Assassination seemed so easy . . . at first!
UK / 107 minutes / bw / Anthony Asquith, Lynx, British Lion Dir: Anthony Asquith Pr: Anthony Havelock-Allan Scr: Paul Dehn, George St. George Story: Donald C. Downes Cine: Desmond Dickinson Cast: Eddie Albert, Paul Massie, Lillian Gish, James Robertson Justice, Leslie French, Irene Worth, John Crawford, Lionel Jeffries, Nicholas Phipps, Jacques Brunius, Robert Henderson, Miki Iveria, Lillabea Gifford, Anne Blake, Sam Kydd, William E. Greene.
“The central story on which this film is based is true,” reads a line in the opening credits of Orders to Kill, an offering that starts out as an orthodox war movie but then ventures far farther into noirish territory, both thematically and in visual style, than do most UK films noirs of the era.
It’s Boston in 1944, and the French officer Commandant Morand (Brunius) conveys to two of his US opposite numbers, Major Kimball (Crawford) and Colonel Snyder (Henderson), that there appears to be a traitor in a Paris cell of the French Resistance. The two US officers determine to send Gene Summers (Massie)—a fighter–bomber pilot recently demobbed because of injury and exhaustion who before the war lived some while in Paris, gaining fluent French—to murder the suspected traitor, a process server named Marcel Lafitte (French).
Commandant Morand (Jacques Brunius) reports the apparent betrayal . . .
. . . to Major Kimball (John Crawford, left) and Colonel Snyder (Robert Henderson).
Gene (Paul Massie) reckons he can easily cope with the challenge.
Overseen by his handler, Major “Mac” MacMahon (Albert), Gene is sent to be trained as a spy and an assassin under the tutelage of an unnamed Naval Commander (Justice). He’s taught how to slay Germans without wasting bullets, how to invent lies that will hold up under interrogation and even torture, and so on.
James Robertson Justice excels in the role of the unnamed naval commander primarily responsible for training Gene (Paul Massie).
It’s during this section of Orders to Kill that we realize that what we’re watching is less a war movie, however quirky, than a noirish piece. For me the transition became apparent withthis conversation between Mac and the Naval Commander:
Mac: “I’m worried.”
Mac: “This whole business to him is nothing more than . . . Well, you just heard him. ‘Thanks, Commander. It was swell.’ You know, except for one moment in his first interrogation, I don’t believe he’s ever stopped to think what it’s really going to be like over there. He’s play-acting—and he’s loving it.”
And moments later we have this:
Commander: “Major, I wish I were training pilots to drop bombs, because my job here is harder. I’ve got to stop civilized men from thinking about the reality of killing a fellow human being with their bare hands. Because if they thought about it they might never do it. But they’ve got to do it. So what can I do? I can turn the act of killing into a cross between a game and a drill. . . . I don’t mind if he’s sick afterwards. My only concern is that he isn’t sick before.”
Part of Gene’s training is to attend lectures by an unnamed lieutenant (Nicholas Phipps).
Justice always had enough of a screen presence that often—too often—he could get away with simply phoning performances in: adopting his standard, immediately recognizable screen persona and letting it do the acting for him. That isn’t the case here. During the early part of Gene’s training, Justice is his usual self, although there’s an additional sparkle to his performance to show that he’s fully involved, but by this later stage it’s become clear that his involvement is a passionate one. He’s revolted by the dehumanization of both assassin and victim in which his character engages, yet it’s obvious that, while the Naval Commander has learned to accept it as a necessary evil, Justice himself cannot. This matter of relative evil—if there can be such a thing—and the cost it exacts from those who make the devil’s bargain are at the core of Orders to Kill (which is not so much an anti-war piece as one questioning that bargain), and Justice’s powerful performance is one of the anchors of the moral dilemma the movie presents.
Watched by a training dummy, the naval commander (James Robertson Justice) tries to get it through to Gene just how fundamental a step murder is.
The interrogator in one of Gene’s training sessions is played by Lionel Jeffries.
Mac (Eddie Albert) still has doubts as he watches Gene’s plane depart for Europe.
In the guise of small-time electrical mechanic Jean Doumier (for the sake of ease, we’ll continue to call him Gene), our protagonist arrives in Paris and makes contact with his intermediary, a couturier called Léonie (Worth), whose loathing of the Nazi occupiers is intensified by the fact that they killed her son Alain.
