After watching the first-rate drama The Browning Version I investigated other films directed by Anthony Asquith. With a keen interest in World War II history, his 1958 film Orders To Kill, based on a former American intelligence operative called Donald Chase Downes novel, it ticked all the right boxes for me.
Opening credits – “The central story on which this film is based is true!”
Young American bomber pilot Gene Summers (Paul Massie) who has completed many bombing sorties across Europe, is brought out of service to help with a top secret mission. He is singled out not just for his military experience but for the fact he is also fluent in French. With the help of his handler Major “Mac” MacMahon (Eddie Albert) who looks out for the young man as he is put through his paces at a British secret training camp. Mac fears for Gene include his over youthful enthusiasm while not taking the task at hand too seriously. It’s not an easy mission, it will result in death for one or maybe many. Could Gene’s inexperience actually jeopardise this dangerous assignment. Mac needs to get Gene’s fighting tactics up to speed and no one is as experienced for this than the big bearded giant British Naval Commander James Robertson Justice.
Naval Commander – “Major I wish I was training pilots to drop bombs, as my job here is harder. I’ve got to stop civilised men from thinking about the reality of killing another human being with their bare hands because if they thought about it, they might never do it!”
James Robertson Justice is a joy to watch on screen as he tinkers about in his cottage picking up random everyday objects and informing Gene the different way they can kill. Whether it’s a knitting needle to the heart or duck egg sized stone placed in an innocent sock to crack the skull. He also has an affection for trainees to attack him or strangle him at any given time. If there are any lighthearted moments to have, then James Robertson Justice certainly delivers them here.
Naval Commander – “Thank you, that was a beautiful death”
The key objective of the mission is for Gene to be dropped into Nazi-occupied Paris to kill a lawyer called Marcel Lafitte (Leslie French). Lafitte is part of the French Resistance but intelligence has noticed that a large percentage of Resistance fighters who cross his path seem to end up dead or caught by the Nazi’s. The decision is made to take out Lafitte before any more valuable agents are killed. In doing this, Gene has to infiltrate Lafitte and assassinate this double crossing double agent.
Gene has a Resistance contact to help get his identity set up, Leonie (Irene Worth) a dressmaker by trade. Leonie is a attractive older lady who has been harden by the toughness and loss of war, she is stern and extremely professional, something Gene needs to keep him on track.
So now that Gene is ready, how will he deal with meeting Lafitte. What will the reality of strangling a man until his eyes bulge out of his head or the feeling of driving a pair of scissors into the body of a man as they wonder why! Can Gene stay strong and achieve his set orders. To take one life could in fact lead to saving hundreds.
This film is deep, filled with many emotional moral dilemmas coming at you from all angles. There’s also thoughts on the way a bomber pilot might kill hundreds of people but as they are “away” from the carnage with a flick of a switch that they may be able to disengage from the amount death their actions have caused. Or how are you going to deal with the physical and emotional anxiety of killing a man in cold blood, whether it was just or not. How do you move on? how do you keep sane?
A few observations.
Keep an eye out for the interrogation scene during Gene’s training program. Eddie Albert’s Mac is great as Gene’s concerned handler. The schooling and scolding from Irene Worth is another key scene to watch out for. Plus it’s probably good practice to never order the rabbit stew! Canadian Paul Massie pops up in another top British production the following year in the Basil Dearden film Sapphire.
I was really impressed with this film and the fact that you know real people went through these harsh experiences not that long ago is always going to give more emotional engagement as you watch a film like this. I can very much recommended tracking down this superb British gem, it really does feature a lot of deep layers of thought and has a steller American, Canadian and British cast. A top film.
As usual I thank you for popping over to my little film blog. If you wanna say hello or say what you thought of the film if or when you see it, you are most welcome to. Keep watching the screens. Mikey Wolfenstein.