Watch On the Rhine (1943)

HERMAN SHUMLIN

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBB

USA, 1943.  Warner Bros..  Screenplay by , additional scenes and dialogue by , based on her play.  Cinematography by , .  Produced by Hal B. Wallis.  Music by Max Steiner.  Production Design by Carl Jules Weyl.  Costume Design by Orry-Kelly.  Film Editing by Rudi Fehr.  Academy Awards 1943.  Golden Globe Awards 1943.  

Lillian Hellman’s play is adapted to the screen by Dashiell Hammett with respectable results, giving Bette Davis another chance to prove herself queen of Warners dramas and winning Paul Lukas an Oscar for his noble performance.  They play a couple who leave Germany as Nazi terror is brewing ever more noisily, bringing their three children home to Davis’ childhood home in Washington, D.C. where her spunky mother (Lucile Watson, terrific) still holds court as a social paragon.  Watson is also playing host to a Romanian count () of dubious political sympathies, his constant visits to the German embassy meaning that Lukas and Davis are sleeping next to the enemy, while the count’s wife (Geraldine Fitzgerald, wasted in a dramatically ineffective role) finds herself falling in love with Watson’s handsome son ().  The screws start to twist as the Coulouris recognizes the recently arrived guests and goes in for blackmail, while Watson realizes that having gumption and morality while living in the free world can do little against the encroaching threat of fascism from overseas.  It’s a gorgeously shot and emotionally involving drama (just try not to be moved when Davis is reunited with her mother after seventeen years) but it’s also dramatically inert in favour of political proselytizing.  This would have stirred audiences a lot more in 1943 (and earlier when the play was produced), but watching it after the good guys have won means the stakes are lower, and we need for some action to happen so that old blowhard Lukas (in a one-note performance) can give up on the sermons.

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