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Run Silent, Run Deep

18 Jan

Watch what Clark Gable is up to in the opening scene and in the office scene which start this picture. In scene 1, complete application to the task at hand brings the character and the actor to fully believable life. In Scene 2, see how it is that the moment of bitter reflection that he choose as his opening move drives and authenticates every shift he makes in the scene that follows. Count the shifts. In one short scene there are 6 of them . This is a remarkable actor. Why did we take him for granted? Because we were used to him. Because his male beauty, because his mountainous masculinity, because his eventful facial features, and because his gravelly voice were so hypnotizing that one could not look past them to see the excellence of craft he brought to the work and to us.

This picture was made at the end of his career. He had four more pictures to make before his death aged 60. A smoker and a hard drinker (you can see the scotch in his watery eyes), he looks every inch his age but still he carries it well. Set against Burt Lancaster here as rival commanders of the same WWII submarine, it would take someone of Burt Lancaster’s particular immovable rock-deep foundation to stand opposite Gable’s authority.

Lancaster knew everything about film acting, but that is all he knew, for he was not a good actor. Like Cary Grant, from his early teenage years, he had been a professional acrobat. Through a chance coincidence he was cast in The Killers and at 32  became a superstar immediately. But he had the circus performer’s aesthete in him and it drove him: that inner and outer smile that hopes to please and to have pleased and that has nothing to do with acting. Still it would be silly to assert that he he not have a strong physical presence.  It holds him in good and easy stead here.

This film, as Kate Buford says in her brilliant biography of Lancaster, did not make a ripple at the box office. It was one several concurrent flops his production company, Hecht, Hill, Lancaster had in the can at the time — Sweet Smell Of Success, Separate Tables, Bachelor Party, and The Devil’s Disciple — all of which brought the company to its knees. But it’s still worth seeing. It was directed by Robert Wise (The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles) who lets the tension build without dialogue, and then release. The acting of the supporting players tends to be WWII corny, and the failure of the film may be because that style had been supplanted by The Method, or because it came 12 years after the end of the war; as a memoir, it would have been fine, but film is always in the present, never in the past. Film, even costume film, is always now.

Black and white makes it look like the newsreels of the era, which is good. It was also shot on a set built to the exact proportions of a submarine, which make the men look as cramped as they really were when in one.  It is made, that is, to the highest professional standards, and it worth seeing how Gable makes his own strong contribution in meeting those high standards.

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