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 The Seventh Cross

The Seventh Cross

Fred Zinnemann had been laboring in the MGM short films department for a number of years and had two B-pictures to his credit when he was assigned to direct the studio's most respected actor and one of its most important stars, Spencer Tracy, in The Seventh Cross (1944), an anti-Nazi melodrama. Zinnemann was no stranger to the story's European milieu; born in Vienna, he was one of the collaborators (with Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak and writer Billy Wilder) on the silent film, Menschen am Sonntag (1930), a semi-documentary look at ordinary life in Berlin between the wars. More than a dozen years later, Europe was in the midst of a violent upheaval and the everyday people Zinnemann and company depicted in the earlier film could easily have become the characters of The Seventh Cross.

The film follows seven escapees from a concentration camp as they try to reach the Dutch border. The camp commandant has vowed to capture the men and hang them on makeshift crosses in the prison yard. One by one the crosses are filled with victims, but the seventh remains empty. That one is earmarked for George Heisler (Tracy), a man made bitter, paranoid, and ravaged by his time in the camps (although as some critics observed about Tracy's appearance, he must have been eating rather well). As he makes his way to the border, barely eluding the Gestapo over and over, Heisler finds there are few people he can trust, even former friends. But thanks to the bravery of a few, he manages not only to reach safety but to have his faith in humanity restored.

The production was not an easy time for Tracy. He had expected to follow his role in the war movie A Guy Named Joe (1943) with a third teaming with Katharine Hepburn in the comedy Without Love (eventually released in 1945). But Hepburn was tied up with the Asian epic Dragon Seed (1944), so the studio cast him in this dark drama, requiring him to be on screen almost the entire time, often having to convey the story and emotions without words. Although always reserved and often very moody, Tracy was more depressed than usual during filming, shaken by the recent deaths of several people close to him, including his mother, stage legend George M. Cohan (from whom Tracy had learned some valuable early acting lessons), character actor and pal Lynne Overman, and Carole Lombard, the beautiful star killed in a plane crash during a war bond tour. To top it off, Tracy received a telegram from the War Department on the set one day; Eddie Carr, a young orphan he met at Boys Town during the making of the 1938 film of the same name, had been killed on the battlefield. Carr had listed Tracy as his next of kin. But although Tracy could often be sullen and belligerent on the set, especially when he was drinking, according to the accounts of Zinnemann and co-stars Hume Cronyn and Signe Hasso, he was an inspiration to work with. Zinnemann had special reason to admire the actor. Although he rarely gave interviews, Tracy agreed to do publicity for the picture, praising Zinnemann lavishly enough to boost the director's career considerably. Zinnemann went on to win Oscars for directing From Here to Eternity (1953) and A Man for All Seasons (1966) and was nominated five other times.

The only Oscar nod for The Seventh Cross went to supporting actor Hume Cronyn in his fifth film release (he lost to Barry Fitzgerald). His wife in the film was played by his real-life wife, British actress Jessica Tandy, making her first American film appearance. The two played a simple German couple who, though not Nazi party members, were happy that Hitler's regime had turned the country around and provided employment again. The movie is marked by that sort of complexity of characterization; in fact, some criticized it upon its release for being too soft on the people of a country with which we were at war. But Zinnemann and screenwriter Helen Deutsch went to some pains to preserve novelist Anna Seghers' view of ordinary Germans. They were able to achieve greater authenticity by casting, in minor roles, some refugees who had been very famous in their own country but little known here. One was Helen Thimig, wife of acclaimed theater director-producer Max Reinhardt and one of Germany's most important actresses. Another was Helene Weigel, Bertolt Brecht's wife, and one of the leading lights of the famous Berliner Ensemble. Neither performer was credited in The Seventh Cross.

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Producers: Pandro S. Berman, Edwin H. Knopf
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch, based on the novel by Anna Seghers
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Editing: Thomas Richards
Art Direction: Leonid Vasian, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Spencer Tracy (George Heisler), Signe Hasso (Toni), Hume Cronyn (Paul Roeder), Jessica Tandy (Liesel Roeder), Agnes Moorehead (Madame Marelli), Herbert Rudley (Franz Marnet), Felix Bressart (Poldi Schlamm), George Macready (Bruno Sauer), Ray Collins (Wallau), Steven Geray (Dr. Loewenstein).
BW-112m. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon

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