You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.
Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.
Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.
The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.
The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.
A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.
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