I’ve been making an effort lately to see more new films, or perhaps I should say new to me rather than newly produced movies. Through a combination of blind buys and recommendations from others I’ve been trying to expand my horizons somewhat instead of simply returning to comfortable old favorites. Inevitably, some have worked better for me than others, but I have to say I’ve had no total disappointments yet. The latest is Guns of Darkness (1962), a polished British political thriller by Anthony Asquith. Actually, it’s more of a human drama set against the backdrop of a volatile political situation in a fictional South American state.
New Year’s Eve, out with the old and in with the new. As the minutes tick down towards the end of the old year time is also running short for certain individuals, but in a slightly more dramatic fashion. Some are thinking only of parties, of song and dance and celebration, others are planning to set off fireworks of an altogether more lethal kind. Tom Jordan (David Niven) is attending a company do with his French wife, Claire (Leslie Caron), and he’s not having a good time. Frankly, Jordan isn’t having much of a time in life in general; he’s a deeply dissatisfied man, contemptuous of his job, ambitious for something he can’t quite define, and on the down slope of a marriage. At the stroke of midnight the revelers, even the reluctant ones like Jordan, link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, the image of their full-blooded rendition intercut with the very different scenes taking place simultaneously outside of their insulated little world. All across the city the streets ring with the sound of army boots on stone, and gunshots and screams. A coup is underway, a swift and bloody change of regime, and will be more or less complete by the time the sun rises on the new year. The aftermath is to be seen next morning, uncertainty and the meting out of retribution mean normal life and the routine of business are put on hold. Returning home early, his mind still reeling from his having witnessed a summary execution, Jordan is about to face a wife who’s both pregnant and on the point of leaving him. However, before Claire has the chance to tell her husband anything, he discovers an unexpected interloper – soon to be ex-President Rivera (David Opatoshu) has crawled wounded into the car of the doctor visiting Claire. Sometimes those who drift rudderless through life find direction or purpose quite unexpectedly, and such seems to be the fate of Jordan. Whatever other failings he may have, he’s a humanitarian at heart, and a man like that really has no option but to follow his instincts under the circumstances. And so the race, and consequent pursuit, is on – Jordan and an initially unwitting Claire find themselves running for the border with the ailing Rivera in tow, their lives and his in grave danger.
Guns of Darkness is packaged as a combination of political thriller and chase drama yet the politics play only a minor role – if anything, it’s the dehumanizing aspect of politics which is critiqued. Little is made of the differences between Rivera and his usurpers, in fact the point is made that they have much in common in terms of the degree of ruthlessness they are prepared to exercise. This is the stuff of broad brush strokes though, window dressing in a sense, and essentially an adjunct to the main theme of the movie. The long trek and accompanying adventures are really just stops along the journey Jordan embarks upon towards emotional maturity and redemption. If anything, Guns of Darkness represents the process of self-discovery of a previously jaded and unfocused man. We’re presented with a guy who has spent his life running away from responsibilities and sneering at everything or everybody he felt was beneath him, and we watch as he comes to realize he’s been running from himself and that the contempt was a mask for indecisiveness. By the end, all that fog has been banished to be replaced by a feeling of purpose and the emergence of a man of true character, a soul reclaimed and renewed.
There was a good deal of talent behind the camera for this film: director Anthony Asquith, who made some fine British films in his time including the underrated The Woman in Question, writer John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, and cameraman Robert Krasker with both The Third Man and Odd Man Out on his extensive résumé. The opening sequence blending the New Year celebrations and the violence of the coup is wonderfully shot with Asquith and Krasker coming up with an excellent selection of angles and lighting setups. There’s plenty of moody noir style photography on view throughout the movie and good use of the Spanish locations, which stood in for South America. A film like Guns of Darkness necessarily involves a fair number of talky scenes but these rarely bog the action down too much and anyway there’s typically enough tension woven into the story to ensure things keep moving along – the station wagon becoming trapped in quicksand and the ensuing struggle to get free being a notable example.
I think the nature of the story, insofar as one can define it through the leading character, is clearly British or European. What I mean is that US films tend to present a more clear-cut lead, typically a man of action or at least one who is more certain of his place in the world. The character of Jordan doesn’t fall into this category, and David Niven was an excellent choice to play him. One usually has an image of Niven as a debonair type, smooth with others and comfortable with himself. While those were qualities he could effortlessly bring to the screen he was capable of a far broader range too when the occasion demanded it. Guns of Darkness sees Niven wholly uncomfortable, at war with himself and those around him, and not really sure why. As soon as Rivera crashes into his life he finds himself taking increasingly bigger risks, and with only the vaguest idea of what his ultimate purpose is. There’s a good deal of subtlety in Niven’s performance, his growing self-awareness coming on gradually and naturally. When he eventually finds he has to resort to the violence he so despises, Niven’s reaction is beautifully judged and there’s suitable attention paid to the consequences of his actions too. And that’s another point in the movie’s favor in my opinion, the violence that takes place is handled with the kind of gravity it deserves.
The picture is basically a three-hander with Niven, Leslie Caron and David Opatoshu receiving the lion’s share of screen time. Caron’s part called for a display of stoicism – there are plenty of physical challenges to be faced as events unfold – and also honest expression of the kind of conflicting emotions experienced by a woman still in love with the man she hopes her husband can be, even as she’s coming to terms with the knowledge that he’ll never be perfect. Opatoshu had one of those roles here it must have been tempting to portray him as a saintly humanitarian, but that was fortunately resisted in favor of making him a more three-dimensional figure. The moment when we realize he’s capable of great cruelty in the name of survival is shocking and at the same time curiously liberating; the result is that we understand we’re looking at a real human being, not simply some idealized caricature. In support, there’s worthwhile work done by James Robertson Justice, Sandor Eles, Ian Hunter and Eleanor Summerfield among others.
Network in the UK have been steadily releasing significant numbers of movies over the last couple of years under their The British Film banner. Guns of Darkness is one of those titles and it’s the kind of film which would otherwise still be languishing in relative obscurity, although I see it’s also been made available in the US via the Warner Archive. The Network DVD presents the movie in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print looks strong for the most part although there are a few minor blemishes here an there. This is the kind of film I really appreciate having the opportunity to see and it’s gratifying to have it in good condition. I found the tale a solid and quite engrossing one, peopled with characters who felt credible and authentic, and put together by talented professionals both behind and in front of the camera. Anyone who enjoys a well crafted thriller with some depth should get value from this film.