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(Wem Die Stunde Schlägt)
Savant Region B Blu-ray Review

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Koch Media GmbH (Germany)
1943 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 165, 131 min. / Wem Die Stunde Schlägt) / Street Date July 9, 2015 / EUR 14,99
Starring Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, Katina Paxinou, Vladimir Sokoloff, Arturo de Córdova, Mikhail Rasumny, Fortunio Bonanova, Eric Feldary, Victor Varconi, Joseph Calleia, Lilo Yarson, Alexander Granach, Adia Kuznetzoff, Leonid Snegoff, Leo Bulgakov, Duncan Renaldo, Frank Puglia, Pedro de Cordoba, Michael Visaroff, Martin Garralaga, Jean Del Val, Jack Mylong. Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Yvonne De Carlo.
Ray Rennahan
Film Editor John F. Link, Sherman Todd
Visual Effects Jan Domela, Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, Irmin Roberts
Production Designer William Cameron Menzies
Original Music Victor Young
Written by Dudley Nichols
Produced and Directed by Sam Wood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"Whatever Hollywood's bell tolled for, she rang it."

All the time I was growing up, Ernest Hemingway was lionized as a great American author. Critics have been clawing at his reputation for decades yet his books remain entertaining, as are several of the movie adaptations. Frank Borzage's pre-Code A Farewell to Arms holds up as a moody attempt to capture Hemingway's tale of doomed romance; it gave great roles to Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. Ten years later, in the middle of WW2, Hemingway's latest 'hot' novel was launched in a fury, with David O. Selznick, surely basking in his power as a mover and shaker after Gone With the Wind, angling to force Paramount into hiring his contractee Ingrid Bergman on his terms. He stage managed a meeting between Hemingway, Cooper and Bergman in the skiing resort of Sun Valley, and then slipped out publicity that the author deemed those actors his official choice for the movie version. Hemingway had even assured the Swedish Bergman that she could pass for a Spaniard. Paramount had Cooper under contract, but they tried to cut corners on this very expensive film (during wartime rationing!). Instead of Hemingway's preferred Ingrid Bergman, they filmed for a full three weeks with actress Vera Zorina in the coveted role of María. Bergman was truly miserable when she thought she'd lost the part, and instead took a part in a 'nothing' movie being made over at Warners... Casablanca. As it turned out, nobody on location was happy with Ms. Zorina. It's said that a cruel substitution took place. On a trip back to Hollywood, Zorina found out that Bergman, having finished Casablanca, was having her hair cut so she could hurry to the mountain location.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was a powerhouse Road Show attraction in 1943, one with a controversial subject. The tragic Spanish Civil War had ended only four years before. Franco was sitting out WW2 as a neutral leaning toward Germany, and America was strongly divided on the issue. Some big critics like James Agee were incensed by the screenplay's attempt to downplay the political aspect of the book by blurring the official names of the combatants. Yet there is no question which side Hemingway's American hero Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) is fighting for: the enemy, Franco's Army, wears German-style helmets.

Hemingway may have been politically committed, but the sure-fire adventure story he came up with is easy to appreciate without a political message, which is probably why the critics were complaining. Volunteer soldier Robert Jordan lends his engineering skills to the Republicans, blowing up Franco's trains and bridges where needed. He's sent into the mountains to enlist a band of gypsies led by the murderous Pablo (Akim Tamiroff) to dynamite a strategic bridge at exactly the right moment during an attack. Jordan befriends the aged guide Anselmo (Vladimir Sokoloff) and Pablo's former woman, fiery gypsy guerilla Pilar (Katina Paxinou). The other gypsies (Arturo de Córdoba, Mikhail Rasumny, Fortunio Bonanova, Victor Varconi) are a selection of amusing and sentimental cutthroats. Rasumny in particular has an an ingratiating character and superb accent. Pilar and Jordan also solicit help from a neighboring village, in the person of chieftain El Sordo (Joseph Calleia). But the real prize for the Yankee is María (Ingrid Bergman), a young massacre survivor helped through the trauma by Pilar. Encamped in the rugged mountains, 'Roberto' and María become lovers.

