstairs, she pauses for a moment to better establish that budding romance with Johnny. He assures her there are lots of boys in England who'd like to show their gratitude to her, if she ever leaves Germany. But no, she's determined to remain in the Reich, though someday she knows she'll be captured. "I will never see England again," she says, wistfully.

Next morning, Meyer fills the boys in on his back story while serving them breakfast. In another in a series of highly unlikely coincidences -- collect 'em all! --  he actually saved Hitler's life twenty years ago in Munich, when some students took offense at one of Adolf's speeches and rebutted his arguments with their broken beer steins. He took the future Führer home, sewed up his wounds -- including a deep cut on his upper lip (Plot point! Plot point!) -- and nursed him back to health.

Far from being grateful to his rescuer, though, Hitler hates him. It's not just that Meyer knew him back when he was a skinny nerd, but also because the scar Meyer's inexpert stitching left on his lip gave him a permanent sneer; he had to grow that silly toothbrush mustache to hide it.

Steve's elated at acquiring this informational tidbit: He knows how to identify the real Hitler -- without calling in Tom Poston and Kitty Carlisle! (That's a geezer joke.) From now on, he goes nowhere without a straight razor and shaving cream. But, Meyer glooms, Hitler might be smart enough to have all his doubles similarly scarred.

For once, Steve has no comeback for that. They're interrupted by the sound of someone knocking at the front door. (This secret hideaway has walls the approximate thickness of a Motel 6.) Meyer cautions the boys to be quiet, while they listen in to the goings-on upstairs.

Bad news: It's Col. Hecht, who informs the Countess that papers found on Dutch prove the Americans are out to assassinate our beloved Führer, for a reward of ten million dollars. (Always the joker, Dutch added a zero -- in crayon, probably.) If they aren't captured and then executed while Hitler watches, the entire village will be exterminated for aiding them. You see, he explains, the Führer wants to mass-murder some Germans, to prove he's impartial with his atrocities.

The boys are naturally nonplussed at this news. "Just let me get my hands on him!" growls Steve.

Meanwhile, the Colonel regretfully informs the Countess that his men must search her house "from top to bottom". Which they do, except that these unfailingly dimwitted Nazis neglect to check out the cellar. Hecht -- who's been checking out Else upstairs and downstairs every time the two are together -- is pleased to know the Countess is a loyal daughter of the Fatherland. And now she's going to get her long-awaited chance to dance for the Führer, who'll be in the neighborhood at his country estate for the opening of the execution season.

Hecht departs, then Captain Cur rings up to bark at Else's secretary. She puts the Countess on the phone; the hauptmann informs her a car will be arriving for her at seven. She asks Kuhr if she can bring along her quartet -- maybe Adolf would like to jam, after the show. Kuhr readily agrees.

Else thanks him and hangs up. She tells her secretary to contact the musicians and have them pick up their passes from Kuhr, then show up at her pad at five for rehearsal.

You know what? Since his underworld chums wouldn't do it, I'm going to take this opportunity to hang a monicker on our hero: Steve "Dumb Luck" Maschick. Seriously, the guy bails out over Germany with only the vaguest idea where he is, effortlessly hijacks a truck full of beer and takes a road trip. He gets picked up by the Gestapo and taken to Dachau, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from the Führer's rural retreat. Hardly breaking a sweat, he escapes, kidnapping the one person in the vicinity who's willing to hide them, and now he's presented with the perfect opportunity to take a crack at the most closely-guarded individual in the Third Reich.

They just don't write 'em like this, any more.

The Countess descends to the hideout. Again she clashes with Steve over his nutball ambition. The Führer's estate is protected by high walls and an electrified fence. He has a private landing field, a bombproof hanger, even an underground passage from the hangar to the house.

But having overheard Hecht's threat to exterminate the village, Steve's got his blood up. He doesn't care. Still, Else won't cooperate. Any attempt on the Führer's life will get hundreds of people slaughtered, she reiterates, and won't change anything. She absolutely refuses to help him kill Hitler.

