Lawrence Russell

Across the Bridge [1957] dir. Ken Annakin writ. Guy Elms & Denis Freeman [based on the story by Graham Greene, pub 1938, Argosy U.K.] cine. Reginald Wyer edt. Alfred Roome art. Cedric Dawe prod. John Stafford

Across the Bridge
star. Rod Steiger [Shaffner], Bill Nagy [Scarff], Noel Willman [Chief of Police], Bernard Lee [Inspector Haddon], David Knight [Johnny], Marla Landi [Mary], Eric Pohlmann, Faith Brooke, Marianne Deeming... and "Dolores"

The Rank Organization 1957

|| 103 mins wide screen b & w.

|| remastered DVD Carlton-Shanachie 2004

my books don't make good films

|| Early in 1938 the English writer Graham Greene hung around Laredo waiting for a ride down to the Yucatan and Chiapas where he was going to look into the plight of the Catholic peasants. He must've written his story Across the Bridge based on those days of hanging around the border... and Ken Annakin, the director of the film version, must've taken further inspiration from Greene's train journey to the border in order to invent the flight of the fugitive financier to a imagined sanctuary in Mexico.

At the time [late fifties] Across the Bridge established Rod Steiger as a serious lead actor following his great supporting role as a mobster in On The Waterfront.

Prior to his death in 2002, Rod Steiger considered this performance to be second only to his superb (and similar) role in The Pawnbroker... while director Ken Annakin considers Across the Bridge to be the best film he ever made. What about Greene, who wrote the story on which Annakin and his writers based their script? He makes no mention of this film in his book-length interview with the French critic Marie-Francoise Allain [The Other Man: conversations with Graham Greene, 1981] while touching on virtually every feature film made from his novels, including Stamboul Train, The Third Man, Our Man In Havana, The Quiet American, The Power & the Glory, et. al.

Maybe he didn't like it, viewed it as an appropriation of a good story as a B-thriller with certain shabby sub-plot additions. Then again, maybe he thought his contribution was minor compared to the script writer Guy Elms' clever inventions. Annakin says his film gained the best reviews of any J. Arthur Rank production "in years". Annakin says he and Guy Elms thought they'd created a masterpiece... but in the end they were forced to compromise.

All of this might seem beside the point, except as a way of explaining the unevenness of this otherwise beautiful little film. This asymmetry is theatrical, as the location is Spain [near Seville] pretending to be the Texas-Mexico border country... with certain English actors pretending to be Mexican. Thus the documentary sense of film drama is compromised, although the latent surrealism is not dissimilar to Orson Welles' dreamy border classic A Touch of Evil, also made in 1957.

the merging of two shadows

Schaffner [Steiger], a German financier with British citizenship, is in New York negotiating a merger with the Manhattan Utilities Corp. when word comes that Scotland Yard has raided his London office and seized some compromising files. The raid is shown as the credits roll, an action montage of a black Wolsey police saloon racing through the monochrome streets of 50's London. Three officers swiftly enter the Schaffner Corporation office and present their credentials. The first image of Schaffner is of a large photo mural on the wall behind his empty desk, just like a cult icon of Stalin or Hitler.... Cut To: Schaffner's press conference in New York. Here he looks like an executive but talks and acts like a Nazi. When the telephone call comes about the raid, he immediately dismisses the reporters and plots his escape. Quickly you learn that a) he has a mistress, b) his wife committed suicide, c) he has a million dollars stashed in Mexico.

How long can he stay in Mexico before extradition? Three months, his aide says. How long to get there? Six hours by plane, two days by train. He decides to take the train as trains "have no passenger lists". He dismisses his mistress, his aides, grabs a suitcase and is gone.

For a ruthless man in a hurry the train seems like an improbable choice... but as a setting, exists as a Graham Greene favorite... and no doubt the director and producer had the American market in mind, even though this was a U.K. production. Annakin actually did a "second unit" journey with a cameraman from New York to the Texas-Mexico border to acquire footage of the deco diesel and make photographic notes of the locations. Most of the best action and cinematography occurs during the train sequences, although the later action on and around the bridge is also very cinematic. It's on the train that the central irony is developed, wherein fate and chance conspire in a moralistic manner to subvert "coincidence", making it an event in a deeper view of destiny.

Criminals often steal the identities of others in order to escape... but what if the criminal assumes the identity of someone who turns out to be a hotter criminal than he is? It's like having drinks with Lee Harvey Oswald, then mugging him for his passport and expecting to leave Dallas incognito. Yet this is exactly how it should be, for when Schaffner (Steiger) drugs and mugs Scarff (Nagy) and dumps him from the train following their chance encounter, the event is symmetrical, like the merging of two shadows into a doppelganger. The whole transfer of identity is conducted like a sinister sexual act in Schaffner's compartment, and certainly demonstrates some great acting by Rod Steiger and Paul Nagy, with the various sequences edited flawlessly.