The wartime easing of censorship restrictions gave For Whom the Bell Tolls a generous boost in the excitement department. A minor scandal in the book, the 'sleeping bag scene' was a high point for the movie. The lovers are so gone on each other that Pilar runs down the hill laughing for them. It's easy to conclude that they are making love during every fade or discreet cutaway. Greek actress Katina Paxinou had been stranded in America when the war broke out. Her Pilar is nearly unforgettable, and she steals the film, hands down. Pilar considers herself an old crone but is so vital that she actually comes off as sexy as well. The camera loves her as much as it does Bergman -- the dawn of the final day is first seen on Pilar's face as she lies on a rock, waiting to begin a guerilla attack. The character seems capable of anything. Paxinou also won a best supporting Oscar for her work, the film's only win.

Akim Tamiroff's marvelous Pablo is an ambivalent villain who resents Jordan's taking over the band of fighters. He tries to sabotage the explosives for the bridge. Even when Pablo undergoes a change of heart and joins the battle, he's a selfish and ruthless killer. Pilar's not sure he can be trusted. Tamiroff, Paxinou and Joseph Calleia became favorite actors for Orson Welles; they all get great, outsized characters to play. Vladimir Sokoloff is an old softie with a kind heart. Mikhail Rasumny's foolish gypsy hunts rabbits during a battle, and then risks too much to destroy a Fascist tank. Fortunio Bonanova (the Opera coach in Citizen Kane and the Opera fan in Kiss Me Deadly) has some good scenes as a maddeningly non-committal comrade.

It's a Gary Cooper role, all right. The handsome and rugged actor is definitely a cowboy fighting for a cause. His dialogue states that he's fighting Fascists in Spain so he won't have to fight them at home, which may have been a way of absolving the character of communist ideology. Cooper conveys a clean line of Hemingway's macho-humanitarian masculinity, but he also adds in a dash of 'Cooper Cutes', pixie-ish Frank Capra moments where the normally sober Jordan breaks character to twinkle his eyes and flash boyish smiles and rub noses with María. It works, but those scenes tend to be isolated. In fact, the action stops more than once to allow Cooper and Bergman 'special' moments together. A couple of these appear to be awkward retakes, adjustments to up the romance quotient.

Excepting a brief test for Intermezzo this is Ingrid Bergman's first film in color. A ragged head of short hair transforms her enough to take on the character of María, a coltish youngster learning hard lessons about life, love and war all over a few short days up in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Oddly enough, Bergman feared that she played María as 'too happy.' The Swedish actress is of course the number one reason to see the movie. She glows with life even without the addition of Technicolor. Cooper wisely gives her the spotlight. He hangs back with he-man poses and returns her girlish gushing with soulful, conflicted looks.  3

That's the acting fireworks. For Whom the Bell Tolls is also a pinnacle of a certain kind of Hollywood artifice. Sam Wood is the producer-director but the camera direction -- in terms of laying out the shots and designing the angles and compositions -- all seems to be in the hands of Production Designer William Cameron Menzies. The movie is designed down to the last detail of each shot, and almost every scene that's not a close-up or doesn't take place in a cave seems to be a special visual effect. Countless tight angles use matte paintings for part of the frame, often wedging a sliver of blue sky up in a corner somewhere. Elaborate scenes are designed almost as would be an animated film, sometimes with cheated perspectives: a flight of planes taking off; a train being dynamited; a convoy of trucks climbing switchback mountain roads. Menzies's mannered visuals monitor the 'emotional temperature' throughout. Cooper and Bergman and given many huge, choker close-ups with shallow focus that hold the glints on their eyes but not their ears. On a large screen the shots of Bergman emoting can be intoxicating. The nervous, trembling María seems ready to explode from the screen.

Menzies' designs for the extended battle at the bridge are a tour-de-force of dynamic angles -- all needing mattes and miniatures to establish the right spatial relationship between various guard shacks, the attacking gypsies and a road down which advances a line of armored enemy vehicles. Cooper's stand-in climbing onto the superstructure of the bridge is a perfect match in long shots. We realize how much of the location is being faked when troops crossing the bridge partly disappear behind a matte line. Any composite effect in Technicolor had to be done in triplicate, which means that the effects men and lab experts must have put a factory system in effect to grind out all those near-perfect visual illusions.