He also meets Marcel Lafitte, his intended victim, and the men strike up a friendship after Marcel warns Gene that the rabbit stew in the eaterie they both frequent, the Café Bertolo, is as like as not made from cat, not rabbit. Some while later Marcel runs into Gene on the street and, knowing that the Nazis are just about to scour the area in search of a fugitive, stows the younger man away in his office for the night. While there, Gene goes through all of Marcel’s papers and can find nothing to indicate any act of treachery. What he does find, though, is Marcel’s kitten Minou.
The mild-mannered Marcel (Leslie French) seems completely disingenuous.
As does Minou.
The following day Marcel explains how the cat is doubly illegal: his office landlords don’t allow pets, and his wife had sent him out of their home with strict instructions either to drown Minou or even to sell her to the Café Bertolo for one of their “rabbit stews.” As Marcel explains his choice, Gene starts to recognize the horror of what he plans to do.
Gene tells Léonie that he cannot believe that a man who’d go to such lengths to spare the life of a cat could possibly be sending his Resistance friends to their deaths at the hands of the Gestapo, and she listens with apparent sympathy to Gene’s qualms about committing what he now thinks would be the murder of an innocent man. But then she suddenly turns the tables on him, delivering forcefully a speech that seems to me the second of the movie’s most important pivotal moments. In part:
Léonie: “‘Murder’? But this is war. And in war the innocent and the guilty get killed together. When you were ordered to drop bombs over France, did you refuse because you might have killed innocent Frenchmen? Or women? Or children like yourself?”
Léonie (Irene Worth) explains a bit of reality to the naive Gene (Paul Massie).
She then itemizes, in response to his listing of his reasons for believing Marcel to be innocent, the reasons for thinking the man might be guilty. Furthermore, the hazards of making a final check with London to make sure their evidence holds water are unacceptably high. It is Gene’s duty to go ahead with the killing and, should it later prove that Marcel was innocent, well, this is war, after all.
As did Justice earlier, Irene Worth gives a performance of considerable power—an absolute show-stopper. It’s almost a fault in the movie that she does so, because she spends virtually the entirety of her screen time with only the rather weak Paul Massie, here in his first credited cinematic role, as counterpoint. Both of them received BAFTA awards for Orders to Kill, Worth as Best British Actress and Massie as Most Promising Newcomer to Film, but the gulf between their abilities at this early stage of Massie’s career is plain to see.
(Dehn’s screenplay brought Orders to Kill a third BAFTA, and it was nominated also as Best Movie and Best British Movie. At Cannes director Asquith was nominated for the Palme d’Or.)
On the morning of the fateful day, Gene (Paul Massie) waits for Marcel to arrive at the office.
Spurred by her words, Gene goes ahead and murders Marcel, then steals a large sum of money from the man’s office to try to make the killing look like part of a botched robbery. He hides the money in the local cemetery, and as he does so he discovers his hand is covered in his friend’s blood. In a sarcastic commentary, the soundtrack suddenly offers us a burst of triumphalist martial music, not so much mocking Gene as reflecting his thoughts about the jingoism that drives people to war.
Gene (Paul Massie) prepares to commit the loathsome deed . . .
. . . but it goes very wrong.
It’s even worse for him when he discovers a note Léonie sent to him telling him that, yes, Marcel was innocent. By now she herself has been captured by the Germans. Tormented by guilt and riven by the fact that he has committed an act that was both right, in that it was one of duty, and terribly, terribly wrong, Gene uses the stolen money to drink himself into a months-long bender. Here Massie’s thespian abilities are stretched to their limits, but luckily the superb, near-hallucinatory cinematography and editing stifle most suspicions of overacting. It’s a sequence that Hitchcock might have been proud of.
In the movie’s finale, set just after the liberation of Paris, Major Kimball and Mac MacMahon find Gene recuperating in one of the city’s hospitals. Kimball lies to him that Marcel was revealed to be the darkest of traitors. After Kimball has left, Mac has the integrity to tell Gene the truth, that Marcel was indeed the victim of false accusation, and in a curious way Gene seems to find this easier to deal with: he can make some form of restitution to the bereaved family of an innocent man whereas, despite their own innocence, it might have been emotionally more difficult for him to do so had Marcel been guilty.
