Grahame Green's stories were successful on the screen until filmmakers tried to fit them into specific genre categories - Carol Reed's The Third Man and The Fallen Idol were hits but later efforts like Our Man in Havana and The End of the Affair (1955) suffered from attempts to heighten comedy or bury a religious subtext. Across the Bridge is fairly faithful to its source book and an interesting enough movie, but it has dramatic problems for people expecting characters with which to identify. By the grim end, it seems to have worked itself into a parable without a message. Still, Rod Steiger's acting is more than enough to recommend it.
Carl Schaffner is one of Rod Steiger's better screen roles - his New York actor mannerisms are almost completely sublimated into the cautious and scheming survivor, the kind who can slip through a disaster or political upheaval in one piece by being logical, quiet and ruthless. We don't know much about Schaffner except that he's a widower executive who looks out for himself exclusively. A telling detail has his loyal staff informing on him to the police. They rationalizing their actions as being exactly what Schaffner would do - take care of Number One.
Green often creates characters caught in strange moral enigmas, or politico-legal puzzles that trap them between countries and states of grace. The priest in The Fugitive is a political outlaw, and Harry Lime in The Third Man has become a parasite feeding on the woes of a divided city. Carl Schaffner is stuck between three countries and two identities, both hunted by the law. 1 The U.S. and England want Schaffner for big-time corporate fraud. Mexico wants Paul Scarff for murder. Each time he finds himself in another weird trap, Carl cleverly schemes his way out of it.
We expect Across the Bridge to snowball into a mass of problems Carl can't solve, like a mature version of Quicksand. His situation does get hairy. When he finds out his new Paul Scarff identity is hotter than his old one, he carefully reclaims his old passport too. Scarff has the necessary visas to get into Mexico. Once he's there Carl can reveal his true identity and emerge again as Schaffner. Scotland Yard (in the person of Bernard Lee) can't easily extradite him from Mexico. Schaffner uses a needy pair of Americans (David Knight and Marla Landi (she of Hound of the Baskervilles fame) as pawns in his plan.
Of course, there are things Schaffner doesn't take into account. Scarff is wanted in Mexico, but he's also a favorite son in this particular border town, and the locals don't take kindly to foreigners who inform on their own. The local police authority (Noel Willman) sees big money in Schaffner and withholds his passport so he can't leave. He puts the pressure on so the bigshot will ransom himself with a bribe, while the Scotland Yard detective schemes to have Schaffner kidnapped back to the American side.
As in the complicated Catholic parable of End of the Affair, there's a religious angle here that Across the Bridge never makes overt. The police chief keeps Schaffner suspended in a limbo between Earth and Heaven, denying the selfish man comfort, money and human companionship. Schaffner gets stuck with Scarff's dog and tries to drive it away, but it keeps coming back, dragging its leash behind it. Eventually, when he's reduced to living under a piece of garbage down by the bridge Schaffner becomes grateful for the dog's companionship. The dog may be a symbol of his refound humanity, or perhaps just represents his conscience. Either way, Scaffner's sins have trapped him between righteous angels and persecuting demons (Mexico isn't seen in a favorable light) where he can rediscover himself. 2
The details of Schaffner's faulty plan are nicely present. Finding a double on a train with just the right passport is a sticky coincidence that the film minimizes. The only bit Savant hasn't worked out is Schaffner's swapping passports instead of just stealing Scarff's. If he drops the Schaffner identity completely, how is he going to access his millions in Mexico City?
1957 audiences preferred glossy escapism to tales about bad men becoming an outcast bum in a dirty, corrupt Mexican town, and Across the Bridge doesn't relieve the pain with characters we like or identify with. Steiger's Schaffner becomes a humbled, isolated pariah living in filth. The Mexican police chief might as well be Satan and Bernard Lee's detective a humorless angel of vengeance. The American couple facilitate a lot of grief with their attempts to profit from the intrigue, and the killer's relatives aren't particularly sympathetic either. Two crooks have their identities and souls stolen or beaten from them bit by bit, in a Conradian Secret Sharer sort of way. Eventually, we're just left with the dog. Schaffner's fate perhaps has a bit too much in common with grim "art" films like Lonely are the Brave, but this is before the 60s wave of selfconsciously meaningful cinema.
Schaffner's flight across America and into Mexico is all the more interesting in that it's all filmed in England and Spain, using gypsies for Mexicans. It's not a bad job, but most of the Spanish sounds terrible and it won't fool anybody. Americans and Mexicans are all played by Europeans. Noel Willman (of Kiss of the Vampire) doesn't look any more Mexican than Marla Landi looks like a Texan. Scarff's Mexican wife has no lines, which is a good thing because she's played by an actress named Ingeborg von Kusserow! After the variable accent imitations, it's amusing to have the Texan motel owner come right out with a Cockney accent.
It's also clear that most of the actors didn't go to Spain either. Bernard Lee and Noel Willman are always seen in interiors, or cutaways, attesting to director Ken Annakin's skills. In one wide shot Lee's double snoozes on a porch, and awakens as Lee in a closeup probably filmed back in London.
Shanachie's DVD of Across the Bridge is a fine presentation of a Carlton transfer of the film. Agreeably, it looks like an original NTSC transfer and not a PAL conversion, so the projection speed is correct. The B&W image is enhanced and sharp. Overall the encoding is a little lighter than what we've come to expect from Anchor Bay transfers of Canal+ imports, but it's still very good. The soundtrack is fine, enabling us to enjoy the James Bernard score that sounds very much like his Hammer work from the time.
There's a half hour interview docu with director Ken Annakin (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines). He talks a lot about Rod Steiger's acting style clashing with Bernard Lee, but Across the Bridge is a favorite film for them both. Annakin explains the shooting in Spain and the story of the specially trained dog. He tends to tell the plot of the film too much - everything before the arrival at the bridge is not in the book, he says. The docu was done by "Tomahawk Films" for Carlton in 2002.
Artwork and box design are a little light. The awkward package text gives away the story twist and the ending. I visited the Shanachie website looking for more gems like Across the Bridge but found only music-related DVDs being promoted there.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Across the Bridge rates:
1. The story's first twist is based on the
cliché that a crook changes identities with a stranger, only to find that the stranger is wanted for a bigger
crime. This works well in the film noir Hollow Triumph (The Scar), but only because the characters are
interesting. Across the Bridge uses the 'gimmick' as a springboard for several more levels of plot
2. The dog is named Dolores (sadnesses or pains) and definitely needs to have the word
"SYMBOL" painted on him. Dolores is sort of an albatross tied
to Schaffner's neck. Interestingly, in Tom Lea's book and Robert Mitchum's movie of The Wonderful Country, an
excellent Western about a Paul Scarff-like assassin similarly stuck between the U.S. and Mexico, the hero has a
troublesome horse called Lagrimas (tears).