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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Odette (1950)


Starring: Anna Neagle, Trevor Howard, Marius Goring, Bernard Lee and Peter Ustinov
Distributor: Studiocanal


Certificate: TBC
Release Date: 10 June 2019

When Studiocanal says its release of this newly restored classic British war film looks better than ever, it is not marketing hyperbole but empirical fact. The new digital restoration is a 4k 16bit scan of the original studio negative. Available on DVD, digital download and Blu-ray the film is the cusp of the docu-drama war films that were common in the half decade after World War II. Hollywood did them too (House on 92nd Street, 1945 and 13 Rue Madeleine, 1947) but not this good. Odette is the superlative fish of the docu-war film shoal from either side of the pond.

It is more true to the genre by being almost completely diegetic regarding sound track score. The Hollywood movies, both from Fox, directed by Henry Hathaway, trowel on the studio orchestral score in every scene, cueing the viewer like a Pavlovian dog, how to feel, no less thickly than the music track in a Disney cartoon. Almost all the music in Odette springs from within the scenes themselves and for this alone it is worthy of cineaste contemplation. What would seem to be a limit is an organic way submerging the viewer into the narrative. This is never more apparent as when Odette (Anna Neagle) is marched into Ravensbrück death camp. We hear orchestral score and assume it is coming from the Elstree studio sound stage but then the camera discovers it is from an inmates’ orchestra, meant to calm the new arrivals. Behind them a high chimney belches black smoke. A diegetic aural and visual duet for industrialized death. A tableau from hell, courtesy of Twentieth Century industrial efficiency.

Odette has joined the Special Forces—an adjunct of MI-5, nicknamed in the trade as ‘The Firm’—because she is from France, fluent in the language and her husband has been already lost in the maelstrom. Her talent for blending into the French background, becoming an unnoticed bystander, is soon valued by her handlers along with her quick wit and near photographic memory. What she has not told her Special Operations Executive is that she’s leaving behind her three daughters tucked away in a Catholic boarding school. Such is her dedication that she conceals this, for it would have prevented her being sent into service.

Odette’s chief colleague is Peter Churchill (Trevor Howard), yes a distant relative of the Prime Minister and as the two pretend to be husband and wife a quiet bond of love and honour builds. Their radio man, Alex Rabinovich, is a very young Peter Ustinov, whom we’re told in a brief narration when he’s introduced, will not survive the war. Thus we have a character whom we know throughout will die. All the more poignant because the nervous, verbiage-prone Alex is our ultra-thin ration of humour through the whole story.

The implanted team is caught. Marius Goring, the seamless civilian suited Abwehr chief, Herr Oberst, plays ‘good cop’ to the Gestapo ‘bad cops.’ Odette has vital information and resists disclosure. Her torture is meant to make her talk. She is too valuable to kill. Neagle’s close ups as she has a hot poker put to her spine, is consummate instrumental horror. A torture scene done here in close ups of victim and torturer is more spiritually painful than a Grand Guignol master shot. Such is the mastery of dramatic craft, technique and art in Odette. It is Neagle’s tour de force as a dramatic artist. Her face, her eyes remind us that acting starts from the inside and… projects. If it’s not truthfully inside it reminds us, true actors are born not trained.

The love story between Odette and Peter Churchill was not fictional frippery. The bountiful extras include newsreel coverage of their wedding after the war. So yes, both survived. Odette ‘confesses’ to her interrogators that Peter is indeed a Churchill and thus confers on him a bargainable status. At the same time she never tells what she knows. The Normandy invasion happens and through genuine newsreels and recreations we see the countdown to Odette’s liberation at Ravensbrück. By now she is walking crookedly on her heels because her toenails have been pulled out. We get to see a rare if unique sequence of a concentration camp being decamped. Odette has played her cards well and is used by the commandant to cross into Allied territory.

All of this carries the aura of the docu-drama, when of course, it’s been skillfully constructed in locations and studio sets. Veteran cinematographer Max Greene (Night and the City, 1950) works hand in glove with director Herbert Wilcox (Sixty Glorious Years, 1938; Spring in Park Lane 1948) to create the docu illusion—and it is an illusion. They know in Anna Neagle they have a fusion generator for a nucleus of feeling and build a stately documentary look counterpointed with dramatic pull-ins, transitions and breath-taking tableaus. It should be an impossible mix. But Odette makes it work and avoids the rabbit holes of melodramatic movie manipulation common to popcorn movies. Only confident artists can pull this off.

And by the way, nobody smokes a cigarette like Trevor Howard.


John Huff

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