Cast & Crew
In post-war Berlin, British Major Haven recruits members of a returning German demolitions unit, Hans Globke, Peter Tillig, Wolfgang Sulke, Franz Loeffler, Karl Wirtz and Eric Koertner, to defuse unexploded Allied bombs scattered throughout the city. Delighted by the well-paying position, smug Karl bets the solemn Eric that he will outlive him. Although initially taken aback by the wager, the other men soon agree that half of their salaries will go to the survivors of the dangerous mission in three months' time. The British provide the men new uniforms and equipment, and assign Frau Bauer as their liaison. Karl volunteers to lead the unit, but the men vote for the reluctant Eric instead. Later, Karl and Eric move into an Allied-approved boardinghouse run by pretty young widow Margot Hoefler, a French woman whose German husband died during the war. Several weeks go by in which the men successfully and safely defuse numerous bombs; then the men are stunned when young Globke is killed while defusing a British one-thousand-pound bomb. Suspecting that the bomb had double fuses, Eric asks Haven to request information from British armaments on its design. At the boardinghouse, Karl continually flirts with Margot, to Eric's annoyance. One evening when Margot loudly protests Karl's drunken advances, Eric bursts into Margot's room to help her and Karl retreats, ridiculing Eric for his motives. Deducing that Eric disapproves of her behavior, Margot explains that her uneasy situation as a traitor to the French and an outsider to the Germans has left her jaded and willing to take happiness wherever she can find it. When Eric remains critical, Margot accuses him of denying his own desires. A few days later, Frau Bauer receives a report that Tillig has been trapped under a live bomb by the partial collapse of a ruined building. With the other men away on assignments, Eric and Karl race to the site, and despite Tillig's protests, inspect the bomb. After Eric defuses the bomb safely, a doctor arrives and upon examining Tillig declares there is no chance for his survival. Refusing to accept the pronouncement, Eric hurries outside to request equipment to lift the bomb, but as Karl expresses his doubts, the building collapses on Tillig and the doctor. Distraught, Eric returns to the boardinghouse where he seeks solace from Margot. The next day, Eric takes Margot to another ruined section of the city and reveals that before the war he was an architect. Eric struggles to conceal his growing feelings for Margot, admitting that he is confused about becoming romantically involved while his life is in danger daily. Back at headquarters, Haven tells Eric that because of the post-war chaos, they have been unable to gather information on the thousand-pound bombs. When Haven discloses that he knows of Eric's former profession, Karl, unaware that his colleague was an esteemed architect, expresses surprise. Eric tells Haven that he was forced into demolitions when he fell into disfavor for making anti-Nazi political statements. Karl and the other men were all pressed into demolitions as punishment for some indiscretion and all vowed to do everything they could to survive the war. Mocking Eric's growing anxiety, Karl urges him to quit the unit and give up the wager, but Eric refuses. A month before the wager's deadline, Sulke is killed while defusing a bomb. Eric, Loeffler and the men agree to adhere to the terms of the wager but discuss giving the salaries to Sulke's widow and child. When Eric presents the proposal to Karl, he scoffs at the suggestion, explaining that his motto has always been to look after himself. The next day Loeffler is called to defuse a bomb found in a canal. Later, Eric learns that Loeffler has drowned in the attempt. That afternoon when Margot urges Eric to give up the bet and quit the unit, Eric explains he must know whether he can triumph over Karl's greed and selfishness. A few days later, Karl is assigned to defuse a thousand-pound bomb and Eric joins him at the site to make an inspection. The men discuss a strategy to avoid the potential second fuse, then Eric departs, but worriedly hovers nearby. After removing the top of the bomb, Karl gently handles the cap then abruptly calls for help, claiming the detonator pin has slipped. Eric rushes in and provides a pencil, which he offers to hold in place of the pin while Karl retrieves his tools from the landing. Moments later, Eric is stunned when the rope Karl used earlier to remove the top pulls tautly across his hand, forcing him to release the pencil. The bomb does not explode, however, and Eric realizes that Karl has tried to kill him. Eric strikes Karl, then orders him to finish defusing the bomb. As Eric walks away, the bomb explodes, killing Karl.
