Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Passage (1979)

Some time during World War II. The resistance against the Germans hires a nameless grumpy old Basque shepherd (grumpy old Anthony Quinn, wearing the appropriate beret to prove his basqueness) to lead a Swedish scientist (James Mason, a very Swedish gentleman, as we all well know) sought by the Nazis through the Pyrenees. Of course, things will turn out more complicated than that. Firstly, it becomes soon clear the good Professor isn’t going to come alone but is bringing his whole family – his ill wife (Patricia Neal), his rebellious teenage son (Paul Clemens) and his soon-to be raped by Nazis daughter (Kay Lenz).

That’s enough to make the Basque even grumpier, but what’s worse is that the Germans have sent a guy after them who is insane even by the standards of the SS – Captain von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell), wearer of swastika underwear, torturer by kitchen implement and all-around murderous crazy bastard. And the whole “crossing the Pyrenees” bit? Well, the Basque will spend large parts of the film getting the family there from Paris.

If you’re interested in a film where the sensibilities of the more sensible of Charles Bronson’s main directors, J. Lee Thompson, seem to have magically turned into those of that other Bronson favourite, old sleazebag Michael Winner, this is the film to watch. Given the quality of the cast, one would expect The Passage to be a pretty serious adventure movie with moments of earnest drama; instead it is a lurid concoction of crazy ideas, bizarre bullshit, scenes right out of a Nazisploitation movie, and a couple of scenes one might buy as earnest if not for the tone of everything surrounding them, like a certain heroic sacrifice late in the film.

The most bizarre and the most entertaining part of the whole thing is certainly Malcolm McDowell’s performance. McDowell portrays his crazy cartoon Nazi as if his Alex from A Clockwork Orange had found a place and time where he truly belonged, torturing people, having at least four different kinds of murderous hissy fits, gloating, presenting his swastika underwear with crazy laughter, imitating Hitler in front of a mirror, and so on and so forth. Of course, the way the film goes, the laughter and amusement McDowell’s crazy capering produces crashes right into moments of intense discomfort. His very special underwear, for example, is positioned right in the middle of the scenes in which he first humiliates Lenz’s character and then rapes her. There’s also a comparable scene where cartoon Nazi strutting ends with an actually horrific massacre of the family of Christopher Lee’s character (inevitably, given the way this one casts nobody in an appropriate role, playing the leader of a group of Romani). It’s as if Thompson is doing his damndest to make a viewer uncomfortable in their enjoyment of evil cartoon Nazis.

The thing is, I’m honestly not sure at all if Thompson is doing this one purpose, perhaps trying the make a point about our enjoyment of atrocities in cinema if it is only presented with a wink, if McDowell is sabotaging/saving the film, or what the hell was going on behind the scenes here. It certainly is never boring to witness, but instead at times funny, at times unpleasant and at times bewildering. For the last one, there’s for example a highly peculiar fake-out ending that suggest a whopper of a 70s downer only to then explain that the combined powers of Quinn and Mason’s fatherly voices can put a dying Nazi into a hallucinatory state. I have no idea why that bit is in there, what anyone involved was thinking, or honestly, what the hell I was watching for half of the time.

Ironically enough, given how crazy parts of the film are, the cast apart from McDowell (who is not from planet Earth) makes usually surprisingly naturalistic acting choices for their surroundings, while Thompson works a lot with hand-held camera and set-ups that suggest a naturalistic/documentarian approach. Which, as should be obvious by now, is another choice that makes little sense whatsoever, but in the most interesting way possible. From time to time, Thompson also manages to slip in a couple of perfectly straightforward action and suspense sequences, as if this were your typical World War II adventure movie.

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