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In the ruins of Berlin following the aftermath of World War II, six German demolition experts, recently released from prisoner of war camps, are recruited by the Allies and offered an attractive salary if they agree to join their select squad of specialists. Their mission is to locate and defuse a number of bombs dropped on the city which didn't explode and now lay buried in the rubble, posing a constant threat to the residents. The desperate economic circumstances of postwar Germany gives the men little recourse but to accept the job and all six candidates agree to the conditions: each man will contribute half their pay to a shared fund and at the end of the job, the surviving members will equally split the money. The selected group leader, Erik (Jack Palance), is an emotionally scarred idealist, who soon finds himself immersed in a deadly competition with Karl (Jeff Chandler), a true mercenary who is determined to outlive his comrades. Erik and Karl's bitter rivalry is further antagonized by their mutual attraction to Margot (Martine Carol), the landlady of their rooming house who supplements her income through the black market. In the end, only one man will be left from the original six man team.
Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) was made at a low point in director Robert Aldrich's career. He was embroiled in a law suit against Columbia Pictures after being fired on the set of The Garment Jungle (1957) and this period of inactivity lasted more than eighteen months, causing him considerable anxiety about being able to continue working as a film director. His luck seemed to change when he received an offer to make a film in Germany to be co-produced by Hammer and Seven Arts and distributed by United Artists. The project, based on the novel The Phoenix by Lawrence Bachmann, would be filmed at Germany's UFA Studios and on location in Berlin and Aldrich agreed to co-write the screenplay with Teddi Sherman. He was also given some freedom in hiring the cast and key crew members he wanted which meant a reunion with such trusted former collaborators as cameraman Ernest Laszlo and actors such as Wesley Addy, Dave Willock, and Jack Palance, who had previously turned in such impressive performances in Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956).
Despite a promising start, Ten Seconds to Hell would become one of Aldrich's most troubled productions, resulting in a movie that was a mutilation of the director's vision; it was reedited and shorn of almost forty minutes of footage prior to its release. Part of the problem stemmed from Aldrich working for the first time with a predominantly European crew (most of them were German with a few from Hammer Studios in England) who had a different way of working than Hollywood crews and weren't always cooperative or agreeable to his style of filming. Jack Palance was also unconventional in his preparation for scenes. Len Harris, one of the camera operators, recalled that Palance, "was an odd man, but a very nice one. He was something of a 'method' actor - this was new to the old Hammer crew - and we weren't quite sure what was going on. He was trying to live the part and couldn't stand any interference while he was preparing himself. He'd walk around the studio, getting himself worked up, and believe me, you didn't want to get in his way. He was definitely unapproachable during these times." (from Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio [McFarland]).
The crew was also baffled by Aldrich's excessive emphasis on the various bomb sites. "Robert covered himself with hundreds of shots of the bomb," Harris said. "One from this side, one from that side, one from this angle, closeup, whatever. The German crew called the picture Around the Bomb in Eighty Ways!" But live bombs were indeed a concern for all and, in one instance, shooting was delayed when Gerhard Rabiger, the movie's technical advisor, left the set to defuse a live 500 pound bomb in another location.
Another problem was the unsatisfactory screenplay for which Aldrich readily accepted most of the blame: "The scenario was too long, too superficially philosophical, and far too talky." He also confessed that "Some directors have the capacity to edit their own work, but I don't think I'm one of them."
Worst of all, there was a major breakdown in communication between Palance and Aldrich during filming. The director admitted (in Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich by Tony Williams) that "we both ran out of the ability...to continue our professional rapport...[In] Ten Seconds to Hell, Palance's was the pivotal part, and when I lost control of him, and he lost confidence in me, the resulting damage to the final film was catastrophic." The rupture between the two men put an end to their collaborations and they never worked together again.
In addition to all of the above problems, Aldrich also clashed with the film's distributors. "They really thought it was going to be an adventure picture," he said, "with Martine Carol taking off her clothes once or twice. Well, it was never that...the picture could have been bad or mediocre or whatever you like, but that was the kind of a picture it always was. The area of disappointment between the distributor and myself was that they had expected one kind of film, a dramatisation of the Bachmann novel. Well the script was never changed from the day it was submitted, budgeted and agreed and cast and started, until we finished. So when they came on the scene in Berlin and saw this picture, which was pretty melancholy, they were terribly shocked. It wasn't the kind of film they expected at all. So they overreacted to what they saw. They chopped it to pieces. I think everybody had a hand in the re-editing."
