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Tonight We Raid Calais
Fox War Classics

Tonight We Raid Calais
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 70 min. / Street Date April 24, 2007 / 14.98
Starring Anabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb, Beulah Bondi, Blanche Yurka, Howard da Silva, Marcel Dalio
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Richard Day, Russell Spencer
Film Editor Allen McNeil
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Written by Waldo Salt from a story by I. Willinger, Rohama Lee
Produced by André Daven
Directed by John Brahm

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ever since the annual ritual began for packaging war and action movies for Father's Day, I've been waiting to catch up with whatever movie has a captured French resistance fighter going to his death with the immortal line, "Keel me and a haundred udders weel rise to taik mah plaize!" Tonight We Raid Calais turns out not to be that picture, but it certainly has every other cliché of the wartime resistance drama. Clearly intended as a programmer, Fox's show has no stars and middling production values, but still ends up better than some efforts from Columbia and the smaller studios. It's about on a par with Columbia's Commandos Strike at Dawn, a John Farrow picture with Paul Muni, Cedric Hardwicke and Lillian Gish.


Sabotage commando Geoffrey Carter (John Sutton) lands in France and must shelter at the Bonnard farm when his contact agent goes missing. Monsieur Bonnard (Lee J. Cobb) is part of a group of partisans but his daughter Odette (Annabella) harbors a grudge against the British for the death of her brother at Ouran. Odette is also being pressured to become the 'housekeeper' for an unscrupulous German soldier, Sgt. Block (Howard da Silva). Fortunately, Bonnard's patriots are willing to pretend that Carter is his son, and to help him mark the German munitions factory for an impending air raid. Odette slowly realizes who her real friends are, while Sgt. Block's illicit relationship makes him easy to blackmail into looking the other way ... for at least a while.

Tonight We Raid Calais is filmed efficiently but with a sense of style, thanks to director John Brahm and the artful director of photography Lucien Ballard. The drama often seems stage bound and Waldo Salt's rather optimistic screenplay runs to formula, but this story of a sabotage mission is less embarrassing than many wartime propaganda entertainments. Usually things get even more far-fetched, with dauntless spies or news correspondents fooling the Germans and escaping with their blonde girlfriends while blowing up major strategic targets in their spare time.

This story has our dauntless hero (the not-particularly-memorable John Sutton) stumble onto bad luck while alighting from a studio-contrived landing craft. He then finds himself in a real fantasy of occupied France. The local villagers oppose their German overseers practically out in the open, and cooperate almost completely in helping Carter masquerade as a farmer. Carter wants them to start fires in their fields to guide Allied bombers to wipe out the evil Nazi munitions factory, and almost all say yes, enthusiastically. Nobody for a moment mentions what will surely happen afterwards, when the villagers have no place to hide and no way of denying their complicity; the Germans exterminated entire towns like Ourador for putting up trifling demonstrations of resistance. No, the women of Bonnard's town can't help the commando enough.

Star Annabella was personally chosen by Abel Gance for his epic 1927 Napoleon, and came to America in 1937. She's quite good, and performed twice more in similar roles in Bomber's Moon (as a Russian doctor) and 13 Rue Madeleine with James Cagney. The script does back-flips to maintain Odette's status as a virgin, making her not the mother of a baby but the sister of its dead father. The real mother already died as well. I can only think this was done to further sanitize the character, because Howard da Silva's scurvy German wants to have sex with her. If she was a young mother, might the subplot have been considered in bad taste?

Howard da Silva was already a popular actor and his participation in the leftist Paul Robeson film Native Land didn't affect his career at this time. But in the middle of his popularity he was blacklisted from the screen for a full ten years, 1952 - 1962. Howard Hughes had his last film Slaughter Trail re-shot to replace his starring-role scenes with another actor. Lee J. Cobb was already noted for playing older men; he's Annabella's father here but is actually two years younger than the actress! Beulah Bondi is the dotty mother who inadvertently lets the Germans know what's going on.

Tonight We Raid Calais ends in a rousing air raid with a happy outcome for all. The Germans are tipped to sabotage at the munitions plant, so they evacuate all the French workers (to safety). They realize what's happening only too late. By the time the signal fires are guiding the bombers, all the Germans including the high-ranking officers are in the plant, and our hero Geoffrey Carter just happens to be able to start a gun battle at the entrance, to keep them all inside. Carter and Odette exchange patriotic farewells and we're assured that all will be fine.

Marcel Dalio has a highly visible role but you'll have to be sharp to catch Richard Derr, Rudolph Anders, John Banner, Kurt Kreuger and Charles McGraw in smaller parts. Perhaps the most exciting wartime resistance film of this kind is Lewis Milestone's Edge of Darkness, a Warners picture with Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan and an excellent supporting cast. It ends with a wild bloodbath finale more ferocious than anything allowed immediately before or after the war.

Fox's DVD of Tonight We Raid Calais is an excellent transfer of perfect elements, with clear sound. An original Trailer and a still gallery are included as extras. That cluster of unrelated aircraft show up yet again in Fox's War Classics cover art.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tonight We Raid Calais rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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