Film, History, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #47: Watch on the Rhine

April 25, 2011

Set in a wealthy country manor near Washington, D.C., Watch on the Rhine (1943) is a stage adaptation about an American family whose remote innocence is challenged when the complicated problems of Europe come knocking on its door.  The Mullers, including Kurt (Paul Lukas) and Sara (Bette Davis), return to the United States after many years abroad to stay with Sara’s mother Fanny (Lucile Watson).  The house also serves as a refuge for a down-on-his-luck expatriate Romanian, Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) and his wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  When the disreputable, cynical Teck picks the lock on Kurt’s attache case, he finds evidence that might be of interest to his sleazy poker buddies at the German Embassy.  What follows is a tense drama as Teck’s mercenary opportunism and the committed anti-Fascist idealism of the Mullers bring the harsh realities of the Nazi menace in Europe to an idyllic American doorstep.

Although Watch on the Rhine‘s staginess often betrays its theater background, it’s a mostly successful adaptation that effectively conveys its message.  The film was released during the height of World War II, but I think it’s set slightly earlier, and appears to have been written as a warning of the gathering storm in Europe that the U.S. shouldn’t be ignoring.  That message was probably more impactful then than it is now, although it’s certainly still of historical interest.  I didn’t find it quite as riveting as some of the other selections of its era — it’s a talky piece, slow-paced at times, and perhaps doesn’t hold up quite as timelessly as other classics.  But overall it’s a solid film, anchored by Lukas’ Oscar-winning performance.

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