Steve's furious. He insists -- for completely altruistic reasons, you understand -- that if he wastes the Führer, those orders won't be carried out. (Surely Himmler will let bygones be bygones, right?)

But Else won't be moved. She coolly informs Steve that tonight Meyer will guide them to the next contact in the escape network, then returns upstairs. Strange how she seems to have completely forgotten that if the boys aren't turned over to the Gestapo, the village gets wiped out anyway. Maybe she has other plans for them. I know I'd be mighty tempted, if I were in her place.

Steve's boiling mad. He tells the others the Treasury can have the money, so long as he rubs out Hitler and rids the world of the only guy evil enough to kill innocent women and children. No more Adolf, no more atrocities. It's as simple as that.

Cut to the Countess -- all dolled up for the evening's Fuhrerfest -- and her secretary, as they descend the stairs. They're perplexed by the hideous racket emanating from the parlor. There she finds the boys torturing some musical instruments. They're rigged out in tuxedos and fake facial hair. Steve goes for the understated look, with just a discreet mustache. Joe's added a distinguished-looking van Dyke to his disguise, while Johnny exhibits his usual flair for getting it completely wrong by employing two pencil mustaches as goofy-looking sideburns.

Else demands to know what is the meaning of this -- as if that's not blindingly obvious. The musicians are tied up down in the hideout; Meyer and the boys are going to take their place, so Steve can get at Hitler. Considering that none of them (except, as is later claimed, Johnny) can play an instrument, why then are they even bothering to practice?

Before she can do more than feebly protest, a Nazi arrives to escort the gang to their dream date with the Führer.

So, despite her refusal, Steve and the boys have involved this woman -- who hid them at great personal risk from the Nazis -- in their hare-brained scheme. Even though she's already given them good reasons why assassinating Hitler won't end the war, might even backfire against the Allies, and will certainly cause the death of hundreds of innocents whether it succeeds or not. Plus, they've now forced Else into a corner where -- if she truly believes what she said -- the only way she might prevent the Nazis from carrying through with their threat is to turn the boys in and immediately off herself, so she won't betray her network under torture. It's certainly too late to have done the smart thing: Shoot the pig-headed dimbulb and his friends and dump their bodies by the roadside.

Cut to the courtyard of the Fuhrerchalet, where an orchestra is playing a sprightly waltz. The Nazis are swilling champagne and networking. One of them is in a tizzy, though, because guards haven't been put on the landing field yet. The Führer will be furious! He commands an underling to go see to it.

The Countess arrives, with Meyer and the boys in tow. The Nazi greeter gives her a few tips on proper Fuhreretiquette, which mostly consists of "Do nothing unless you're told to!" and "Don't bug him for an autograph!" She leads them to a secluded alcove, and sarcastically suggests Steve and the guys "Start tuning -- if you know how!"

Johnny attempts to mollify her, bashfully volunteering that he played a hot clarinet in high school. Obviously fuming, she snaps "Hitler hates the clarinet!" (You don't even want to know what he's got in store for Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, if the Nazis ever gets their mitts on them.)

"Do something!" she tells them, "Or I think I'll go out of my mind!"

Given the situation, I could see the Countess feeling some intense emotions, foremost among them a blinding hatred for the idiots who've gotten her and the villagers into this mess. Or even numbed resignation, but … exasperation? It's like the movie keeps trying to turn into a screwball comedy, but just can't make it off the ground.

Steve opens his violin case -- which the Nazis neglected to search before admitting him, despite all that ultra-tight security -- and hands pistols to Meyer and the boys. Then he pulls a violin out. How did he get all that stuff in there?

He warns the others not to do anything until he makes his move, then pretends to tune his instrument.

A general and an admiral become involved in a heated argument over who's the composer of a melody: Brahms or Beethoven? They decide to settle this dispute by consulting supposed musician Steve.

