The White Tower (1950)

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Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which two blogger friends (me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.

The White Tower (1950) is a story about one intimidating literal mountain and a bunch of metaphorical ones inside each of the people who set out to reach the peak. Alida Valli has returned home to conquer the mountain that claimed the life of her father. She’s fixated on reaching the White Tower’s peak, and has allowed no room for anything else in her life other than this one obsession. Glenn Ford is an American GI who’s come back to revisit the mountain where he was shot down, and wouldn’t you know there’s a convenient representative of the enemy, an uncompromising former Nazi (better to say out of uniform, because in his mind he’s still a Nazi) played with cold, ruthless superiority by Lloyd Bridges. Also along for the climb in Valli’s crew are Oscar Homolka as a local area expert and guide, Cedric Hardwicke as a scientist who wants to research mountain nature, and Claude Rains as an alcoholic and washed up French author who’s blocked on the book he’s writing about this mountain. Rains pins his self-esteem and career on the hopes that this expedition will finally inspire him to produce a masterpiece.

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As you might surmise, every person on this team has their own mountain to climb, with big differences and fault lines to traverse and navigate right from the start, yet they manage to keep their eyes focused on the peak despite all the navel gazing and introspection. Bridges, the self-proclaimed best of the group, is a little dictator who has no qualms about forging on and leaving anyone behind if they exhibit the slightest sign of weakness, and inevitably on such a difficult trek, the group loses members due to illness, injury or shriveling willpower. Bridges also shows little respect for Valli’s leadership, which she plays right into by insisting, in her anti-Fascist stance, on doing everything through a democratic vote instead of just taking charge like she should.

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Meanwhile, Ford is working on Valli’s hardened heart, trying to convince her that there’s more to life than climbing a mountain, things like loving and marrying him. Ford initially could take or leave the White Tower and is the last one to agree to go, mainly joining the expedition so he can impress and keep an eye on Valli. He gains another, stronger motivation to reach the top when he becomes locked in a battle of wills with Bridges. Rains is good (as usual, I don’t agree with the NY Times’ Bosley Crowther who called him a bore) as the weak, pathetic, self-loathing writer with a disapproving, belittling wife. He has a mini breakdown when he realizes he has no place on the mountain and downs one of the bottles of booze he’s brought along (the way Rains finds hiding places for his liquor bottles would impress Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend). When the crew leave him behind to recover, Rains actually does finish writing something but has so little confidence in himself and his future that he winds up “sheets to the wind” in more ways than one.

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The story comes from a novel by mountain climber James Ramsey Ullman, whose writing was the basis for the films High Conquest (1947), Windom’s Way (1957), and Third Man on the Mountain (1959). The movie’s making was something of a steep and treacherous climb, what with development starting in 1947 with writer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk, then passed on to writer Paul Jarrico, all three of whom were sidelined by the blacklist. Finally Ted Tetzlaff got the assignment after directing his excellent noir The Window (1949), and the former cinematographer was a great choice to capture the human drama unfolding against the spectacular Alpine scenery.

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In this movie you hear quoted the famous words spoken by climber George Mallory, which he offered as explanation as to why someone would climb a seemingly insurmountable mountain (Mt. Everest in his case): simply, “because it’s there.” And some of the movie is just there; after we meet the interesting characters and get going on the climb, the throughline sags a bit as they discuss their struggles and respective flaws. Fortunately, things tighten up again when Ford becomes angered by Bridges’ attitude and what he represents, and fueled by competition, Ford charges after his nemesis up the mountain to prove which man, and by extension which worldview, is superior. The race gets the viewer wondering whether tempers will be deadly and who, if anyone, will make it to the top.

There’s also suspense added by the unclear fate of Valli’s father; he just disappeared, leaving the question whether some evidence may be discovered up there. Slow spots and loose threads are forgiven as The White Tower has a fine cast, looks fabulous and features real locations in the French Alps, well used and shot. There are impressive sequences involving a blinding blizzard and a steep creep across a thin, snowy, crumbling ledge where Bridges and Ford find room to have a struggle. I liked The White Tower, an interesting adventure which would make a great double feature with another mountain-based movie I recently enjoyed, The Looters (1955).

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Now go see which James Mason classic I assigned to Mike.

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17 thoughts on “The White Tower (1950)”

  1. Been a while since I had seen this but I remember really liking the cast and anything with Ford grabs my attention. Love that colorful movie poster as well! Glad u liked it.

    1. Yes I did like it, I really have to dispute criticism of Rains here, thought he was good. Maybe I’m biased, I like him in anything. Ford vs. Bridges is an interesting struggle, and Bridges did a really good job playing such an unlikable jerk! Thanks for this one.

  2. “Every gasping thrill in color”? Oh, my.

