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Ralph Thomas and Betty Box produced a long run of popular British productions, but not many truly important ones. Besides their "Doctor" movies with Dirk Bogarde, they remade classics (even a Hitchcock film) without a great deal of distinction. Ms. Box's solo producing effort from 1948, Miranda is far better than the sequel she made in conjunction with Ralph Thomas.
1965's The High Bright Sun puts an excellent cast in the middle of a still-relevant situation. In 1954 the British occupy Cyprus and are trying to stem violent rebellion by a faction fighting for independence. Major McGuire (Dirk Bogarde) investigates the ambush and murder of two soldiers, and discovers that young American archeologist Juno Kozani (Susan Strasberg) was a witness. Juno is a guest in the home of a relative, Dr. Andros (Joseph Fürst), whose son Emile (Colin Campbell) has a serious crush on her. McGuire is convinced that Juno knows more and isn't cooperating. Then she discovers that the Andros house is a local headquarters for the liberation movement: wanted rebel General Skyros (Grégoire Aslan) lives in a hidden room and the wealthy fighter Haghios (George Chakiris) visits frequently. When McGuire puts pressure on Juno -- romantic as well as professional -- the Cypriots debate whether or not she can be trusted. Haghios wants her killed, but Skyros holds off. An effort is made to assassinate McGuire, who lives in town and continues to find ways to see Juno. A drunken undercover Brit named Baker (Denholm Elliott) seems an unlikely ally for McGuire, whose path is continually dogged by Prinos (George Pastell), a sinister local. Juno's problem may be worse: if she helps McGuire, she'll be turning her back on her own family.
Given the title McGuire, Go Home! and cut by 13 minutes for import to America, The High Bright Sun disappeared fast; in 1965 super-spies were the craze and non-escapist tales of colonial intrigues seemed ten years out of date. Filmed on location, the show has atmosphere to burn -- we can identify with the pointlessness of the armed patrols and fruitless investigations under the blazing Mediterranean sun, while Cypriot gunmen pick off individual soldiers at random.
The show also benefits from an excellent cast. Susan Strasberg was criminally underused in the movies, and here she at least gets a starring role and a chance to be a romantic heroine. Her highly intelligent eyes add meaning to scenes not stressed in the writing or direction. Dirk Bogarde plays the cagey investigator, trying to be aloof but assuring the Cypriots that their hospitality doesn't fool him for a minute. It's fun watching him as a wilted cavalier, ignoring his ineffectual, loony C.O. (Nigel Stock of The Great Escape) and strutting through the town (Nicosia?) as if it were totally safe to do so. Ex-dancer George Chakiris is a genuine Greek-American and looks sensational as the intense law student-turned terrorist. But he suggests no further emotional depths beyond the script's stage directions. Haghios is a stock "hater", criticizing Juno and America from the get-go.
The film's weaknesses are fairly easy to see. Ralph Thomas is a very literal director, and he plays out events at the same measured pace at all times. Action scenes in which lives are at stake are given little special emphasis. Telling a clear story isn't enough, and The High Bright Sun just "lets things happen". The characters don't always register a reaction to what should be nerve-shattering developments. McGuire and Juno barely survive a siege at his apartment, and men hunt her with knives and shotguns, as if she were a fox. Juno is a sensible woman but she seems unfazed by the experience, and the implications of the story aren't carried through. Juno is on the death list of her own relatives in Cyprus. Will her parents in America reject her as well? We're more likely to feel sorry for young Emile. He puts his life on the line for Juno yet goes unappreciated.
The unfocused direction does lend The High Bright Sun an "anything can happen" feeling that many viewers may prefer to a standard thriller approach. This approach makes a standout of the minor character Baker. Anybody who likes Denholm Elliott should enjoy the opportunity to see this truly amusing character. Baker is an alcoholic, a cynic and slob seemingly of no use whatsoever. Yet he continues to come to the rescue at unexpected moments. If 007 really existed, he might likely be something like Baker - a social misfit who nevertheless is a dead shot, even when potted. Played by Elliott, Baker is immensely likeable despite having only eight or nine minutes of screen time. He's also much more slim and fit looking than in his later '70s and '80s roles.
The High Bright Sun saves its other wild-card character Prinos for a last-minute showdown, after he's followed Juno on an airplane fight. George Pastell was the go-to actor whenever Brit films needed a shifty Middle Eastern villain, and Prinos' careful shadowing of McGuire and Juno becomes a sinister running gag. The final payoff isn't exactly in the same league as The Third Man, but it leaves the film on a very positive note.
VCI's DVD of The High Bright Sun is a welcome disc with excellent, vibrant colors. We do ask ourselves why Ms. Strasberg's face is so pale at all times (a makeup choice?) and if the leather wrist band worn by Bogarde has any particular meaning. The audio track benefits from a music score by Italian Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, that uses an interesting string rhythm theme for the main titles and action scenes.
But the company has accepted a master from ITV/Rank that takes a center 1:33 crop out of a 1:66 widescreen image. The resulting pan-scan is nowhere as severe as it would be if the original film were anamorphic, but it's enough to occasionally stick a character half-off the side of the image. Seen on a widescreen TV -- the standard now, of course -- we can easily imagine that the black pillarbox bars on each side filled with more of the movie. This is not a guess, as the title sequence is rendered in flat letterbox 1:66, indicating that the film elements are hard-matted. One would have to go back to the original negative to get an un-matted source, although it's likely that the film was shot with a hard matte in the camera.
The movie's short running time suggests that it is from a PAL master transferred at 25 frames per second. On the plus side, English subtitles are included. Being a fan of most of the actors and of movies about tense colonial conflict, I found The High Bright Sun highly enjoyable, with the appearance of Denholm Elliott an unexpected treat.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The High Bright Sun rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.