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Film

In 'The White Tower', A Mountain Is More Than a Mountain

All of the climbers in White Tower allegorize their treks up the mountain to some extent.


The White Tower

Director: Ted Tetzlaff
Cast: Glenn Ford, Alida Valli
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1950
US DVD release date: 2014-09-23

"A mountain can be a symbol of the obstacles that you encounter in life. To conquer it is to gain self-confidence and courage. You understand that, don't you?" speaks a patrician British codger (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), spelling it out for the practical American ex-soldier Ordway (Glenn Ford), who doesn't quite understand why he's tramping up a mountain in the Alps known as The White Tower.

Sometimes a mountain is only a mountain, perhaps, but Ordway's doing it to impress a woman: the lovely and aloof Carla (Alida Valli). The mountain symbolizes her lost father, and she won't let go of it until she finds somebody to replace him in her emotions. This is also spelled out bluntly in Paul Jarrico's script from James Ramsey Ullman's 1945 novel.

The other climbers allegorize their countries to some extent. The German Hein (Lloyd Bridges), introduced striding shirtless toward the camera from a low angle and coming across as a piece of sculpted granite out of Leni Riefenstahl, wants to prove his fascist superiority—a sign that Ullman's book was written during the war. The alcoholic French writer (Claude Rains) dreams of transcending his mediocrity, finishing his novel, and getting away from his wife. Andreas (Oscar Homolka) is the local "superstitious peasant" who endures.

The mountain-climbing picture was a popular genre in German cinema. In Hollywood, the genre was less prominent, and what there was rests on Ullman's bestsellers. In fact, this RKO production was delayed partly because of Monogram's 1947 filming of his earlier novel High Conquest. Disney would film yet another of his novels as Third Man on the Mountain (1959).

This was easily one of RKO's most lavish projects. Although most scenes with the actors were shot in studio, sometimes with projected backgrounds, there are many beautiful shots on location in the French Alps around Mont Blanc, and the gorgeous long-distance footage of professional climbers is well integrated. We suspect Ray Rennahan's Technicolor photography (of course there's a lot of white) would look even more spectacular if the print were restored on this on-demand item from Warner Archive, but we won't hold our breath for that, especially in the rarefied atmosphere.

Director Ted Tetzlaff had been cinematographer of such classics as My Man Godfrey, I Married a Witch, The More the Merrier, The Enchanted Cottage and Notorious. As is common when photographers become directors, the film is at least visually appealing. This ambitious romantic melodrama (with Robert Aldrich as uncredited assistant) comes off as a good-looking, mildly pretentious entertainment with pleasing actors. Especially pleasing is Ford, whom we aren't used to seeing in color in the 1940s; he's relaxed, magnetic, and fully present in his skeptical bemusement of all this scrambling. Viewers will stay to the end but may feel, after all, it was much a climb about nothing.

5

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