Movie Review: The White Tower (1950)
“Every gasping thrill in color by Technicolor!”
The White Tower (1950)
Director: Ted Tetzlaff
Cast: Claude Rains, Glenn Ford, Alida Valli
Synopsis: A group of climbers attempt to scale a mountain that has never before been conquered.
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The story behind the making of RKO’s The White Tower is probably more interesting than the film itself, what with director Edward Dmytryk and his collaborator Adrian Scott, the original creative forces behind the picture, falling foul of the HUAC hearings during a lengthy gestation period which also saw numerous personnel changes amongst the cast (others in the frame for leading man at one time or another were Franchot Tone and John Garfield, while Lili Palmer and Janet Leigh were both announced as leading lady at some point). Sadly, a quality cast can do little with the stale material to justify all that pre-production turmoil; The White Tower is as stolid and unmoving as the mountain that gives it its name.
The film’s disenchanted hero is Martin Ordway (played with a vacant smile and hesitant manner by Glenn Ford – Human Desire, 3:10 to Yuma), a former WWII pilot who has returned to the Swiss Alps to visit the site at which his plane was brought down during the war. Ordway seems a man bereft of purpose, his troubles buried too deep to be perceptible beneath his languorous nature. Even his pursuit of Carla Alton (Alida Valli – The Third Man), the daughter of a famous mountaineer who lost his life attempting to be the first to conquer the titular mountain, is strangely half-hearted. Carla now shares her father’s obsession, and sees climbing the mountain as a way of paying tribute to him, but Ordway, an experienced climber, initially shows no interest in helping her to achieve her objective. Only when he sees the odd mix of characters she has selected to go along with her does he change his mind – although, even then, he commits only to going to the first base (although you and I know he and Carla will surely end up going all the way together – right, film fans?).
Two of the party are old friends of Carla’s, who knew her father well. Andreas (Oskar Homolka – Prisoner of War, The Seven Year Itch) is a guide whose advancing years are more than compensated for by his vast experience and knowledge; Dr Nicholas Radcliffe (Cedric Hardwicke – Rope, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel) is a geologist hoping to find new species of flora and fauna on the mountaintop. The third member, Carla doesn’t know so well; he’s Paul Delambre (Claude Rains – Casablanca, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By), an alcoholic novelist who claims he feels compelled to climb the mountain in order to finish a novel in which it features, but who secretly wishes to prove to his wife that he’s not as worthless as she believes him to be. The final member she doesn’t like at all, but reluctantly agrees to his coming along when his skill as a mountaineer becomes apparent. Although his past and nationality are never directly referred to, it’s clear that Mr Hein (Lloyd Bridges – A Walk in the Sun, High Noon) is a former Nazi who still subscribes to the Third Reich’s ideology, and only wants to climb the mountain in order to prove his race’s superiority over all others.
The mountain looms over these glum characters, both literally and metaphorically, representing, for most, the personal problems they must overcome, and the implicit one seems to be the danger of complacency in a world forever changed by the recent war. Ford, whose own film career was interrupted by service in WWII, relies largely on his charm to make an impression, while Valli’s close resemblance to the then-disgraced Ingrid Bergman leaves us wondering how much more she might have brought to the part. That’s not to say Valli is inadequate, she just lacks the personality and screen presence that might have lifted this stubbornly average picture.
(Reviewed 19th July 2016)