Menzies expresses his personal pictorial sense as well. Using the screen to create a sense of scale and height, the characters are often dwarfed by rocks and cliffs. Starting with Roberto's killing of his comrade Kashkin, Menzies uses the motif of a dark rock masking a big piece of the screen, to symbolize Death. As if foreshadowing their fates, key images of Roberto and María see them all but blocked off the screen by objects that obstruct our view. Once one is aware of these visual schemes, the movie begins to take on the dynamism of a good graphic novel. The way people are framed informs our understanding of them. Menzies' visual schemes 'apply pressure' to the characters.

The matte effects and rear projections require that the film be mostly static images, which sometimes makes For Whom the Bell Tolls look like a sophisticated silent film, but in full Technicolor. Adding immeasurably is Victor Young's stirring, Spanish flavored romantic music score. The tense and exciting show put audiences through the wringer, both for action and emotions.

The big bridge scene is followed by a 'moment of truth' situation that pushes the limit of dramatic contrivances - and succeeds. To escape, the fleeing guerillas must race their horses across a gap that for several seconds exposes them to enemy fire, as if in a shooting gallery. It's almost as ritualized as a bullfight, or a game of Russian Routlette. The way it's filmed, it seems unlikely that any of the guerillas could run the gauntlet without being hit. Thus we're set up for Hemingway's intense emotional finale. It's so overdone that it should be absurd, but the filmmakers and actors have prepared for it far too well.

The finale is so memorable that the film's soundtrack album had no text on its cover, just a close-up of the anguished, tearful María from the final scene. Yes, Hemingway's tragic finale is a trick of the storyteller, but it works as well as anything cooked up by D.W. Griffith. María and Roberto's farewell is one of these extended heart-wringers that can choke up almost anyone. Are there viewers that don't think Ingrid Bergman is a marvelous actress? I don't know if it's world-class acting but it is certainly effective. The movie makes Ms. Bergman the Technicolor queen of the bleary, soggy-eyed monster close-up. Roberto's lover is an adult but also a child. She's irresistible.  1  

For Whom the Bell Tolls was heavily edited sometime after the end of its Road Show run, and the missing scenes weren't restored for years later. They had to come from Technicolor prints left on deposit in film archives. A DVD of the long version came out about 14 years ago, and it looked fairly good. It's shown uncut a number of times on AMC and TCM. I'd put this picture at the head of the line for a full digital recompositing from separations, if they still exist.

Cuts were made all through the movie, but a substantial part of the 34-minute gap comes from Overture, entr'acte and Curtain music, played over black. The film's single main deletion is a long flashback in which Pilar explains that Pablo was once a great guerilla leader. But what we see mainly shows that Pablo was a barbarian. Seizing a town from the Fascist rebels, Pablo personally executes a quartet of villains. Then he orders his mob of farmers to torment the rest of the prisoners before throwing them from a high cliff, one after another. By the third victim, Pilar's enthusiasm has vanished -- in its bloodlust the mob is killing men who weren't bad at all. The flashback is brutal, rough stuff we don't expect to see in a Hollywood picture from 1943 -- which is almost certainly why it was dropped for standard release. It gets too close to the truth: even the most 'noble' wars boil down to horrible killings and atrocities that bring out the worst in human nature.  2 

Koch Media GmbH 's Region B Blu-ray of the Road Show version of For Whom the Bell Tolls is a major improvement over the old Universal DVD. It looks as if digital tools were brought to bear on the same composite elements, with excellent results. The standard version scenes have rich color and are quite sharp. Only the rear-projection special effects still seem soft, with more grain, and that's how they looked in the Technicolor 35mm print we screened at UCLA. The color matching is also much better. On only a few composites is it obvious where the mattes meet the live-action. Digital cleanup helps enormously, as does the fully stabilized image.

