Saturday 20 February 2021

Movie Review: Edge Of Darkness (1943)

A World War Two drama, Edge Of Darkness is a stirring tale of resistance in a small Norwegian village.

In the occupied Norwegian fishing community of Trollness, all the residents and all the stationed German troops are found dead. The events of the prior week are revealed in flashback. 

The German commander Koenig (Helmut Dantine) maintains order through intimidation, and his soldiers keep close tabs on the restless villagers, including resistance sympathizers Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn), a fisher, and his lover Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). But not all the residents are hostile. Cannery owner Kaspar Torgersen (Charles Dingle) is a German collaborator. Karen's father Martin (Walter Huston) is the village's only doctor and stays neutral, while his wife Anna (Ruth Gordon) is borderline delusional. The innkeeper Gerd Bjarnesen (Judith Anderson) lost her husband to the war and is fending off a German soldier's unwanted romantic advances. 

Gunnar and Karen learn the Allies will drop off a weapons cache from the sea. The villagers are only able to communicate at secret meetings, and have to decide whether to unite, organize and take up arms against the occupiers while guarding against the threat of informers.

An adaptation of the book by William Woods, Edge Of Darkness is an engrossing multi-character drama. The Robert Rossen screenplay patiently explores the tensions simmering among residents chafing under the Nazi occupation, and director Lewis Milestone keeps the story moving, using most of the two hours to delve into the challenge of uniting a group towards a common purpose as the fuse is lit for a raucous climax.

From the opening sequence showing dead bodies strewn all across the village, Edge Of Darkness sets itself apart as a grim and uncompromising view of war. Despite propaganda objectives to rally anti-Nazi support when the war's outcome was very much in doubt, the story rises above shallow pedagogy by avoiding crass emotions and histrionics. Instead Milestone gets down to the pragmatic business of occupiers and the occupied engaged in a deadly game of mental and physical manoeuvring for intimidation and control.

The underlying theme is strength in unity, and despite the presence of stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, they have relatively limited roles. Gunnar and Karen are just two of the many villagers making up a community with diverse viewpoints on how to deal with a well-armed occupying force. And while businessman and factory owner Torgersen is easy to dislike as an all-in collaborator, the grey middle zone of uncertainty is most compelling. 

Doctor Stensgard, his mentally suffering wife Anna, and the church pastor are among prominent citizens unsure whether carrying guns and charging at the Germans is the wisest course of action, while elderly and retired school teacher Andersen (Morris Carnovsky) seeks an independent method of resistance.

In addition to debates between here-and-now action and pick-the-right moment strategy, an undercover agent adds intrigue, while the weaponization of sex features in the story of Polish captive Katja (Nancy Coleman) and a harrowing rape incident. The narrative depth extends to commander Koenig's own ambitions and disillusionment with his superiors.

When the time comes for the bullets to fly, Milestone and cinematographer Sid Hickox deploy gliding camera work to capture a village turning into a battlefield. Filled with human-centred intrigue, Edge Of Darkness is a sharp moment of reckoning.

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