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The title Counter-Attack (1945) indicates a battle picture, and the historical context, the counter-attack by Soviet troops against Nazi invaders, one of the most significant events of World War II, leads one to expect large-scale military action. Yet this film is a claustrophobic, intense psychological study about a Russian soldier trapped by shell-bursts in a subterranean room with seven German soldiers he holds prisoner (hence the movie's working title "One Against Seven"). Considerable tension, drama, even a bit of humor, is wrested from this situation, directed by noted Hungarian-born British filmmaker Zotan Korda, who was responsible for another acclaimed (and better known) war film, Sahara (1943), starring Humphrey Bogart.
The star of Counter-Attack is played by Paul Muni, in his second World War II movie and once again he is playing a European, not an American. In Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942), Muni was a simple Norwegian fishermen who finds reserves of courage when he resolves to fight the Nazis. In Counter-Attack, he's an ordinary man who meets the challenge of an extraordinary situation. Muni jumped at the chance to do the picture, which he saw as the perfect way to make what he considered the best contribution to the war effort, a story that would illuminate the universal dignity and decency of the human spirit alive in people no matter what their background. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the role, drawing on his experience in comic roles from his Yiddish theater days to come up with moments of clowning built into the script; he is particularly shining in the scene where his character struggles to stay awake after many days without sleep to keep his prisoners under guard.
The US and Soviet Union were, of course, allies at the time, so there were several pictures made during the war with the universality Muni hoped to achieve, painting the Russians in a sympathetic light. Counter-Attack was based on a 1943 stage drama by Janet and Philip Stevenson, itself taken from a Russian play. Although there is nothing anti-American in this movie, it was the type of film that got its creators into trouble a short time after the war ended. Anything putting the Soviet Union in a less than negative light was deemed suspicious by the anti-Communist forces at work in American politics in the late 40s and early 50s, especially if it came from people with backgrounds that included left-wing, social activist work. The Stevensons were one such couple, and they were blacklisted from film work as a result. Janet Stevenson, in fact, also lost her job with the University of Southern California for alleged ties with the Communist Party. They were not the only ones connected with this movie to become victims of the witch-hunts. Sidney Buchman, the Oscar®-winning writer of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and a nominee for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), who initiated this production and supervised it for Columbia, was also later blacklisted, as was co-star Larry Parks. The script was adapted by John Howard Lawson, later one of the Hollywood Ten group of film artists who went to jail after refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Muni had asked for his favorite cameraman Tony Gaudio to shoot Counter-Attack. "Tony knows how to climb inside my face," he said. Gaudio was unavailable, but Muni was delighted by the choice of James Wong Howe as director of photography. The Hollywood veteran had recently been nominated for his work on The North Star (1943), another film about everyday citizens of the Soviet Union under attack by the Germans.
The sole female in the cast was Marguerite Chapman, a former model who appeared in a number of war-themed movies before slipping into supporting roles, such as the secretary in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Chapman was asked to play the role of the elderly Rose Calver in Titanic (1997), but she was too ill and the part went to Gloria Stuart.
Despite mostly good reviews, Counter-Attack did not do well commercially. Its failure was seen as proof that Muni no longer had the appeal of his heyday at Warner Brothers in the 1930s and early 40s. After Angel on My Shoulder (1946), he worked only on television and in one Italian picture until his final feature film appearance in The Last Angry Man (1959). The lackluster box office, however, probably had more to do with timing. The end of the war in Europe coincided with the picture's release, rendering its subject and suspense as pass and already outdated.
Director: Zoltan Korda
Producer: Zoltan Korda (uncredited), uncredited production supervision by Sidney Buchman
Screenplay: John Howard Lawson, based on the play by Philip and Janet Stevenson from the play Pobyeda by Mikhail Ruderman and Ilya Vershinin
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Al Clark, Charles Nelson
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Edward Jewell
Original Music: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Paul Muni (Alexei Kulkov), Marguerite Chapman (Lisa Elenko), Larry Parks (Kirichenko), George Macready (Col. Semenov), Ludwig Donath (Prof. Muller).
by Rob Nixon