Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cinematic Gems #7: The Hill

It would be easy to pick several of the films by director Sidney Lumet as cinematic gems--outside of the obvious choices of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, and 12 Angry Men, there's powerhouse films like Night Falls on Manhattan, Prince of the City and the recent Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. Some of the best and most interesting work of Lumet's career came with his collaborations with Sean Connery--there's the psychological cop drama The Offence, the fun heist flick The Anderson Tapes, and the Agatha Christie who-dun-it Murder on the Orient Express. The one that truly jumps out at me was their first endeavor together--1965's WWII prison drama The Hill.

A hard-hitting, intense, powerful and engrossing study of men pushed to their limits, the film follows Sgt. Major Roberts (Connery), sent to British war-crimes prison after disobeying orders on the battlefield. He falls in with a handful of other soldiers (played by Roy Kinnear, Jack Watson, Alfred Lynch, Waking Ned Devine's Ian Bannen, and the late, great Ossie Davis), and finds himself at odds with Sgt. Major Wilson (Harry Andrews, in a career-performance), a square-jawed taskmaster who prides himself in straightening out soldiers who have acted out of line. His primary form of rehabilitation--The Hill, a torturous man-made tower of sand seared by the North African sun, which the soldiers must traverse repeatedly while carrying heavy bags of sand. As Wilson and his cowardly, sadistic Staff Sgt. Williams (Ian Hendry, pure glistening evil) push the troops unmercifully, it proves too much for one of them, and starts a chain of events that rock the camp to its very core.

Lumet, an "actor's director" who cut his teeth on live television dramas in the '50s, deftly creates a claustrophobic, white-hot mood that his superb cast revel in. There's not a single moment that rings untrue here, and as tension mounts, you find yourself alongside these flawed but good-hearted soldiers, feeling their frustration and injustice. Connery's sly performance is on par with anything else he's ever done. We're reminded of just how fine an actor he really is, in a role that is very anti-movie star. A young Ossie Davis shows us what a treasure he is in his complex performance as Pvt. Jocko King, and Sir Michael Redgrave is also on hand as the medical officer. The thick British accents can be a bit hard to comprehend at times, but don't let that deter you from seeing this extraordinary film, a pre-cursor to the much-loved The Shawshank Redemption. Oh, and the black and white cinematography is absolutely stunning.

*Since it's been longer than 3 days since my last post, the promised Scott Baio photo:

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