Saturday Night At The Movies: THE HILL [1965]

Perhaps best known for Oscarploitation films like 12 ANGRY MEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and THE VERDICT, Sidney Lumet is his most interesting to me when he's at his least "important."

Lumet followed up the aesthetic disaster of his film FAIL-SAFE -- no one could have outdone Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern's 1963 triumph by making an earnest, turgidly straight adaptation of the Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Cold War potboiler that DR. STRANGELOVE turned into glorious black comedy -- with this small, gritty drama about a WWII British Army prison in Libya. Real-life Army-prison-camp vet Ray Rigby wrote the original play and co-adapted it for the screen with R.S. Allen, one of Allen's rare excursions from television sitcoms to theatrical drama; it's a combination that works surprisingly well, although it takes a while to get used to some of the accents and grunts.

Like most Lumets, it boasts a great ensemble -- Sean Connery, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Ossie Davis, Ian Hendry, Alfred Lynch, Roy Kinnear and Michael Redgrave -- and intense drama. The somewhat unsung Oswald Morris shot the film with a wonderful mix of desert grittiness and a unique clarity that B&W only developed once color film became the industry standard. I sometimes wonder why this film's opening shot doesn't get mentioned as often or with the same awe reserved for TOUCH OF EVIL; I suppose it's because the shot is largely technically impressive -- establishing little more than the size of the prison, with none of the drama of seeing the convertible with the ticking bomb in its trunk rolling by Heston & Leigh until they catch up and finally pass it.

Unlike most prison movies, this one has quite a nice kink in its tail [tale]; instead of the standard plot engine of seeing rebellious new inmates clash and sometimes reconcile with the institution and/or its inept/corrupt warders, this one throws in a few conflicts between the warders themselves. Enjoy:


MitchellD said...

"...a unique clarity that B&W only developed once color film became the industry standard." Very interesting point.

Milo George said...

Thanks, man. I would presume that it's some combination of the changes to B&W film stocks and how lighting techniques/technology focused on shooting for color -- where rich, deep blacks and high contrast were less important for frame composition, and were often considered old-hat and wastes of the film's available palette. I've noticed that a lot of '60s B&W films look like what happens when you change a color image to B&W.