Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snowbound (1948)

Post-war Britain. Demobilized Blair (Dennis Price) is trying to earn his keep by working as a movie extra, when he’s not failing at selling whatever it is he writes (we only learn it isn’t screenplays). His new director turns out to be a man called Engles (Robert Newton), Blair’s former CO before Engles got drafted into intelligence operations. Engles has a much better proposition for Blair than the movie extra lark: why not go on a well-paid vacation to a ski cabin in the Italian Alps and observe what the other people living there are up to?  Officially, Blair’s supposed to write a screenplay for Engles. Despite his old boss not giving him any further details, Blair agrees, perhaps a little intrigued, perhaps a little stupid – a combination that’ll get him through the rest of the movie.

Because our protagonist is officially at the hut to write a screenplay for Engles, Blair is accompanied by one Wesson (Stanley Holloway), an oblivious director of photography who manages to know even less than our protagonist does.

Once at the hut, Blair encounters quite the rogue’s gallery of not at all suspicious people. There’s shady Brit Mayne (Guy Middleton), shady Greek Keramikos (Herbert Lom), a shady fake countess and Blairish love interest actually called Carla (Mila Parély) and her shady fixer Valdini (Marcel Dalio). Come to think of it, even the owner of the hut, one Aldo (Willy Fueter) is pretty shady. It’s quite obvious even to Blair – who is not a terribly insightful sort of thriller protagonist – that these people know one another, even though they strenuously pretend not to, that not one of them seems to be using their real name or nationality (apart from Valdini, perhaps), and that they are clearly there for sinister and mysterious reasons.

David MacDonald’s Snowbound, based on a Hammond Innes novel, is an interesting, if sometimes a little creaky, post-war thriller. The creakiness isn’t really the film’s fault: MacDonald certainly couldn’t know how the suspense techniques popularized by Hitchcock he uses, the know-nothing/innocent everyman protagonist who just happens to look like a film star, and so on, and so forth, would be regurgitated in the following decades so often by so many filmmakers that by now even a film which uses them well but not brilliantly (as Snowbound mostly does) can feel a little less well made than it actually is.

At times the film also nears the borders of the noir, but usually tends to step away from them at the last moment, out of British politeness and the abhorrence of making a scene, one supposes.

But let’s talk about Snowbound’s strengths. Certainly there’s no fault to be found with its main actors, a party of character actors whose somewhat ambiguous nationalities are a perfect fit for the just as ambiguous characters they are playing. Lom’s performance is particularly fine, balancing on the line between the sinister and the personable in an excellent acrobatics act, but everyone else works out great as the sort of people looking for any shady get rich quick scheme that populated Europe shortly after World War II in popular fiction (and perhaps in parts of reality).

There’s a palpable anxiety running through the film, a consciousness the war may be over, but the people fighting in it, and particularly the people who fought it behind the scenes are still there, lingering, searching something or someone, or planning to one day continue the madness they started. The ambiguity of characters’ identities or motivations only seems the logical conclusion to this state of affairs. Apart from Blair, of course. He somehow managed to make it through the war without getting a case of ambiguity or cynicism, and without learning that you probably shouldn’t go skiing with every shady character with attractive facial hair. Fortunately, Price for most of the time manages to sell him as a man in over his head instead of the complete idiot a lesser actor might have come up with when confronted with the same script.

Visually, the film is often atmospheric, generally attractive and usually clear. DP Stephen Dade certainly wasn’t a John Alton but he knew his way around night shots, lingering shadows, and other elements typical of black and white photography of the time, so there’s usually visual pull to any given scene, even if its is only another tableau one of men talking somewhere or other. The exterior and skiing shots – apparently done by Reg Johnson – are attractive too, if perhaps used a bit more indulgently than strictly necessary.

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