The movie has some splendid supporting performances. Lillian Gish gives a sensitive rendition of Gene’s elderly mother, Mrs. Daisy Summers. After he’s accepted the task of going to Paris to murder Marcel, Gene lies to his mother and her French companion, Louise (Iveria, likewise excellent), that his new contribution to the war effort will be a “liaison” desk job; in Gish’s eyes we can see Daisy’s knowledge that her son is lying, and her sorrow that he feels he must—even to his own mother. It’s a quite magnificent use of minimal facial gesture to convey a great deal.
Daisy Summers (Lillian Gish) and the maid Louise (Miki Iveria) listen to Gene’s lies.
Another small but wonderfully fulfilled role is given by Lillabea Gifford as Marcel’s daughter Mauricette. Marcel’s wife Marie (Blake, also very good) has discovered about the cat Minou, and Marcel has concocted a Cunning Plan. He brings Gene home with him as a friend who has offered to adopt Minou; the idea is that Gene take the cat away with him but the next morning drop her back to Marcel’s office. As the two adult Lafittes have a ferocious argument in the kitchen, young Mauricette tries her awkward best to cover for what she recognizes as her parents’ social gaffe. So she puts a record on the gramophone and, with a gauche adolescent charm, performs a dance in hopes of distracting Gene’s attention from the yells and accusations that are ringing all too audibly through the thin apartment walls. It’s a sequence of very great charm that seems to be entirely unnecessary to the movie as a whole, yet I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. For no reason that I can even guess at, the clearly very talented Gifford made no other screen appearance besides this one.
Marcel’s wife Marie (Anne Blake) and daughter Mauricette (Lillabea Gifford) are manifestly ignorant of his involvement with the Resistance.
Eddie Albert plays the part of Eddie Albert with his usual phlegmatic aplomb—he does a good Eddie Albert, does that Eddie Albert—but Leslie French, as Marcel Lafitte, delivers a performance that in many ways ranks alongside those of James Robertson Justice and Irene Worth. His Marcel is a rather fussy, rather self-denigrating but overwhelmingly good-hearted man (odd for a process server!); he is instantly likeable, and it’s no surprise at all that Gene is so soon persuaded of his integrity. Without this sterling effort from French to win over the hearts of the audience, it’s inconceivable that the brutal murder scene could have had anything like the impact it has. The nearest comparison I can think of in terms of visceral wrench is the scene of Timothy Evans’s hanging in TEN RILLINGTON PLACE (1971) where, again, we know that the cruel, legally justified but morally unjustifiable death that we’re witnessing is that of an innocent man. That the killer is a man whom Marcel went out of his way to befriend makes it all even worse.
The movie features a stunning performance from Irene Worth as Léonie.
But the movie must obviously depend upon the performance that’s at its heart, and that is necessarily Paul Massie’s as the amateur assassin Gene Summers. In the early part of Orders to Kill and during Gene’s training under James Robertson Justice’s character, Massie must portray the kind of clean-cut American boy who loves and respects his doting mom while at the same time being sufficiently alienated from others that, as he confesses, he’s never worried too much about whether the bombs he’s dropped have landed on the guilty or the innocent, on adults or children—it’s this expressed attitude that drives Justice’s character almost to tears. (A big point is made at the movie’s end that Gene has finally discovered that it did matter, and that he should have thought about this earlier—that Léonie’s argument along the lines of it being war, after all, is a false one.)
Massie conveys that borderline sociopathy—hm, just borderline?—through simpers and little secret smiles, as if Gene is securely confident, within his own little world, of his superiority in terms of both intellect and courageous ruthlessness to those around him. It’s a perfectly well thought-through approach to the part, but the execution of it doesn’t quite match up to the notion. Because of Massie’s rather sculpted-looking face, the result is as if one of the central team of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds (1964–6) had gone loco.
As noted above, Massie is likewise only just up to the task of depicting Gene as he slides inexorably gutterwards. Yet in the movie’s last few minutes, as the resuscitated Gene faces a harsher if more enlightened future, his performance is pitch perfect.
I’ve probably wittered on too long nitpicking over Massie’s turn. Its shortcomings, such as they are, are a matter of trivial importance when taken in context of the movie as a whole. Orders to Kill is a magnificently thought-provoking movie, a noirish lesson in what happens when we take for granted that there’s a clear distinction between right and wrong and, buoyed up by our own sense of unchallengeable rectitude, stride straight into the noir quicksand.
On Amazon.com: Orders to Kill [Region 2 DVD]