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.
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.
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.
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.
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).