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Edward Dmytryk's The Mountain (1956) wasn't one of Spencer Tracy's favorite movies: He said so himself, not mincing any words. And yet this story of two brothers who scale a killer Alpine mountain is a small marvel for the way Dmytryk staged and filmed a particularly tense climbing sequence, and for the way he makes it clear that there's plenty at stake for these characters, physically and emotionally. Even the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who generally disliked the movie, commended Dmytryk for his suspense-building skills. "[He] spares no nerve ends," Crowther wrote, and went on to describe the picture's most gripping sequence: "For straight, unadulterated torment, we grimly commend the sight of Mr. Tracy trying to pull himself to safety by the tips of his bleeding fingers clawing a ledge, while his climbing boots fumble to get a feeble toe-hold in the straight-down wall. This, coupled with the painful business of his driving pitons in the sheer rock and working his climbing rope through them so as to drag himself up the wall, makes for as tense and agonizing a show of mountain climbing as we have seen."
As for the drama simmering between the two brothers, Tracy's Zachary Teller and his much younger sibling Chris (played by Robert Wagner): Perhaps that angle of the story could have used a little work, but Tracy's performance, in particular, shows moments of grace and gruff finesse. The Mountain was based on a novel by Russian-born writer Henri Troyat, which was itself inspired by a real-life event, the 1950 crash of an Air India flight; in the story, a retired mountain guide is forced to climb again when a plane crashes in the French Alps near his home. Zachary hasn't climbed in years; he feels guilt and remorse over the death of another climber, which he believes he should have prevented. When officials (chief among them E.G. Marshall's Solange) try to press him into service to lead a recovery party, he refuses. Young, headstrong Chris, on the other hand, is eager to charge to the top of that craggy, foreboding peak, but not for any altruistic reasons - He believes the plane, which was en route from Calcutta to Paris, was carrying a great deal of gold and cash. Though Chris is clearly a bad egg, Zachary is devoted to him, having raised him single-handedly after the death of their mother. He agrees to accompany Chris up the mountain, even though he finds the younger man's motives abhorrent.
Tracy had become aware of Troyat's novel upon its publication, and passed the idea on to Dmytryk, with whom he had worked just a few years earlier on Broken Lance (1954), also featuring Wagner. Tracy tried to get MGM, which held his contract at the time, to buy the rights, only to learn Paramount had already secured them. He made a deal to appear in The Mountain, with Dmytryk directing, once he could free himself from his MGM contract. Ranald MacDougall would write the script. Tracy, who had enjoyed working with Wagner on Broken Lance, lobbied for him to be cast in the film; MacDougall disagreed strongly, envisioning Charlton Heston in the role. Tracy pressed his case and succeeded, an act of kindness and respect that Wagner never forgot. "It was extraordinary," Wagner has said, "and it made a big difference in my career because it took me out of being homogenized with all these other people."
Wagner's performance in The Mountain is uncharacteristically stiff for this generally charming, charismatic actor - it could be that Wagner is too much of an intrinsically affable presence to play an amoral opportunist like Chris. But during the filming of The Mountain he did all he could to soothe and protect his friend Tracy, who found the task of making this film particularly arduous. For one thing, Tracy hated to fly and dreaded boarding the flight to Europe for the location shooting, even trying - clearly unsuccessfully - to persuade Dmytryk to find someone else for the role. Wagner accompanied him on the flight, and gave him a medal stamped with a figure of St. Bernard, the patron saint of mountaineers. According to Wagner, Tracy wore the medal throughout the trip.
Wagner would later intervene in another, more intense Tracy drama. The Mountain was partially filmed on location on the Aiguille du Midi, in the Mont Blanc massif. Tracy, having acknowledged his alcoholism, had been trying to quit drinking. But near the beginning of filming, an aerial tramway carrying himself and Wagner up the mountain slipped from its cable, leaving the car dangling eleven thousand feet in the air. The car was eventually slipped back onto its track, but both Tracy and Wagner were shaken by the incident, and that night, Wagner found Tracy at the hotel bar, "completely drunk." Wagner, trying to assuage an argument between Tracy and the bartender, held his hand up to prevent Tracy from hurling a glass. The glass shattered, cutting Wagner's hand: He needed special makeup to conceal the stitches.
It's ironic, then, that in one of Tracy's best scenes in the movies, it's his character's hands that are bleeding, as he desperately grabs for a rope that's slipping out of his grasp, with his brother at the other end. Tracy's performance overall was praised by some critics and panned by others. Crowther may have been the most damning, writing, "It is hard to determine how to take him, except as a first-class mountain goat." Tracy himself was disappointed in the film. After seeing it for the first time, he wrote in his journal, "Mountain is failure - [I] think [it] must be [the] ending." He predicted that the critics would pan the picture, as many ultimately did, or at best greet it lukewarmly. (On the other hand, the picture Tracy had completed just prior to The Mountain, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), would feature one of the best performances of his career.)
Even though The Mountain didn't earn much critical acclaim, Dmytryk had strong feelings about Tracy's performance, and watching the film, it's easy to see why. Tracy was in his mid-50s when he made the picture, and his lumbering physicality adds an element of poignancy to the performance - though he was still fairly robust, he was certainly inching toward old age. "Tracy was an actor, not a mountain climber," Dmytryk said, "yet no one, in my opinion, ever made mountain climbing more real, more harrowing, or more perilous than he did." Dmytryk cited the tense climbing sequence that so enthralled Crowther, explaining that at one point, Tracy's character is making his way, with breathless precision, along a ledge of rock about an inch wide, supposedly thousands of feet in the sky. In reality, Dmytryk said, "he was standing on the bottom of an upturned apple box, perhaps eight inches off the ground, but you would have sworn it was a matter of life and death on Everest. That's acting." And it's a prime example of what a great actor can do - even one who can barely bring himself to board a plane.
Producer: Edward Dmytryk
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall; novel by Henri Troyat
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Film Editing: Frank Bracht
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Zachary Teller), Robert Wagner (Chris Teller), Claire Trevor (Marie), William Demarest (Father Belacchi), E.G. Marshall (Solange).
by Stephanie Zackarek
The New York Times
James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011