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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
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Hitler's Madman,Hitler's Madman

Ben's Top Pick for December

Hitler's Madman (1943) - December 3

Hitler's Madman has the feel of World War II American propaganda. The trailer boldly proclaims the movie is "Terrible Evidence of the Enemy...YOU Face." The "YOU" is both in a larger font and underlined, lest 1943 audiences miss the point. The next line tells us "It's an Angry Indictment of Nazi Bestiality."

It feels like propaganda because that's what it is. But Hitler's Madman is wartime propaganda at its most effective, because, tragically, the story is completely true. There's a romantic contrivance here and a few strokes of poetic license there, but at its core, Hitler's Madman is the story of the ambush and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi Germany's "Protector" of Czechoslovakia, and the unthinkably chilling response orchestrated by the SS.

The English language is vast, but there really aren't words to adequately describe Heydrich's savage cruelty, his brutality and his delight in the suffering of others. Perhaps all you need to know of Heydrich is that Hitler referred to him as "the man with the iron heart." Hitler!

Hitler's Madman is a quality B picture from a C studio, Producers Releasing Corp. (PRC), a poverty row studio. But when MGM caught wind that PRC had made a compelling movie about proud Czechs fighting the Nazis and killing Heydrich, Louis B. Mayer bought the movie from PRC and released it as an MGM picture, a rare move for Hollywood's most prestigious studio. It helped that the movie had an "A" director--at least he would be soon.

Hitler's Madman was Douglas Sirk's first American film. It's a wonderful incongruity that Sirk--who'd stake his place in Hollywood more than a decade later as the director of soapy melodramas like Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life-- made his Hollywood debut with a picture called Hitler's Madman.

John Carradine plays Heydrich, and though Sirk wasn't a fan of Carradine's movie work, he thought Carradine's theatrical style effectively captured the pomposity of Nazi officers. Before fleeing Germany in 1937, Sirk met a number of them, including Heydrich, whom he described as "making my blood run cold."

A keen classic movie eye will also spot Ava Gardner in an uncredited role as a university student who falls under Heydrich's depraved sphere of influence.

Don't let the title deceive you. Hitler's Madman is an exceptionally well-made, intense, largely factual drama, demonstrating that big budgets aren't necessary when there's a compelling story, a thoughtfully crafted screenplay and a skilled director crafting it all together.

by Ben Mankiewicz