The first indication that things aren't going as smoothly as anticipated by Schaffner in his new incarnation as "Scarff" comes the moment he exits the train in Flowerville, a small Texas town some 15 miles from the border. Seems that Scarff was travelling with a dog, which was in the baggage car... and the guard is quick to make sure that his owner doesn't forget her. Thus the insensitive fugitive becomes saddled with an animal and despite repeated attempts to get rid of it, is forced into a defining relationship which becomes the most important part of the action in the second half of the film. This is the part that is most closely based on Greene's short story.

the re-invention: de Sica & Carne

As Schaffner wanders the border towns of Texas and Mexico like a refugee with "Dolores" in tow, some will be reminded of the old Italian pensioner Umberto D. in Vittoria de Sica's brilliant 1952 film who wanders the streets of post-war Rome with his dog Flick, both homeless and unwanted. To anyone familiar with de Sica's film, the influence is undeniable, although the re-invention is just as charming and tragic in its own way.

Of course, de Sica borrowed his dog motif from Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows (1938), and as Greene was also a film critic, his story also might've been influenced by Carne's moody tragedy. So too the Annakin-Elms script. Port of Shadows tells the story of a deserter from the French colonial army who assumes another man's identity in his bid to escape to Venezula. He saves a stray from being run over by a truck and ends up being followed by the dog around the foggy industrial wasteland of the Le Havre dock zone.

Rod Steiger

If there's any pandering in this film it comes with the inclusion of Johnny the tow-truck driver and his girl Mary from the garage/cafe/motel called Sam's. While they perform key actions that occur at key plot-points, their inclusion was clearly the compromise Ken Annakin refers to in his interview [The Making of Across the Bridge]. No doubt the producers wanted more love in this very loveless film, and to widen the audience demographic. Did Graham Greene approve? Probably not. But he did say "my books don't make good films".... although he was speaking generically about his difficulty in conveying action. His story, originally published in a 1938 U.K. edition of Argosy, appears to have been based on a border stopover he made en route to an assignment in Mexico.

the verb to escape keeps recurring

There are a number of amusing twists in the story at this point. While Schaffner manages to get himself across the bridge and into Mexico, his situation just gets worse. His financial crime becomes irrelevant when replaced by his crime of turning-in the real Paul Scarff for the reward... for although Scarff assassinated a Mexican governor he was a hero to the locals... and the Police Chief is (typically) corrupt. What's worse is that Haddon, the English police Inspector who now shows up, is willing to commit a crime himself in order to get his hands on Schaffner. Throughout this ordeal the only friend he has is Dolores, the floppy-eared mongrel who saves him from a scorpion in the desert. During the scorpion sequence, the de Sica influence is noticeable in the background music which sounds just like his composer of choice, Nino Rota.

Greene's story has an anonymous narrator [who might be the writer] and is confined to the two border towns. The fugitive is an Englishman called Joseph Calloway and there is no assassin called Paul Scarff. Calloway has a dog which he treats badly... and love, when it comes, is pure illusion without redemption. "I suppose it was only one more indication of a human being's capacity of self-deception, our baseless optimism that is so much more appalling than our despair."

For Graham Greene, his journeys were often escapes. As Francoise Allain notes, "the verb to escape keeps recurring in (Greene's) conversation." He was always uneasy in the U.S.A. ...and in this sense the script writer Guy Elms and the director Ken Annakin captured an essential aspect of Greene's bleak vision, especially in the treacherous ending where escape becomes secondary to the need for love.

Thus the whole film is a dossier of "Greeneland" corruption: Schaffner the swindler, Scarff the assassin, Johnny the greedy mechanic, the shifty Mexican police chief, Haddon the zealous English cop... in fact the only characters with virtue are the two female principals, Johnny's fiance Mary and Scarff's Mexican widow. Both women have few lines and little action, are decorative rather than dramatic... yet they exist with the serious, silent power of the Catholic Madonna... agents of guilt in the brutal world of men. The true simplicity of this is symbolized by Dolores the dog, of course.

Still, without the intensity of Rod Steiger's performance the film might've been just another 50's chase thriller despite the Greene pedigree. Steiger's role here certainly prepared him well for the deeper psychological reprise 10 years later as the German Jew Sol Nazerman in Lumet's pivotal film The Pawnbroker. And also his sinister, edgy performance in The Illustrated Man. All these characters are outsiders, fugitives from past trauma and the conditional present.

Needless to say, some critics call Across the Bridge film noir because it's in black and white and involves crime. But it has none of the main characteristics of noir -- that is, a manipulative femme fatale, a male patsy, and expressionist cinematics. It belongs rather to the group of great British naturalist films made in the 50s and 60s [Room At The Top, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, This Sporting Life] that follow the tradition of Italian neo-realism that features ambient sound and real-time sequencing... but with more modern editing to accommodate its action modality.

Remade 2001 as Double Take, dir. George Gallo, star. Orlando Jones.

© LR 7/04


Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2004