Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

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.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

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.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Is Paris Burning? (1966) ****

Paris endured a four-year “lockdown” during the Second World War, under a brutal Nazi regime, and this is the story of the battle to lift it.

Politics didn’t usually play a part in war films in the 1960s but it’s an essential ingredient of Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris had no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings the Allies intended to bypass the French capital and head  straight for Berlin. Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after the attempt on his life, ordered the city destroyed.

Resistance groups were splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, wanted to wait until the Allies sent in the troops, the Communists planned to seize control before British and American soldiers could arrive.  When the Communists begin the fight, seizing public buildings, the Germans plant explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, other famous buildings and the bridges across the River Seine. 

The German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost. The Gaullists despatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Sorry for the plot-spoiler but as everyone knows the Germans did not destroy the city and the liberation of Paris provided famous newsreel and photographic footage.

Line-drawings from the extended poster – the all-star cast included Orson Welles, Glenn Ford, George Chakiris, Yves Montand, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon. At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made. It had a six-month shooting schedule and was shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. It was a big hit in France but flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

Director Clement was also aware he could not extract much tension from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button, so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry. The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes.

Like The Longest Day (1962), the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking a herd through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street, enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank. And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Anthony Perkins, as an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see – before he is abruptly killed.  Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones. Gore Vidal and Francis Coppola fashioned the screenplay with a little help from French writers whom the Writers Guild excluded from the credits.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika. Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, Glenn Ford (as Bradley), Kirk Douglas (General Patton) and Robert Stack (General Sibert) making fleeting glimpses. But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965) , Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Orson Welles, in subdued form, appears as the Swedish ambassador. Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon.

The score by Maurice Jarre is one of his best. The overture at the start is dominated by a martial beat, but snuck in there is the glorious traditional theme that is given greater and greater emphasis the closer the Parisians come to victory.