Kenneth V. Jones
Ten Seconds to Hell
Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) was made at a low point in director Robert Aldrich's career. He was embroiled in a law suit against Columbia Pictures after being fired on the set of The Garment Jungle (1957) and this period of inactivity lasted more than eighteen months, causing him considerable anxiety about being able to continue working as a film director. His luck seemed to change when he received an offer to make a film in Germany to be co-produced by Hammer and Seven Arts and distributed by United Artists. The project, based on the novel The Phoenix by Lawrence Bachmann, would be filmed at Germany's UFA Studios and on location in Berlin and Aldrich agreed to co-write the screenplay with Teddi Sherman. He was also given some freedom in hiring the cast and key crew members he wanted which meant a reunion with such trusted former collaborators as cameraman Ernest Laszlo and actors such as Wesley Addy, Dave Willock, and Jack Palance, who had previously turned in such impressive performances in Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956).
Despite a promising start, Ten Seconds to Hell would become one of Aldrich's most troubled productions, resulting in a movie that was a mutilation of the director's vision; it was reedited and shorn of almost forty minutes of footage prior to its release. Part of the problem stemmed from Aldrich working for the first time with a predominantly European crew (most of them were German with a few from Hammer Studios in England) who had a different way of working than Hollywood crews and weren't always cooperative or agreeable to his style of filming. Jack Palance was also unconventional in his preparation for scenes. Len Harris, one of the camera operators, recalled that Palance, "was an odd man, but a very nice one. He was something of a 'method' actor - this was new to the old Hammer crew - and we weren't quite sure what was going on. He was trying to live the part and couldn't stand any interference while he was preparing himself. He'd walk around the studio, getting himself worked up, and believe me, you didn't want to get in his way. He was definitely unapproachable during these times." (from Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio [McFarland]).
The crew was also baffled by Aldrich's excessive emphasis on the various bomb sites. "Robert covered himself with hundreds of shots of the bomb," Harris said. "One from this side, one from that side, one from this angle, closeup, whatever. The German crew called the picture Around the Bomb in Eighty Ways!" But live bombs were indeed a concern for all and, in one instance, shooting was delayed when Gerhard Rabiger, the movie's technical advisor, left the set to defuse a live 500 pound bomb in another location.
Another problem was the unsatisfactory screenplay for which Aldrich readily accepted most of the blame: "The scenario was too long, too superficially philosophical, and far too talky." He also confessed that "Some directors have the capacity to edit their own work, but I don't think I'm one of them."
Worst of all, there was a major breakdown in communication between Palance and Aldrich during filming. The director admitted (in Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich by Tony Williams) that "we both ran out of the ability...to continue our professional rapport...[In] Ten Seconds to Hell, Palance's was the pivotal part, and when I lost control of him, and he lost confidence in me, the resulting damage to the final film was catastrophic." The rupture between the two men put an end to their collaborations and they never worked together again.
In addition to all of the above problems, Aldrich also clashed with the film's distributors. "They really thought it was going to be an adventure picture," he said, "with Martine Carol taking off her clothes once or twice. Well, it was never that...the picture could have been bad or mediocre or whatever you like, but that was the kind of a picture it always was. The area of disappointment between the distributor and myself was that they had expected one kind of film, a dramatisation of the Bachmann novel. Well the script was never changed from the day it was submitted, budgeted and agreed and cast and started, until we finished. So when they came on the scene in Berlin and saw this picture, which was pretty melancholy, they were terribly shocked. It wasn't the kind of film they expected at all. So they overreacted to what they saw. They chopped it to pieces. I think everybody had a hand in the re-editing."
Some of the criticisms were aimed at the performance of French actress Martine Carol and the fact that Aldrich seemed more interested in the mechanics of defusing bombs than the development of the main characters. During the early fifties, Martine Carol reigned as the sexiest actress in French films but her popularity declined toward the end of the decade when Brigitte Bardot rose to prominence. Ten Seconds to Hell certainly didn't help revive her career since she was hampered by the often pretentious English dialogue and Aldrich deliberately deglamorized her in the role of a disillusioned war widow struggling for survival in the most degrading circumstances. Yet, she does have a few memorable scenes in the film such as her explanation for why she can't go home to her family: "I'm French, married to an enemy soldier during wartime. It's considered a crime to fall in love, especially with the enemy...Here, I'm still the enemy. I can see in their eyes that I remind them of something dead in themselves." There is also a palpable sexual tension between Carol and Palance in several scenes and in one powerful moment she confronts his fear of intimacy, saying "What you want, you deny yourself. But why? Tell me, does it make you feel pure and superior to walk away from something you want?" Erik responds, "I don't know. I've never seen anything I wanted that badly," and walks away, abandoning Margot in a state of emotional anguish.