The Beethoven partisan believes it's from his Fifth. "Fifth what?" blurts Steve, caught completely flat-footed by this simple question. You can bet that right about now he bitterly regrets skipping those music appreciation classes at reform school.

"His Fifth Symphony, you blockhead!" yells the admiral.

D'oh!

Steve stalls for time by asking how the tune went. Just when he's about to be forced to demonstrate his utter lack of musical ability, he gets yet another in an unbroken run of lucky reprieves as the Nazis are distracted by the arrival of the Führer's airplane. It circles overhead, waiting for the all-clear from the guards on the ground.

The officers fall silent and drift off in a haze, the dispute instantly forgotten in their rapture at Adolf's imminent arrival.

"He sure don't take no chances,"  comments Steve.

The Countess tells him that Hitler even has it arranged so he can step right out of his plane and into a private elevator. Johnny admires the Führer's sweet set of wings: a nice, long-range four-engine job. You can see the wheels turning in Steve's beefy noggin: “Maybe you'll get a crack at her, kid.”

Hitler appears.
Hello, hello, hello – hello!

He peevishly acknowledges the salutes and shouts of "Heil Hitler!" and "Seig Heil!" as he stands for a moment at the head of the steps leading down to the courtyard. Flanked by two of his "elite guards", he descends the staircase.

The Führer's dramatic entrance, by the way, is accompanied by this incongruously whimsical musical theme, the sort of thing you'd expect to hear just prior to Moe, Larry and Curly appearing on the scene and reducing these nutty Nazis' garden party to a comic shambles. It's as though the filmmakers lifted the phrase from an entirely different movie, not this deadly dull mess.

As the Führer greets the line of guests, one of the long-time Party members remarks it's not like the old days in Munich. Adolf  responds with a tourism pitch he's currently brainstorming: "Munich, City of Destiny!" (Because he got his start there, of course.)

"Now?" whispers Joe.

"Nah," answers Steve. "I gotta make sure of something first."

Of course the Führer never could resist ranting a smidge about his plans for world conquest. He leads off with that proven crowd pleaser: "Today, Europe. Tomorrow ... the world!" Yes, he gloats, the irresistible might of the Third Reich will crush all the fools who oppose us: England ... Russia ... America ... Japan!

"Japan?" echoes one of his shocked admirers.

"With Russia as my base, the English fleet at my command, the Americans groveling at my feet, I shall take Japan by telephone!" vows Hitler.

Looks like Herr Doktor Morell's “vitamin injection” is definitely kicking in.

Another Nazi humors him with a bit of shameless sycophancy: The stunning success of the Russian Campaign proves the Führer is greater than Napoleon!

Napoleon, pfui! sneers Adolf. Small potatoes. Just wait 'til you see my plans for America -- that'll prove I'm a super-genius!

In response to the toady's unctuous regret that the Führer must keep his plans secret for now, Adolf brags that he never bothers to conceal his plans -- you know: Mein Kampf and all that. But even then his feeble enemies could not stop him. And now, they've put a hundred million dollar bounty on his head! (Looks like somebody's added another zero.) Has such a price ever been put on a leader's head, he exults, in the history of the world?

This actor's portrayal of Hitler makes me truly appreciate Moe Howard's finely nuanced interpretation.

Col. Hecht reports to the Führer. When questioned about the boys, he promises he's just about to lay his hands on them. Hitler reminds him the execution is scheduled for tomorrow morning, 9:00 sharp. (Pretty sure of themselves, aren't they?)

Adolf notices the Countess and the boys, waiting in the alcove. When informed that they're here to help him relax with dance and music, the Führer wishes to speak to her alone. His bodyguards push the crowd of officers back as Hitler approaches.


He thinks he's seen the Countess somewhere before. She tells him it might have been at the theater. Here we discover another Führer Fun Fact: As you might expect, Hitler has some very definite convictions about haute couture. There's only one correct gown for dancing, he snarls, and she's not wearing it!


This cat is, like, flip city!