The Technicolor IB print from the original release came from the Library of Congress. The audio for the Overture and Entr' Acte came from a veteran projectionist who squirreled away the footage when the order came down to drop the intermission after the initial run. Since the full roadshow version comes from high-contrast Technicolor prints, the image quality in the added sections does dip quite a bit. These scenes have blocky contrast and dull colors -- Pilar's ruddy complexion is a shiny bronze monochrome. Many of these scenes are in the first half. They further explain the characters and relationships; they also contain some of the best acting from Katina Paxinou, Akim Tamiroff and the supporting cast. One deletion removes several shots of Tamiroff's lip dripping blood -- those censors really had an aversion to showing blood on the screen, especially in Technicolor.

Finally, the audio tracks have been given a thorough working-over. They sound clean and almost free of distortion. The For Whom the Bell Tolls soundtrack has long been a favorite of collectors, who will not be disappointed. The lengthy Overture, Entr'acte and curtain music are all intact. Some New York reviewers were suspicious of the film's muted politics, but audiences that caught one of the premiere engagements must have been impressed. If I were Franklin Roosevelt, I'd arrange to have prints of the film fall into enemy hands. That Hollywood could turn out such a demanding, technically sophisticated entertainment in the middle of a do-or-die World War, would have made America appear invincible.

It would seem that all the attention went into the original cut. A second Blu-ray contains the extras and the much shorter general release version. I only sampled it, and the quality is not nearly as good, with the audio under the titles even more distorted than that on the old DVD. This second disc contains an American trailer and a 1951 trailer for the German release. Both emphasize the star power and the 'excitement' of romance high in the wild mountains.

Also included is an hour-long radio version with Bergman and Cooper, from 1945. A digital montage of film stills, concept art, production sketches, and international advertising covers a full half-hour, with Victor Young's music score laid underneath. So this German disc doubles as an Original Soundtrack album.

The discs are packaged in a book-style folder with monotone artwork that isn't very attractive. A sixteen-page book contains Ansgar Skulme's insert essay (in German), which goes deep into the film's history. Skulme writes for the German-language film site 35 Millimeter.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, For Whom the Bell Tolls Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good - Excellent (long version)
Sound: Very Good ++
Supplements: Booklet essay by Ansgar Skulme; 30-min. image gallery with soundtrack music
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (on long version)
Packaging: 2 Blu-ray Discs in Keep case
Reviewed: August 1, 2015


1. The scene obsesses on the human face, which is of course the strongest communicator of human emotion. Bergman's face here becomes almost as transparent as Falconetti's in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's difficult not to be affected by it.

Another defeat for the censor -- Roberto's somewhat delirious speech to convince María to go, with its incoherent repetitions, makes sense if he's saying that María is be carrying Roberto's child -- "you are all there will ever be of me." In the book the fact that María believes she's conceived (one day later?) is more concrete, but the movie does retain the dialogue about the dream where she meets Roberto's mother, with a baby. In most other movies from this date, the door is left open for a chaste interpretation of anything to do with sex. Not so here -- desperate guerillas take life where they can. Yes, I'm sure Hemingway wrote all that stuff partly to improve his love life. Gary Cooper certainly became a star for the same reason.

2. At the moment Roberto's attack begins, Republican army officers on 'our side' are desperately trying to stop it. We're told that it will be a failure, but is it a bad thing that Roberto has stopped the advancing armored units from reaching Segovia? The strategy is so badly jumbled that it makes one want to read the book again -- for more than just the sleeping bag scene.

4. →  Time magazine, August 2, 1944... exactly 71 years ago today... the issue's price is fifteen cents.

The caption under the painting of Ingrid Bergman reads,

"Whatever Hollywood's bell tolled for, she rang it."

3. This footnote is out of order, I know. María's short, ragged non-haircut got a lot of attention in a glamour / anti-glamour regard --- the upshot being that Ms. Bergman would surely be devastatingly attractive no matter what was done to her. In her autobiography Bergaman said that a woman followed her around for the entire shoot pulling out her curls, setting them, spraying them so that they would look like fleece. She also said that women rushed out to get that haircut after seeing how stunning she looked -- and then complained that they looked like drowned rats. Bergman also has a no-makeup thing going in the movie, which I assume is an illusion... right?

It was pointed out to me the other day that Janet Leigh tried the exact same hairdo switch for her role in the Anthony Mann - James Stewart Technicolor western The Naked Spur. The a trick succeeds in making the presence of such a glamorous actress seem credible in a wilderness setting.

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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