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1956's The Mountain is a real show-off picture for glorious VistaVision and Technicolor. It's also a favorite for many who cite the strong moral values in its story, and a moving performance from Spencer Tracy. To my way of thinking the film is a throwback to a previous century of melodramas that overstate a moral case and come up false. And I'm afraid I've grown weary of many of the later films of Spencer Tracy, the guy who often makes acting look effortless. The characterizations in The Mountain are suitable for preschool sensibilities, and the effort comes off as shallow and phony. Make that almost phony: a beautiful Indian plane wreck survivor is an oasis of grace amid the film's barn-show posturing. But she has it easy -- she has no lines anybody can understand, and thereby escapes the banalities of the script.
The crazy thing is that The Mountain is a genuine un-killable story. A plane from Calcutta crashes on a tall alpine peak called Bald Mountain. A formal rescue party ignores the advice of old mountaineer now retired Zachary Teller (Tracy), and meets with disaster. But Tracy's wayward younger brother Chris (Robert Wagner) prevails upon Zachary to lead him up to the wrecked plane, so Chris can loot the dead. Chris complains, whines and accuses the utterly ethical Zachary of lying, but they get there, mainly because Zachary saves Chris's neck (and receives no thanks for the effort). Zachary is so excited to have achieved such a climb at his age that he forgets why they came and is depressed when Chris begins taking money and valuables from the corpses around the plane. But then they find a Hindu woman (Anna Kashfi) still alive. Chris wants to leave her to die, so his greedy raid won't be detected. Zachary must restrain Chris from strangling the woman. The brothers prepare to make the risky descent, with Zachary bearing the Hindu survivor all by himself.
The Mountain was directed by the competent Edward Dmytryk, who made fine B&W noir thrillers in the 1940s, had a ... complicated relationship to the Blacklist, and then bounced back like a bad penny to become a very busy director on even bigger studio films. He produced as well as directed The Mountain, which plays as if Dmytryk were trying to prove his church-going credentials to Cecil B. DeMille. Robert Wagner's little brother is simply Evil from the get-go. He's a regular gigolo at the ski lodge and is abusive at all times to his big brother, who unaccountably looks to be 30 years older than he. Whatever Tracy's Zachary says, Wagner's Chris responds with something selfish, spiteful, resentful, greedy, cruelly inappropriate. He wants to sell their house to get money to go to the city, and hits Chris when the old guy says No. He sulks and mopes and whines. He forces Zachary to climb the hill, gripes the whole way up and then wants to quit when the objective is almost within reach.
If that isn't enough, Chris Teller joins the ranks of All-Time Dastards by robbing the victims and disturbing their corpses. He's dead-set on leaving Miss Calcutta (a beauty in silks and diamond jewelry) to die, and even tries to strangle her. As if that's not enough, Chris the Ghoul prevents Zachary from erecting a cross at the crash site. I mean, Chris couldn't do more to invite the wrath of the Almighty. How did Zachary live with this human insect for 22 years?
To balance out Chris, old Zachary is an absolutely flawless saint who thinks nothing bad about anybody. He resists the cutesy advances of widow Marie (Claire Trevor) and stays away from the first rescue expedition run by city officials E. G. Marshall and Richard Arlen. Zachary is not just the salt of the earth, he's the new, improved, iodized salt of the earth. Spencer Tracy took on challenging roles later in his career, but he also relaxed with a succession of mellow sages, the kind that tend to look to the heavens for guidance: The Old Man and the Sea. The Mountain at least avoids a direct speech to God, but it's still sort of "The Old Man and The Mountain", just as The Devil at 4 O'Clock is "The Old Man and the Volcano". Zachary tends to babble endearingly.
The movie kicks off with a fairly impressive miniature plane crash, and continues to show us beautiful mountain scenery. This is supposed to be France but everyone avoids accents. The local priest played by William Demarest does nothing to his New York speech pattern. Mattes, rear projection, the use of doubles and very good studio sets make the long climbing sequence the film's highlight. People who remember the early German climbing films may not be impressed but most of us were when we saw The Mountain as kids. Tracy normally complained about every minor exertion required for a role but seems very active here.
After hearing everybody worry and fret about the impossibility of getting up to the plane, Zachary brings his beautiful survivor down a path that is mostly an easy snow slope. It's very possible that an expert can correct me, but the movie makes it look like an army of rescuers could have ascended by this route, even people with little climbing skill. The film should have cleared this up -- the rest of the movie is idiot-proofed. It's got exposition up the Matterhorn.
The bottom line is that The Mountain still has qualities that will flatter viewers looking for uncomplicated entertainment that presents positive values. I respond positively to all the scenes relating to the rescue of the Hindu woman -- Tracy's face just lights up when he sees her at the end. That compensates for a lot.
On the other hand, I challenge viewers to find one scrap of evidence that Robert Wagner's Chris has any positive human qualities whatsoever. This picture has committed an injustice to callow greedy young punks everywhere!
Olive Films' DVD Blu-ray of The Mountain is a bright, clean and colorful enhanced transfer. The VistaVision logo and fanfare start this solid '50s box office performer on a high note. Danielle Amfitheatrof's dramatic music is also well recorded. At one point the music ceases suddenly when Chris impatiently cuts the safety rope that binds him to Zachary, and the effect is quite powerful.
The widescreen encoding will impress viewers who only know the picture from old TV viewings. The Mountain was played ad infinitum on broadcast TV in the 1960s, often repeated five or six times a week in a "Million Dollar Movie" format. This is the first time I've seen the show in color since the 1950s.
The package text misidentifies Tracy's character as Zachary Wheeler instead of Zachary Teller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mountain rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.