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An overlooked gem from Columbia Pictures, Address Unknown (1944) is based on an anti-fascist novella first published prior to the United States' entry into WWII. Finally reaching the screen near the end of the war, the film retains the cautionary power of the source material, avoids the sometimes overwrought pro-American propaganda of other wartime studio films of the period, and adds an unflinching visual punch to the original story's theme of revenge via the written word. The stylish visual storytelling comes courtesy of William Cameron Menzies, well-known for his great accomplishments as a Production Designer, but here working on his only credited directing assignment of the 1940s.
In 1938 writer Kathrine Taylor wrote the novella Address Unknown, a biting indictment of the rise of Fascism in Germany. It was written as a series of letters sent between two partners in an art dealership, one a gentile who works in Munich, the other a Jew who stays in the main office in San Francisco. Under the masculine pen-name "Kressmann Taylor" the novella was serialized in Story magazine from September to October of 1938. Address Unknown was a sensation and was soon reprinted in Reader's Digest and became a best-seller when published by Simon & Schuster in 1939. The book was translated across Europe, though the German translation was published in Moscow and, of course, banned by the Nazis.
The motion picture rights to the popular story went through several hands before landing with Columbia Pictures and an independent production company owned by veteran director Sam Wood. Wood's close associate William Cameron Menzies was eventually tapped to produce and direct the property. Menzies had worked with Wood all through the early 1940s, serving as Production Designer on the Wood films Our Town, (1940), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Kings Row, The Pride of the Yankees (both 1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943).
Screenwriter Herbert Dalmas skillfully expanded Taylor's story by changing the leading female character, fashioning a romantic angle, and adding a twist to the ending. The film opens in San Francisco in the mid-1930s, as friends and business partners Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) and Martin Schulz (Paul Lukas) discuss their Art Gallery, and Schulz's impending move to Munich, Germany to deal in European artwork to send back to Max in the United States. Schulz will be moving with his wife Elsa (Mady Christians) and their four young sons. Their eldest son, Heinrich (Peter van Eyck), is set to stay in San Francisco, work with Max, and marry Max's daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens, the daughter of Sam Wood). Griselle, however, announces that she wants to become an actress and with Heinrich's blessing, spend a year in Germany with "Uncle" Martin and look for stage work. In Germany, Griselle takes the stage name of "Stone" which temporarily disguises her Jewish heritage. Meanwhile, Martin Schulz falls under the spell of Nazi propaganda and is particularly swayed by the charming Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond), a nobleman who extols the rise of Hitler as Germany's "destiny." The Baron knows that Griselle and Martin's partner are Jews, and tells Schulz, "You're going to have to choose, Herr Schulz. You can't sit on two stools at once. At least not in Germany." Schulz tells Max to stop writing him letters, because they are being opened and read by the Nazi censors. The letters continue, however, and come to pose a great danger to Schulz.
At the time that Taylor's story first appeared, the United States was still years from entering WWII, and the novella was a warning of the fascism at work in Nazi Germany. By the time the film was made in 1944, the tide of the fighting was turning, giving the Allies the upper hand, and any number of American movies had been released depicting the evils of Nazism. Menzies' Address Unknown did not fall into the usual patterns of pro-American propaganda films of the time, though. Surprisingly, the Americans in the film are unambiguously appalling; they include an obnoxiously wealthy dowager eager to waste her money on an ugly painting purely for her status amongst her rich friends; an oafish mail carrier with a loud voice and dull sense of humor who contrasts with the quiet mail carrier we see in Germany; and a neighbor of Max's (played by the always-reliable character actor Frank Faylen) sent to hand-deliver a letter to Schulz he is impatient and loutish, yelling "Kraut!" to Schulz after getting the cold shoulder.
Address Unknown was nominated for Academy Awards® for Best Art Direction and Best Score. The art directors (Lionel Banks and Walter Holscher) were no doubt heavily influenced by director Menzies, who made his reputation in the field. Thanks to this team and to cinematographer Rudolph Mate, the film is full of striking shots. A bravura sequence involves the ultimate fate of Jewish actress Griselle Stone. She lands a part in Berlin in which she is to recite the Biblical lines "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God." During a rehearsal for the play, a bespectacled Nazi censor warns her and the play's director to cut those lines from the performance. Excellent matte paintings depict the cavernous theatre, and as the Nazi walks to the back he is strikingly framed in a tiny, lighted doorway a small man with great power. At the performance, Griselle defies the order and recites the lines. The censor exposes her as a Jew and incites the crowd to rush the stage. A heavy fire curtain falls down between the stage and the actress, but in a shot from Griselle's point-of-view (and one worthy of the best of 1940s horror movies), the angry mob slashes through the thick fabric with knives and fists, coming straight for the camera. The eerie and horrific imagery continues as Griselle is first seen trying to escape through wet, empty streets dressed conspicuously in white, and later in a desolate countryside, tromping to the safety of "Uncle" Martin's house, followed by storm troopers seen only as boots sloshing through the mud. The images are truly frightening, and speak volumes about Martin Schulz's mindset and his complete betrayal of his friends.
New York Times critic Thomas M. Pryor raved about Address Unknown, calling it "not just another anti-Nazi picture. It is an absorbing study of a man being driven crazy through fear, and the central character is played with dynamic forcefulness by Paul Lukas. The tragic atmosphere of the picture has been heightened through the brilliant use of low-key lighting effects by William Cameron Menzies, the director, who is better known as Hollywood's leading production designer. Mr. Menzies, cloaking the greater part of the story in deep, brooding, shadowy photography, methodically builds the tension into one of the most spine-chilling climaxes you'll encounter in many weeks of moviegoing."
Producers: William Cameron Menzies, Sam Wood
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay: Herbert Dalmas; Kressmann Taylor (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Walter Holscher
Music: Ernst Toch; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (uncredited)
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: Paul Lukas (Martin Schulz), Carl Esmond (Baron von Friesche), Peter van Eyck (Heinrich Schulz), Mady Christians (Elsa Schultz), Morris Carnovsky (Max Eisenstein), K.T. Stevens (Griselle Eisenstein/Stone), Emory Parnell (The Postman), Mary Young (Mrs. Delaney), Frank Faylen (Jimmie Blake), Charles Halton (Pipsqueak), Erwin Kalser (Director), Frank Reicher (Prof. Schmidt), Dale Cornell (Carl)
by John M. Miller