Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Many, perhaps most, B-movies were content to stay in their own little boxes -- quick little pictures meant to entertain with little thought as to quality. Nothing wrong with that, of course; not every movie can be The Magnificent Ambersons. Or should be, for that matter.

Then there are others, like Address Unknown, that go beyond their genre into full-fledged greatness, demanding to be recognized as such. Address Unknown fits its title -- a movie that over time, perhaps in its time, was lost in the shuffle. It is a movie about the destruction of one man's soul, where family takes second place to power, evil literally steps out of shadows, and the simple ringing of a mailman's bicycle bell creates feelings of dread. It's the best Hitchock film that Hitchcock never made.

Taking place shortly after Hitler's rise to power, Address Unknown is the story of Martin Schultz, a German immigrant living in California who returns to the Fatherland, leaving behind his business partner, Max Eisenstein. Accompanying Martin are his family and Max's daughter, Griselle. Griselle intends to study acting in Europe before returning to the USA to marry Martin's eldest son, Heinrich, who's staying in California.

A good man by nature, Martin soon comes under the spell of Baron von Friesche, a mid-level government official. Over time, Martin becomes a happy cog in the Nazi machine,  eventually cutting off all communication with his Jewish friend Max. When Martin refuses to give shelter to Griselle, who is on the run from stormtroopers, we know that he's lost any sense of humanity.

Soon, strange coded messages, with Max's return address, start arriving at Martin's door. As these letters are read by government censors, Martin comes under suspicion of treason. His wife Elsa, sickened by Martin's transformation from family man to Nazi monster, leaves Germany with their children.

The coded messages come faster, as do the threatening visits by Baron von Friesche. One night, Martin's growing paranoia finally gets the better of him -- for good reason, as he hears the grim march of stormtroopers approaching his front door.

While there is no doubt that Herbert Dalmas' adaptation of Kressman Taylor's novel deserves commendation, the power of Address Unknown ultimately comes from director William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer Rudolph Mate, two talents not generally associated with B-movies. Menzies' credits (as director and art director) include Things to Come, The Thief of Baghdad and 1933's Alice in Wonderland. Mate was no slouch in the classics department, either, having worked with, among others, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles. That Address Unknown was a labor of love (if that's the right phrase) is undeniable from the very beginning. The unusually tight close-ups of Martin and Max toasting a new future signal that this is will be no ordinary programmer. 

Menzies and Mate must have studied Citizen Kane long and hard, for Address Unknown visually evokes that masterpiece throughout its 75-minute running time. Still, it's vital to point out that Address Unknown stands on its own two feet -- rarely has a movie with such a short running time been so jam-packed with memorable images.

A recurring image in Address Unknown is the little Nazi who looms large simply by his surroundings: Martin in his office (left) and the government censor at a theater where Griselle is rehearsing her play (right). 

The motif is echoed in the Baron's first scene 
(left) and ironically when Max receives news of his daughter's death (right).

Yet close-ups play a vital role in creating terror, whether it be the government censor       (left) or the mob at the theater going after Griselle (right).

Movies made following World War II often portrayed the Nazi high command with cool, ironic detachment. Those released in the thick of it, however, had no problem portraying the ugly world of Nazi Germany. (That's the difference between trying to win a war and win an Oscar.) Address Unknown is no different. Again, the visuals come into play. Whether standing in the shadows or looming over Martin threateningly, Baron von Friesche is never less than a frightening presence.

Along with Baron von Friesche, the horrors of Nazi Germany are reinforced when Jewish shop-owners cower in fear as their store window is smashed (left) while "good" Germans look on in approval (right).

While Martin is the key figure in Address Unknown, it's the character of Giselle who has some of the strongest scenes -- and unwittingly sets the stage for Martin's downfall. She's been rehearsing her play when the censor (Charles Halton, in a brilliantly demonic performance -- just watch the way he spits out the word "artists") demands three Biblical passages be cut from the play: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. When Giselle recites the lines on opening night, the censor stops the show and forces her to announce her real last name (Eisenstein) rather than her stage name (Stone). Cries of "Juden!" come from the audience, which rushes the stage in an attempt to kill her.

Giselle makes her escape to Martin's house. With the troops in hot pursuit, Martin turns her away, whispering, "Go away! You will destroy us all!" As Griselle's registers a sad acceptance of her fate, Martin shuts the door. A moment later, we hear a woman's scream and three gunshots. Martin stares blankly at the bloody handprint she left behind on the wall.

Helping create a sense of realism in Address Unknown is the unfamiliarity of today's audience with the cast. To put it another way, when the character of Rick is introduced in Casablanca, our immediate thought is, "Ahh! Bogie!" Paul Lukas (Martin), Morris Carnovsky (Max), K.T. Stevens (Griselle), Carl Esmond (von Friesche), on the other hand, are unknown now and, thus, are immediately accepted as their characters first, rather than as themselves. The only actor remotely recognizable is Frank Faylen (right), who was to gain lasting fame on TV as Dobie Gillis' exasperated father.

Interesting, too, is Paul Lukas. His resemblance to Walt Disney is at times startling -- all the more so since Disney was said to have been an early admirer of Hitler. Was this the moviemakers' way of sending a subtle message to otherwise uknowing audiences?

When I started writing this, I was both excited and hesitant to go into detail about the movie. Excited because it unexpectedly, wonderfully knocked me out of my seat. Hesitant, because I wanted people to notice its treasures with fresh eyes. Excitement won the day.

Address Unknown is on Amazon, presumably in the same pristine version recently run on TCM. Break out the credit card; it'll be the best eighteen bucks you've ever spent. Ripe for resdiscovery, Address Unknown is a classic hiding in plain sight and is guaranteed to stand up to repeated viewings.

And as for the meaning of its title -- well, that's all made clear in its shocking denoument...

Which you'll have to find out for yourself.

(Note: all photos with the bluish tint were taken by me off our TV.)

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