    I’m with you: Rains is good in anything. Otherwise, though, I think Mike got the better of the deal this month with Odd Man Out.

    1. Could have used a few more gasping thrills in the mid parts! Yes Odd Man Out is a fine one, giving it to Mike and reading his review really makes me want to revisit it soon. thanks!

  3. I really like Claude Rains as well – the man can do no wrong. Surprisingly, I feel the same way about Glenn Ford, star of 8000 pictures. You would think after seeing one Glenn Ford western that you’ve seen them all, but nope! Some might be similar, but he makes them all interesting. Love the review!

    1. I’m a Glenn Ford fan too, he has a nice easy way of acting that always makes you feel comfortable, I agree, and he has a nice part here, not really in it for the glory until he wants to show Bridges up! Thanks

  4. Wow, it’s hard to imagine Claude Rains ever being a bore or being considered one! I would probably watch him in a film if all he did was sit in a chair and stare. Really enjoyed your review; it sounds like quite an enjoyable film!

    1. Thanks, I know, he never bores me either and this movie gives him some melodrama to work with. A tortured and depressed man who sets his tent on fire! Now you have to see it, right?

  5. I’m a big fan of all those involved in this movie but it’s one I’ve still not seen. Terrific write up though, and you have me itching to watch it.

    1. Thanks and do check it out, it’s not perfect, like I said the personal issues tend to weigh things down in places but overall it works anyway due to the good actors and it certainly looks good!

  6. A lovely review Kristina and I am so glad that I
    recently got the wonderful restored version from
    Warner Archive.
    I have refused to watch the washed out version that
    appears on UK TV.
    The Warner Archive version is the next best thing to seeing
    it in theaters at the time of release.
    I am waiting with great anticipation future restored
    versions from the archive of various RKO films.
    Another Tetzlaff directed Ford film is TERROR ON A
    TRAIN also available from Warner Archive.
    I certainly wish they had made more films together.

    1. I watched a washed out version and still was impressed with the photography so I can imagine how great it must look restored! I enjoy Glenn’s laid back style which he really plays up here since his character has little interest in making it to the peak just for bragging rights.

      AND since you mention RKO I should have pointed out that you get to see the beeping tower logo in full colour here!
      Thanks for reading!

  7. If someone put a gun to my head, and told me to make out a list of my top ten favorite Disney films, Third Man on the Mountain (1959) would have to be on it (and yes, that’s the only way I could be forced to compile such a list 😉 ) I really liked the book by James Ramsey Ullman as well (did you know that he has a cameo in the Disney movie?)

    Because I love Third Man on the Mountain (1959) so much, I haven’t taken the plunge and seen The White Tower yet, even though I have a (washed out) copy. I just knew it couldn’t be as good as TMotM, and the fact that both are from books by Ullman, with protagonists trying to conquer peaks that claimed the life of their father, seemed bound to set up White Tower for unfavorable comparisons.

    But thanks to your detailed and as always well written review, I’ll override my prejudice. It certainly sounds different enough to neither distract nor disappoint. And I agree: the Alps look beautiful, even in washed-out color!

    1. I’ve never seen Third Man on the Mountain, but a rave like that makes me want to asap, and I can certainly see the reason for the comparisons. Very interesting about the Ullman cameo and that he had so many works adapted for screen. I’m curious to hear how you’ll think they compare, I imagine you’ll find White Tower even slower in places than I did, if you’re comparing to a big fave like TMOTM? Thanks for reading

      1. Hello Kristina, I’ve seen The White Tower now! As I suspected, it isn’t about to challenge Third Man on the Mountain’s place in my estimation, but I still liked it :- ) Certain elements carried over into both films, but the stories were different enough that you didn’t have to be comparing them all the time.

        Glenn Ford and Lloyd Bridges were the standout performers for me… Ford brought a lot of likeability to his character, and it was an interesting change of pace to see him playing a bit of a greenhorn. He’s the character the average audience member would identify with the most. And Bridges, perfectly cast physically as the superman, brought an inner intensity and scorn to match. The mounting race between them brought a nice jolt to things, all right.

        Oh, I can’t recommend Third Man on the Mountain highly enough! You’re in for a treat. A fantastic cast, great script, beautiful on-location shooting in Switzerland, and if you enjoyed the climbing footage in WT, the TMOTM footage is even better (IMO), even though they don’t spend nearly as much time on the mountain as the characters in WT do.

        1. That’s interesting! Glad you liked it and could appreciate it on its own. It’s fun to be a completist on writers, themes or filmmakers you like, I know I enjoy following threads and seeing similar movies to compare. Totally agree with your opinion of Ford and Bridges, they get nice roles to play and a good rivalry and really make it work, representing post war world views and not just characters.

          I really have to find Third Man.. You make it sound really great. Thanks for the update!

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