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There was very little director Robert Aldrich liked about The Angry Hills (1959). He had serious conflicts with Columbia Pictures over his earlier film The Garment Jungle (1957); the studio replaced him one week before shooting ended for his refusal to tone down the tough screenplay, and Vincent Sherman was given directorial credit. This sent Aldrich to seek greater artistic freedom in Great Britain, where he made the bomb-disposal thriller Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) for Hammer studios. He followed that with this World War II adventure based on a Leon Uris novel. The story concerns an American reporter (Robert Mitchum) entrusted with delivering a secret list of Nazi collaborators among the Greeks to British intelligence. A man with little moral integrity or political awareness, the reporter finds himself learning some valuable lessons in courage and commitment, buffeted by the opposing forces of the resistance fighters on one side and the ruthless Gestapo on the other.
The upside of the picture for Aldrich was working with Mitchum, who was considered by many to be among the best (in John Huston's words: "a rarity among actors, hard-working, noncomplaining, amazingly perceptive, one of the most underrated stars in the business"). The two men had worked together before; Aldrich had written scripts for the earlier Mitchum pictures Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and The Red Pony (1949), and the two became good friends. Also, having a star like Mitchum, who was then among the top in his field, attached to this film promised not only good box office but assurance of stateside distribution. But for Aldrich, the project was a disappointment because of its potential for being so much better than his final version of the film. "I'd know [now] how to make [it] better in a thousand ways," he later said. Mitchum was also not happy with the way things were going during production, and the relationship between the two men deteriorated as a result.
One of the biggest problems the director encountered with the production was the script. He found the first draft of the screenplay, adapted by Uris himself from his own novel, to be seriously lacking in the awareness of the realities of its Greek setting, a fact he noticed immediately upon traveling to that country to prepare for location shooting. So rehearsals and initial shooting were under way without even a finished script. To bail out the project, Aldrich brought in an old associate, A.I. Bezzerides, who had written the excellent screenplay for Aldrich's thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But the need to crank out new pages almost daily put a lot of stress on the writer, whose creative habits were quite different than the on-the-fly approach needed for this assignment.
Despite these setbacks, however, the film has much to recommend it as a World War II drama that goes beyond the usual run-of-the-mill fare. The main interest lies in several of the supporting characters and players, particularly in the complex characterization of the Gestapo officer played by Stanley Baker, who comes off as almost likeable and sympathetic. Other roles are well drawn by acclaimed character actors Sebastian Cabot (later known as French, the portly butler on the TV sitcom Family Affair) and actor-folksinger Theodore Bikel as a resistance fighter.
Also in the cast were two young European-born actresses hoping for a breakthrough in Hollywood. Elisabeth Mueller was discovered on stage in Switzerland and brought to America as yet another in a long line of potential Garbos or Dietrichs. But she soon returned to her homeland and her first love, the theater, and was rarely seen on film again. The young Greek woman in the story is played by Gia Scala, born in Liverpool to an Irish mother and Italian father. Raised in Rome, she came to the U.S. in 1951 to study with famed acting coach Stella Adler. Her career was hampered by a drinking problem, however, and she died at 38 in 1972 from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Scala wasn't the only cast member to meet a relatively early end; Baker died at the age of 49 and Cabot was 59 when he passed away.
Director: Robert Aldrich
Producer: Raymond Stross
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides, based on the novel by Leon Uris
Cinematography: Stephen Dade
Editing: Peter Tanner
Production Design: Ken Adam
Original Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Michael Morrison), Elisabeth Mueller (Lisa), Stanley Baker (Konrad Heisler), Gia Scala (Eleftheria), Theodore Bikel (Tassos), Sebastian Cabot (Chesney).
BW-106m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon