Where’s the Kaboom?!?
THERE’S THE KABOOM!!
By the mid 1950s, Robert Aldrich was marked as an up and coming director, particularly after his noir classic Kiss Me Deadly in 1955. He followed that up with another noir, The Big Knife, a film that examined the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. Unfortunately, a Columbia executive decided that one of the more unsavory executives in the movie was a thinly-disguised portrait of himself, and Aldrich found himself on the do not call list. Undaunted, Aldrich went to Europe for a few years. During his brief expatriation, he cranked out a few movies, including one about a group of men defusing unexploded ordnance in post WWII Berlin. Kino Lorber brings us Ten Seconds to Hell.
In the aftermath of World War II, six German POWs, part of a German bomb disposal unit, return to the Allied-controlled section of Berlin. They get a job plying their old trade–there are unexploded bombs all over the place–but with a difference. During the war, they were assigned bomb-disposal duties as punishment for not being good Nazis. Now, they manage a (relatively) favorable gig, with double pay and double rations. Karl Wirtz (Jeff Chandler, Broken Arrow) volunteers to act as the group’s leader, but the others select the reserved Eric Koertner (Jack Palance, City Slickers). Wirtz suggests a bet with the rest of the team—they will donate half their salary into a pool; at the end of three months, the survivors will split the pot.
Koertner and Wirtz both move to a boarding house run by Margot Hoefler (Martine Carol), a French woman whose German husband was killed in the war; like the team, she is an outcast of sorts.
After a few weeks, the odds start to catch up to the team, as they keep encountering British bombs with an unfamiliar fusing mechanism. As their number dwindles, Koertner and Wirtz are also coming to terms that they are both falling in love with Margot.
It’s clear that the story, based on Lawrence P. Bachmann’s novel The Phoenix has a lot of potential for drama, character study, romance…unfortunately, very little of that actually gets realized. From the moment the group is introduced, Koertner and Wirtz are clearly set apart from the others, in size, bearing, and dress, so much so that we automatically check the “Expendable” box beside the others. Accordingly, there’s little drama when things go kaboom. Similarly, there’s little drama concerning the romantic triangle between Koernter, Wirtz, and Margot—Wirtz is such an overbearing lout that it’s quite inconceivable (and yes, that word does mean what I think it means) that Margot would find him appealing. The movie tries to establish a philosophical conflict late in the movie, but it’s presented in such broad terms that the attempt falls flat.
Both Chandler and Palance do their best with somewhat hackneyed characters. People used to Palance’s gruff demeanor will be surprised at this more sensitive, introspective turn. It’s not great work, mind you, but apart from a few overwrought scenes it works well enough. Carol, on the other hand, really has nothing to work with—the romantic triangle plays out awkwardly and predictably, and you never get a good sense for what motivates her. Making Koertner and Wirtz something other than polar opposites—or just making Wirtz even remotely likable–would have gone a long way towards improving that aspect of the plot.
The ninety-three minute runtime prevents much in the way of character development, particularly with the other four members of the group. Each is given a defining trait in a voice-over introduction, but that’s it. It is rumored that the studio forced Aldrich to cut almost 30 minutes from his first cut; however, a search for the missing footage produced nothing, not even notes documenting the cut. Everything is just a little too pat, too easy, right down to the jingoistic voice over that ends the film in lieu of a proper conclusion; Come to think of it, the narration as a whole is jarringly out of place.
One final comment: One aspect that is notably missing is the sense that these characters are defeated Germans in their own defeated, Allied-occupied homeland. There’s a lot of drama available there, personal conflict that could have made the philosophical conflicts more palatable.
The movie does a fantastic job generating tension during the actual defusing scenes, using an assortment of lighting and camera angles to give each defusal its own character. In fact, the movie was praised for its attention to detail on the ins and outs of bomb defusal. Laszlo’s camerawork in general is excellent throughout, using light and shadow to heighten the mood. While the movie never really looks like war-torn Berlin—which is odd, as much of the film was, in fact, shot in Berlin.
Kino Lorber has done an excellent job of restoration. The images are crisp and for the most part clear, allowing you to really appreciate Ernest Laszlo’s black & white photography. There is some occasional black crushing—and the image is perhaps too polished, suggesting that someone got carried away with the DNR. Regardless, it looks good. The lossless mono audio track is free from distortion or hiss.
Ten Seconds to Hell wastes a promising concept, using cardboard characters and putting them through their various paces. There’s some good to be had here, particularly in the camerawork, but when all the debris settles, there really aren’t any structures worth saving.