While Else struggles to come up with a reply to that, Hecht at long last recognizes Steve and the boys. Pandemonium erupts. Joe is mortally wounded in the ensuing shootout, but Steve sees his chance and nabs Hitler. Putting his pistol to the Führer's head, he forces him to order the Nazis to drop their weapons. They grudgingly comply. Hitler begs Steve not to kill him, offering any amount of money, a hundred million ... five hundred million dollars!

Nothing doing, Schicklgruber! Steve orders Johnny to take the Countess and skedaddle to the Führer's plane. While he holds Adolf hostage here, they'll fly to England and let the authorities know he's got Hitler -- alive! But Johnny refuses to leave Steve to face the music alone. Else won't go, either.

"We're in this together. We will stay!" she bravely insists.

"Listen, toots," says Steve, "You just get to London and start dickering with these stooges by long distance. Find out how much he's worth to 'em. With you makin' the deal over there, and me with little tootsie-wootsie right under my finger, I wouldn't be surprised if you could make them call off this war!"

Steve's got it all worked out: He'll stash Hitler at the hideout. The Gestapo's been looking for it for years, and haven't found it, he tells the two, so it'll be perfect. (Because, of course, the Nazis are dumber than stumps, and even though they now know the Countess is a traitor, it would never, ever occur to them to search her house again. Possibly a bit more thoroughly, this time around.)

Reassured by this arrant idiocy, Johnny and the Countess scamper off, leaving Steve and Meyer to deal with Adolf and his minions. Steve demands the Nazis supply a getaway car, and threatens to turn the Führer into dog meat if they try anything funny. They're forced to abandon their hastily-conceived plan to distract Steve, by doing the death scene from Camille in high-pitched, squeaky voices.

Incredibly, in the brief time after Johnny and Else's departure that it's taken Steve to issue his demand and make that threat -- less than forty seconds –  with no cutaway or any other indication more time has passed than that, we hear the drone of airplane engines. That's right: the two have ridden that elevator down to the hangar, gotten on the plane, started all four engines, taxied out of the hangar and onto the runway and taken off. They pass overhead, flashing the "'V' for Victory" signal to let Steve know they made it.

Now look, I'm a patient guy; I've been willing to accept this is a hackish, low-budget flag-waving revenge fantasy to which the laws of probability, coherent scripting and believable characterization need not apply, but enough is too much: I call "No way!"

Steve and Meyer make good their getaway with the Führer. Returning to the hideout, they find the secretary, Greta, tied to a chair and gagged. The musicians have vamoosed, so it's only a matter of time until they're ratted out. That's okay, Steve reassures his friends, we still have Hitler. But do they? Time for the shaving cream and straight razor.

Shorn of his nose neighbor, the Führer's positively identified by Meyer. Steve then takes Adolf's famous forelock for a souvenir. After this ritual emasculation, a squad of stormtroopers led by Col. Hecht break into the hideout and quickly subdue the occupants with tear gas. Now for the big dramatic twist, the thing you never would have seen coming, nosiree, not in a million years: Without his trademark 'stache and haircut, no one recognizes the Führer!

Steve takes advantage of the confusion to act embarrassed and claim Hitler got away.

"I knew it!" crows Hecht. “The Führer is too great a genius to remain their captive for long!”

I guess being the brainiest Nazi goon in the vicinity signifies far less than I'd thought. Even if we assume Hecht somehow missed out on all those posters and newsreels and speeches on the radio, just a short while ago he was in the same room with the Führer and even spoke with him. Doesn't he recognize the voice, and the physical resemblance? Maybe, with Nazis, that forelock and toothbrush mustache act sort of like Clark Kent's hat and specs. Or it could be Hecht is afflicted with face blindness. Either way, Adolf's definitely SOL.

Though Hitler frantically pleads with his captors as they march him into the street, it's firing squad time. The Führer shrieks "They can't kill me!" and tries to run away. Hecht shoots him in the back, then puts a bullet in his brain as he sprawls on the pavement, sobbing. Oh man, is Hecht gonna have some 'splainin' to do.