While it is true that Erik and Karl, his darker alter ego, often seem more like opposing philosophical ideals than flesh-and-blood characters, Palance and Chandler do generate substantial friction and intensity in their scenes together, particularly in a final ominous scene. The sequences where the bomb squad members face their own demise, however, are the most gripping moments in Ten Seconds to Hell. As noted by the authors of The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, "Each episode is varied so that the suspense is always fresh - one bomb is in a collapsing building, one is under water - and there is always the hazard of the double-fuse. To further create tension, Aldrich typically dispenses with background music during these moments. At times he amplifies the physical sounds of breathing or the mechanical sounds of wrenches on bolts; at other times he allows silence itself to work for him, until it is broken by the dooming tick of the bomb's detonating device. He uses close-ups to focus on the intensity of the individual facing death, but he also pulls back to long shots to remind us of each man's relative helplessness in this huge, ruined landscape." As effective as these scene are, they ultimately generate a mood of futility and nihilism that was too depressing for the average moviegoer. But the specter of death hangs over the entire film, in part because of the authenticity of its setting. Len Harris recalls, "It was very sad going to the UFA Studio and seeing the graves of soldiers lining the road. You must remember that the war had only ended thirteen years previously and was still very real to us all. These soldiers died defending a film studio!"(from Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio [McFarland])
Aldrich was usually the first to dismiss Ten Seconds to Hell as "awful" and many Aldrich admirers admit it is a seriously flawed work but Ten Seconds to Hell doesn't deserve its unfavorable reputation. It might not deliver on the excitement promised in the title but it does capture a place, time and mood with an almost documentary-like precision; Postwar Berlin was a wasteland of bombed out buildings, dire poverty, demoralized citizens and black market profiteers and this movie brings it vividly to life in a relentlessly bleak existential melodrama that fascinates on several levels from the contrast in acting styles between Jack Palance, Jeff Chandler and Martine Carol to Ernest Laszlo's superb black-and-white cinematography. It is also worth noting that the art director is Ken Adam, who went on to work on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Barry Lyndon (1975) as well as several of the James Bond films starting with Dr. No (1962).
Among all of the reviews that Ten Seconds to Hell received upon its release - mostly negative - there was one by Richard Nason in The New York Times which was the most accurate and favorable, calling it "a strange and unconventional bit of entertainment that unfortunately falls between the genres of an art film and a suspense drama...a profound set of ideas involving moral responsibility in a world dedicated to violence and destruction." After Ten Seconds to Hell, Aldrich would go on to achieve some of his biggest commercial successes in the sixties with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), which took the fatalistic six man team concept of Ten Seconds to Hell and expanded it to twelve men in a big budget feature with bigger stars and more action, violence and special effects.
Producer: Michael Carreras
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Robert Aldrich, Teddi Sherman; Lawrence P. Bachmann (novel "The Phoenix")
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Music: Kenneth V. Jones
Film Editing: Henry Richardson
Cast: Jack Palance (Erik Koertner), Jeff Chandler (Karl Wirtz), Martine Carol (Margot Hofer), Robert Cornthwaite (Franz Loeffler), Virginia Baker (Frau Bauer), Richard Wattis (Major Haven), Wes Addy (Wolfgang Sulke), Dave Willock (Peter Tillig), Jimmy Goodwin (Hans Globke).
by Jeff Stafford
Robert Aldrich: A Guide to References and Resources by Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward (G.K. Hall & Co.)
The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold & Eugene L. Miller (University of Tennessee Press)
Robert Aldrich: Interviews, Edited by Ian Cameron & Mark Shivas (University Press of Mississippi)
Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich by Tony Williams (Scarecrow Press)
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland)
Ten Seconds to Hell
Working titles for the film were The Extra Edge and The Phoenix. According to a November 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Britain's Exclusive Films (an alternate corporate name used by Hammer in the early 1950s) intended to make both an English language and German-language adaptation of Lawrence Bachmann's novel, The Phoenix, with Bachmann scripting and co-producing. Only the English-language version was made, and Bachmann's contribution, if any, to the finished script has not been determined. The film was shot on location in Berlin.
A May 1958 New York Times article indicated that director Robert Aldrich received unprecendented assistance from East Berlin authorities and equipment from DEFA Studios in East Berlin. The East Berlin Government in the Soviet sector of the city controlled Berlin's railways and, at Aldrich's request, offered complete cooperation in allowing the filming of an early sequence in the story as the soldiers, returning from the POW camps, arrive in the Berlin train station. The Daily Variety review noted that the voice-over narration seemed to be an "afterthought" and indeed, a portion of it contradicts the film when the narrator mentions six months having passed since one character's death yet "Eric" soon after states that three months have passed.
Shown in New York City (Walter Reade) as part of program "Apocalypse Anytime! The Films of Robert Aldrich" March 11 - April 8, 1994.