Bette Davis agreed to co-star billing while playing second fiddle in Herman Shumlin’s Watch on the Rhine (1943); a timely bit of anti-fascist propaganda whose didacticisms seem more heavy-handed with age. For her part, Davis (cast as Sara Muller) had very little to do except play weak-kneed sympathy to the rather impassioned ‘freedom fighting’ of her on screen husband, Kurt (Paul Lukas in an Oscar-winning role).
On stage, Lillian Hellman’s play had been celebrated for its topical courage and convictions. On screen however, the play’s wordy platitudes translated more into ‘prestige’ instead of box office. In private life, Hellman and detective/thriller writer and screen scenarist Dashiell Hammett – who adapted the play for the screen – had been lovers; an association resulting in their mutual blacklist in Hollywood after it was revealed that Hammett had been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.
The narrative eventually hammered out by Hammett begins with the Mullers, Sara, Kurt and their three children; Joshua (Donald Buka), Babette (Janis Wilson) and Bodo (Eric Roberts) boarding a train in Mexico. Bound for Washington D.C., they arrive at the sprawling estate of Sara’s mother, Fanny Farrelly (Lucille Watson) – a misguided busybody who has already taken in refugees, Count Teck de Broncovis (George Coulouris) and his traveling companion, Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald).
Teck is a ruthless schemer and a Nazi sympathizer. Martha, however, has embraced America as her adopted country and set her cap for Fanny’s congenial son, David (Donald Wood). With only $85 to their name Teck attends nightly gatherings at the German Embassy where he gambles with other Nazi sympathizers in the hopes of winning more money to sustain their prolonged stay of the Farrelly estate – but, moreover, to return to Europe as a pro-Nazi ally; something Martha warns against. “They’re smarter than you are,” she tells Teck.
Meanwhile, the Mullers arrive to an open reception from Fanny. Oblivious to Kurt’s freedom fighting activities, Fanny plans a series of recuperative time management exercises – effectively taking charge of her daughter and son-in-law with a strong, though understanding heart. However, when Kurt’s satchel is disturbed by Teck – who discovers a pistol and a considerably large sum of money gathered for the resistance movement – Teck threatens Kurt with the knowledge that the head of his anti-fascist organization in Europe has been imprisoned and will surely be executed.
Teck wants the money for purely selfish reasons – to return to Europe. Instead, Kurt corners Teck in Fanny’s garage and kills him in self defense. Vowing that he must return to Europe and attempt a prison break, Sara says farewell to her husband; realizing she will probably never see him again. The film ends with Joshua explaining to his mother that in a year or so he will have reached the age of majority, at which point he intends to pick up the torch of freedom where his father’s legacy has left off.
Viewing the film from a contemporary vantage, its most disastrous aspect is Hammett’s screenplay – fundamentally flawed in its construction; episodic rather than enveloping. The film is also marred by some rather ineffectual acting. The Muller children all deliver their lines with stiff declaration that is supposed to clumsily translate into ethnocentric humor but instead stultify the action whenever they appear on screen. Donald Woods makes for a very wooden love interest.
Paul Lukas’ passionate delivery salvages his lengthy speeches from becoming sustained diatribes. However, it must be pointed out that the casting of Bette Davis presents the film with an awkward re-framing of audience expectations.
Presumed to be the film’s star – and billed that way in the credits - Davis is decidedly not the center of the story – her star power in direct conflict with her character’s purpose within its narrative structure. Arguably, Davis is not even in the running – the dominant female performance going to Lucille Watson instead.
Geraldine Fitzgerald is wasted in a near cameo, as is character actress, Mary Young (Mrs. Sewell) – exploited solely for comic relief. In the final analysis, Watch on the Rhine is a time capsule – its potency blunted by the passing parade of years that have rendered the story maudlin and ironically dull.
Warner Home Video’s DVD offers us disappointing image quality throughout. The gray scale seems to suffer from considerably bumped up contrast levels. There are no solid deep blacks. Facial features disappear as flesh tones bloom a glaring white. Davis’ face in particular has a very ‘Casper: the friendly ghost’ quality – too much light and not enough shadow to delineate or distinguish between the plains of her features.
Occasionally, these shortcomings are briefly corrected – but on the whole the image has a decidedly faded quality that is most unbecoming. The audio is mono but represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a commentary by Bernard F. Dick and litany of short subjects, trailers and newsreels a la Warner Night at the Movies.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)