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Mountain, The (DVD Review)

11 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Claire Trevor, Anna Kashfi.

One time, it actually happened: Paramount Pictures made a movie set in the Swiss Alps in which the mountain that figures so prominently in its plot (and, of course, title) looked nearly identical to the studio’s famous logo minus the surrounding stars. And after shooting it in resplendent VistaVision for vistas that are still almost beyond belief, they released it in close proximity to The Ten Commandments, whose own VistaVision marvels are on full display in the staggeringly luscious new Blu-ray of Commandments’ restored print. Nice historical synergy here.

In truth, there are a lot of Blu-rays, especially of current movies, that aren’t up to the visual wonders that this standard DVD from Olive Films routinely boasts in every frame — though it’s also true that if we take the visual component away, this is a movie that’s significantly more fun to talk about than sit through, not that the latter is any particular chore. But this was one very weird project.

Its oddest component remains the casting of Spencer Tracy (who always looked old even for his age) and the perpetually youthful Robert Wagner as brothers — probably the most insane sibling mix until John Wayne (57) and Michael Anderson, Jr. (21) played the fruits of their parents’ obvious sexual compatibility in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder. In fact, two years earlier (and for the same director, Edward Dmytryk), Wagner had played the youngest of Tracy’s four sons in the Western Broken Lance, which had somehow gotten an Oscar for best original story despite having transparently transposed the premise of the urban New York drama House of Strangers from 1949. But Tracy liked Wagner and apparently wanted him cast, so there.

Around this time, Wagner was either consciously or un- modifying his fresh-faced heroic screen image by playing the psychotic killer in the first version of A Kiss Before Dying and brother Frank in Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James. (Again, just two years earlier, he had sported that haircut for the ages playing the heroic title role in Prince Valiant.) Here, viewers will type him as a punk from the get-go when they see him sitting ‘neath the mountain at an outdoor eatery with someone putting out party-girl vibes.

The story, fairly simple, has to do with an airliner crashing in the mountain as winter’s coming on and the difficulty of assembling a party to rescue the mail on board. Tracy is an experienced climber who gave it up after someone was killed on one of his climbs, while Wagner has some experience but not a wealth of it. The quality of Wagner’s store-bought slacks vastly outpaces Tracy’s electric-red but far-less-stylish barn garb and hints that kid brother is a guy with a taste for material goods. Wagner wants to loot the dead passengers to spiritually-bent Tracy’s abject horror, but the script rigs a way for the two to climb the mountain together without their village knowing about it. And there, they find a survivor played by Anna Kashfi in her screen debut. This subsequent author of Brando for Breakfast was soon to be photographed a lot coming out of court following ugly child custody battles with ex-husband Marlon over their possibly doomed son Christian.

With The Sniper and Broken Lance as early exceptions, I always thought a lot of the fire went out of Dmytryk’s direction after he came back from the Blacklist, in that he just wasn’t the Dmytryk of Murder My Sweet, Cornered, Till the End of Time, Crossfire (especially), The Hidden Room and Give Us This Day — good or better movies all. What’s more — and in addition to the age difference — The Mountain puts Tracy at a disadvantage by casting him as a humble sort who’s generally not too assertive. In one scene, he even takes it when Wagner slaps him hard across the face — and this not very long after Tracy’s memorable karate-chop of Ernest Borgnine in Bad Day at Black Rock after Ernie had tried to spice up Tracy’s bowl of soup (or maybe chili) with half-a-bottle of hot sauce (or maybe Heinz 57). In other words, don’t pass the ketchup or I’ll knock you through this diner’s screen door. Which is what happened there but not ever here.

Humility hardly played to Tracy’s strengths, though his character is at least professionally assertive once the two get into the climb. Tracy was always in perilous health toward the end of his career, and even this film’s shot-in studio material (with pretty good matte or rear-screen work) looks fairly strenuous. I kept trying to figure out how they did it: with Tracy lying on his stomach and tilting the camera, perhaps, to make it look as if he were climbing? In any event, the photography by Franz (aka Frank) Planer is close to as great as Planer got, and his spectacular photographic resume included Letter from an Unknown Woman, Champion, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Big Country, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and King of Kings (just out on a another dazzling new religious-pic Blu-ray, this time from Warner Home Entertainment).

I can’t recall if the following anecdote is in Robert Wagner’s excellent autobiography co-written with Scott Eymann (it must be), but it is on IMDb.com. A cable car malfunctioned when taking Tracy (some reports say Wagner as well) up to a location — leaving him dangling for a long period. It so threw the actor that his famed alcoholism was exacerbated — causing him to go on one of his benders and eventually heave a glass at Wagner, resulting in a hand injury that VistaVision clarity picks up very well. For reasons that have never been totally clear to me, Tracy either quit or had been fired from his previous picture (Robert Wise’s Tribute to a Bad Man) and replaced on a dime by James Cagney — just as that snakebit release’s intended male second lead (Robert Francis) got killed in a plane he was piloting. Plural accounts say Tracy was fired (how often does that happen to superstars), which really makes one wonder how it would have affected Tracy’s career had Wagner’s injury been more serious.

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