Sunday 14 February 2021

Movie Review: The Rack (1956)

A military courtroom drama, The Rack has good intentions to explore mental torture, but is snagged by an unimaginative narrative.

Decorated Captain Ed Hall Jr. (Paul Newman) was held prisoner by the enemy for many months during the Korean War, while his brother Pete was killed in combat. Now Ed returns to the United States and spends time recovering at a military hospital, but has difficulty reconnecting with his father Ed Sr. (Walter Pidgeon) and sister-in-law (Pete's widow) Aggie (Anne Francis). At the hospital, Captain John Miller (Lee Marvin), another recuperating soldier who was also held captive by the enemy, hangs a "traitor" sign around Ed's neck.

Once Ed makes it home, he is charged with collaborating with the enemy. Major Sam Moulton (Wendell Corey) is the reluctant lead court-martial prosecutor, and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wasnick (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned as the defence lawyer. What happened to Ed in the prison camp will be revealed at the trial.

Written by Stewart Stern and based on a Rod Serling story, The Rack's origins are as an hour-long television drama, and it shows. Director Arnold Laven is unable to evolve the narrative much past small screen confines, and requires a contrived structure of unnecessarily holding back information to extend the running length to 100 minutes.

The objectives of exposing new forms of psychological warfare and the impact on soldiers subjected to non-physical torture are admirable, and the better parts of The Rack work as a lightweight precursor to 1962's The Manchurian Candidate. Paul Vogel's black and white cinematography is suitably stark for the institutional hospital and courtroom settings, and an intense but still sympathetic Paul Newman, in his third role, adequately conveys the damage caused by guilt and intense mistreatment.

But after a prolonged build-up towards explaining exactly what happened in the Korean prison camp, The Rack falls well short. Laven is all about tell, don't show, and the revelations from the witness chair related to Ed Hall's mental state, his relationship with his father, broader societal and military responsibilities and whether or not Ed reached an emotional breaking point all land with a confused thud. A father-son moment of attempted reconciliation is more awkward than rewarding.

The supporting cast is strong, Walter Pidgeon, Wendell Corey, Edmond O'Brien and Lee Marvin lending robust if static support. Anne Francis is also stoic, but Aggie's role and function between Ed Sr. and Ed Jr. never quite latches.

The Rack attempts to interrogate with passion, but is often overruled.

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