"To think that Nazi Germany spawned such filth!" sneers the Colonel. Steve, snickering, agrees wholeheartedly.

There's some touching dialog between Meyer and Greta, as Steve and the two prepare for their imminent deaths. Even though Hecht still believes his beloved Führer is alive and well, he's going to ignore Hitler's direct orders and go ahead and stage these executions without him? He doesn't think it might be a good idea to hold on to them, at least until The Leader is found? Okay, sure.

As a warm-up for the big event, the Nazis execute four children -- where did they come from? Just before you see the kids being lined up against a wall, you hear a baby wailing. Yet the victims all look to be at least eight or nine years old. Not that that makes it better of course.

The camera cuts away to the firing squad. I understand now why this movie affected me so terribly when I was a young boy. It's the one truly shocking moment in this shockingly crappy film.

Steve finally admits the Countess was right, and he's blown it -- which I imagine will be a great comfort to the hundreds of villagers who're evidently about to be massacred. As a consolation prize, the Nazis give him plenty of time to issue a stirring call for vengeance after they stand him against the wall. Naturally, it takes more than one salvo to shut him up.

Thus concludes the flashback -- although it begs the question: How could Thornton know what happened to Steve after Johnny and Else departed the scene? Yeah, yeah, I know: I think we can all agree it's way too late in the game to start quibbling over a comparatively minor lapse of plausibility.

Thornton at last identifies that "real enemy" he mentioned at the beginning: He realizes now that it's not just Hitler, but all the Nazi warlords, who must be wiped off the face of the earth. The movie concludes with another fiery speech, this time delivered by Thornton. Caught up in his patriotic fervor, the dogged newshounds promise to do their part, too. Fade out, to the triumphant strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

The end. Pick up a stack of war bonds on your way out.

So remember, whenever the specter of fascism raises its shrouded head in agony, America's first line of defense will always be the hoods, the simple guys with terrible taste in apparel and decor, with names like Joey Bananas, Myron “Gefilte” Fishbein, Tony “The Avocado Refrigerator/Freezer Combo” Linguini and Dick “Dead Eye” Cheney. Sure, they'll probably louse it up like these meatheads did, and get a lot of bystanders killed, too, but it might be worth a few laughs. Or none, as the case may be.

5 comments:

Jay B. said...

Mein GOTT Scott.

This piece is so good, it's the Intertubes that got small. Nice stuff -- and enlightenin' too. I had no idea Ward Bond was a dick. It makes me feel bad, mainly because I love so many of the movies he was in, but who cares, really?

Doc Logan said...

Another magnificent post, Hank.

I'm reminded of Henry Fonda's quote regarding Ward Bond, "The son of a bitch can't even spell 'politics', and now he's an expert?"

Debbi said...

Heil ho! :)

Hollywood sure did know how to cinematize a fascist, eh?

Been reading all about movies of the 50s and HUAC. Amazing stuff.

I knew John Wayne was an icehole, but I didn't know about Ward Bond. What a shame.

lawguy said...

If I recall correctly John Wayne and Ward Bond were buds. Fun fact: They were hunting one time while Bond was staring in Wagon Train and Wayne shot him in the back (bird hunting I think, so it was a shot gun).

The classics just keep on giving.

Hank said...

Thanks, everyone.

Before I sat down to write this thing, all I knew about Bond and the blacklist was a vague recollection of a clip I'd seen of him testifying before HUAC as a friendly witness. (Okay, "friendly" is a bit of an understatement -- "boot-licking paranoid nutcase" would be more accurate.) Then I found out about the MPA and some of the real nastiness this guy pulled. I mean, damn, lovable "Bert the Cop" from It's a Wonderful Life?

Although I have to say that wasn't nearly as disappointing as finding out Walter Brennan was also a stone racist. Gramps McCoy -- noooooooo!