Some of the criticisms were aimed at the performance of French actress Martine Carol and the fact that Aldrich seemed more interested in the mechanics of defusing bombs than the development of the main characters. During the early fifties, Martine Carol reigned as the sexiest actress in French films but her popularity declined toward the end of the decade when Brigitte Bardot rose to prominence. Ten Seconds to Hell certainly didn't help revive her career since she was hampered by the often pretentious English dialogue and Aldrich deliberately deglamorized her in the role of a disillusioned war widow struggling for survival in the most degrading circumstances. Yet, she does have a few memorable scenes in the film such as her explanation for why she can't go home to her family: "I'm French, married to an enemy soldier during wartime. It's considered a crime to fall in love, especially with the enemy...Here, I'm still the enemy. I can see in their eyes that I remind them of something dead in themselves." There is also a palpable sexual tension between Carol and Palance in several scenes and in one powerful moment she confronts his fear of intimacy, saying "What you want, you deny yourself. But why? Tell me, does it make you feel pure and superior to walk away from something you want?" Erik responds, "I don't know. I've never seen anything I wanted that badly," and walks away, abandoning Margot in a state of emotional anguish.
While it is true that Erik and Karl, his darker alter ego, often seem more like opposing philosophical ideals than flesh-and-blood characters, Palance and Chandler do generate substantial friction and intensity in their scenes together, particularly in a final ominous scene. The sequences where the bomb squad members face their own demise, however, are the most gripping moments in Ten Seconds to Hell. As noted by the authors of The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, "Each episode is varied so that the suspense is always fresh - one bomb is in a collapsing building, one is under water - and there is always the hazard of the double-fuse. To further create tension, Aldrich typically dispenses with background music during these moments. At times he amplifies the physical sounds of breathing or the mechanical sounds of wrenches on bolts; at other times he allows silence itself to work for him, until it is broken by the dooming tick of the bomb's detonating device. He uses close-ups to focus on the intensity of the individual facing death, but he also pulls back to long shots to remind us of each man's relative helplessness in this huge, ruined landscape." As effective as these scene are, they ultimately generate a mood of futility and nihilism that was too depressing for the average moviegoer. But the specter of death hangs over the entire film, in part because of the authenticity of its setting. Len Harris recalls, "It was very sad going to the UFA Studio and seeing the graves of soldiers lining the road. You must remember that the war had only ended thirteen years previously and was still very real to us all. These soldiers died defending a film studio!"(from Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio [McFarland])
Aldrich was usually the first to dismiss Ten Seconds to Hell as "awful" and many Aldrich admirers admit it is a seriously flawed work but Ten Seconds to Hell doesn't deserve its unfavorable reputation. It might not deliver on the excitement promised in the title but it does capture a place, time and mood with an almost documentary-like precision; Postwar Berlin was a wasteland of bombed out buildings, dire poverty, demoralized citizens and black market profiteers and this movie brings it vividly to life in a relentlessly bleak existential melodrama that fascinates on several levels from the contrast in acting styles between Jack Palance, Jeff Chandler and Martine Carol to Ernest Laszlo's superb black-and-white cinematography. It is also worth noting that the art director is Ken Adam, who went on to work on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Barry Lyndon (1975) as well as several of the James Bond films starting with Dr. No (1962).
Among all of the reviews that Ten Seconds to Hell received upon its release - mostly negative - there was one by Richard Nason in The New York Times which was the most accurate and favorable, calling it "a strange and unconventional bit of entertainment that unfortunately falls between the genres of an art film and a suspense drama...a profound set of ideas involving moral responsibility in a world dedicated to violence and destruction." After Ten Seconds to Hell, Aldrich would go on to achieve some of his biggest commercial successes in the sixties with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), which took the fatalistic six man team concept of Ten Seconds to Hell and expanded it to twelve men in a big budget feature with bigger stars and more action, violence and special effects.
Producer: Michael Carreras
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Robert Aldrich, Teddi Sherman; Lawrence P. Bachmann (novel "The Phoenix")
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Music: Kenneth V. Jones
Film Editing: Henry Richardson
Cast: Jack Palance (Erik Koertner), Jeff Chandler (Karl Wirtz), Martine Carol (Margot Hofer), Robert Cornthwaite (Franz Loeffler), Virginia Baker (Frau Bauer), Richard Wattis (Major Haven), Wes Addy (Wolfgang Sulke), Dave Willock (Peter Tillig), Jimmy Goodwin (Hans Globke).
by Jeff Stafford
Robert Aldrich: A Guide to References and Resources by Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward (G.K. Hall & Co.)
The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold & Eugene L. Miller (University of Tennessee Press)
Robert Aldrich: Interviews, Edited by Ian Cameron & Mark Shivas (University Press of Mississippi)
Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich by Tony Williams (Scarecrow Press)
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland)