American Sara Muller (Bette Davis), her European husband Kurt (Paul Lukas) and their three children have decided to return to America, where they plan to say with Sara’s mother (Fanny, portrayed by Lucile Watson) in Washington DC. Sara has been away from home for nearly twenty years and is excited to return. The film begins with the Muller family crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, and then heading on toward DC.
Also living with Sara’s mother is a Romanian count known as Teck (George Coulouris) and his wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who has an interest in Sara’s brother David (Donald Woods). The feelings are mutual, as David has taken quite a liking to Marthe.
Teck is ardently pro-Nazi and spends a lot of his time gambling with friends at the German Embassy. When the Mullers arrive in DC, Teck discovers that Kurt is his antithesis: a staunch anti-Fascist who works with an underground group in Europe to try to put a halt to the Nazi cause. Drama ensues between the two as Teck, knowing that he could use his knowledge of Kurt’s work against the Mullers, attempts to blackmail Kurt and Sara.
Watch on the Rhine was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. The film won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture. Paul Lukas beat out Humphrey Bogart’s now legendary Casablanca performance to take home the Academy Award for Best Actor, also taking home the Best Actor honors from the Golden Globes and New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
Herman Shumlin directs this World War II drama (one of his only two film directing credits, as he typically worked as a stage director, including for the Broadway production of Watch on the Rhine). The film is based on the play by Lillian Hellman and was adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett.
The Warner Home Video DVD release of this film is a real treat for fans of classic film and film history. It comes equipped with a feature called “Warner Night at the Movies 1943,” which includes short subjects. The shorts can either be played separately from the features menu, or played all together and immediately followed by the film for an experience akin to what a 1943 moviegoer might have seen. Shorts include a trailer for Mission to Moscow, a vintage newsreel with World War II footage, a delightful musical short featuring Ozzie Nelson and an animated Looney Tunes piece called “The Wise Quacking Duck.” I highly recommend picking up the film in this version if you can find a copy, because the “Warner Night at the Movies” feature is well worth watching!
As for the film itself, the viewing experience is just as enjoyable, though not nearly as upbeat as the trials and tribulations of Daffy Duck as seen in the Looney Tunes short. There are a few very funny and snarky characters that add a slight edge of comedy to the early portion of the film. Lucile Watson in her fantastic performance as Sara’s loud and somewhat pushy mom, Fanny, is one of these characters. Sara and Kurt’s youngest son also provides some comic relief, with his know-it-all attitude. But in general the mood of Watch on the Rhine is quite a bit darker.
The film comes off as both a “slice of life” film showcasing the interactions of everyday people (in the first half) and a tense wartime drama with the sadness, suspense and anguish steadily heightening as the film progresses. The relationship between Sara and Kurt is a good example of this progression. The viewer is able to get a glimpse of what life will typically be like for Sara and Kurt in their new, calm American world near the beginning of the film. They have fun with their children, Sara gets beautiful gowns tailored, the couple is very much in love (as the viewer can tell by the great chemistry between Davis and Lukas) and all is going smoothly. The viewer gets a sense that this family deserves a bit of calm after their more strenuous years in Europe, which are briefly described through dialogue.
But once they begin to contend with Teck and his scheming, things certainly take a turn for the tense. The mood becomes much more of a dramatic one, leading up to a goodbye that is heart-wrenching for both the couple and the viewer. The film as a whole follows much the same trajectory, from pleasant to gripping to sad.
Outstanding performances are given across the board in this film, only elevating the emotional rollercoaster of the storyline. Bette Davis stuns in a rare sympathetic, somewhat sentimental and definitely understated performance. Paul Lukas brings a charge of energy to the screen and does give a performance worthy of all of those awards (though I still would’ve given the Oscar to Bogie!).
But in the magnificent feat of outshining both Bette Davis and her Oscar-winning leading man, the best performance in the film comes from George Coulouris as Teck. Coulouris makes a fantastic villain. He brings an instant dislike to his character in the condescending delivery of his character’s dialogue with Marthe and the control that he seems to assert over her, and that dislike only grows as the film progresses. Coulouris brings a big bite to all of his interactions with the other actors. In a somewhat patriotic and certainly anti-Nazi film, you really couldn’t ask for more in a villain, as Coulouris certainly bolsters the audience’s hatred for Teck and his German cronies.
Watch on the Rhine is a film full of suspenseful moments, heart-wrenching moments and even a few humorous moments. It is a great wartime drama boasting phenomenal performances from the entire cast and definitely earns its place among the best films of 1943. The score: 4.5/5