The Hill (1965) ****

Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).

Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.  

Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.”  RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.

When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger.  Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.

Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.   

Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.   

The Pawnbroker (1964) *****

Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.

But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.

This startling image taken from the Pressbook encapsulates one of the striking moment of the film. As seen on the advert at the top of the blog, although not technically a roadshow in the normal sense (i.e. in the grandeur of 70mm) it played separate performances. This was a technique to drive up demand by limiting access. Originally, to take advantage of a British tax break known as the Eady Levy, the film was due to be made in London. Lumet pulled out when MGM insisted on a London shoot and only returned after that idea was abandoned and second-choice director Arthur Hiller bowed out.

Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.

There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.

Fans of “The Godfather” might recognise this image – of a puppet on the strings -used to symbolise the power of the Mafia don. Eight years before Coppola’s gangster saga, this rarely seen but similar image in the Pressbook for “The Pawnbroker” evoked the opposite – a broken man.

The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).

Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).

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.

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