30 October 2009 | jzappa
Ego Cannot Replace Courage, But They Can Look Alike.
Possibly Nicholas Ray's most masculine film, he begins with a great opening credits sequence and follows with a studious, procedural atmosphere. When it gets emotionally dramatic quite soon, it remains taut, spare, subdued. Because Ray doesn't tell us how to feel about it, our understanding of the histrionics is that much clearer and unclouded. By the twenty-minute mark, the tension is a natural agreement between us and the film, which sits back viewing objectively horizontal planes, or stationary horizontal shots of whatever natural blocking. Even a shootout in the desert night.
Bitter Victory is a rare treat, a military thriller involving war and covert ops, but focusing not on combat or conspiracies, but on the agitated envy two Allied officers who are situated on a commando raid together. We skip the parachuting in to Bengasi but we're quickly witness to their wordless close calls and perceptions of un-subtitled Arabic. This downbeat emotional drama is what no Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne film would have the nerve or insight to do. It sees combat violence, sneak operations and life-or-death situations, of course, but it does not see the core of the suspense in it. But one of the two central characters, yes, essentially just two, is burying his knowledge that he's unfit for his job and undeserving of his command as deep as he can beneath the assurances of his aggressive justification. Another is having an affair with that very commander's wife, whose emotions are displaced from her husband.
The on-screen violence is far from realistic, but building towards it and simmering down from it are steady and natural to the point that I might even say that it is Ray's most effective film about repression and male anger, even the great In a Lonely Place, in which Humphrey Bogart's outbursts betray an all-too-real recklessness in his eyes. The tension in Bitter Victory makes brief outbursts by, say, the latter said central character, played intensely by Richard Burton, feel twice the jolt of the violence which is expected of his mission. And the tensions heightened by the controlling anger of the commander, in a strong performance by Curt Jurgens, create a balance of ambiguity. We know the crushing inadequacies that haunt the very men we find so brutally cold.