#31 — Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone, 1943)
Sometimes the quality that really distinguishes a film is commitment. The bigger the concepts and the more intense the conflicts within the film, the more tempting it is to default to the counterbalance of restraint. Edge of Darkness takes the opposite tack, heartily embracing its own heightened emotions with a acceptance of the natural floridness of the tale. Trafficking in the fervid narrative grammar of wartime propaganda, director Lewis Milestone’s film ratchets up the tension at every opportunity, at times threatening to push the material into a sort of perversely grounded fever dream. It is fiction grounded in history as it is happening, redefining melodrama as something that can have a bizarre newsreel authenticity. Edge of Darkness is a movie I enjoy and admire. More than that, it’s a work I marvel at.
It’s interesting enough that there was such a surplus of Hollywood movies about World War II while the global conflict was still ongoing, there was evidently a boomlet in features specifically about Norway’s organized resistance against Nazi occupiers (the Turner Classic Movies website cites an old New York Times report to name The Commandos Have Landed, First Comes Courage, and Commandos Strike at Dawn as other films on the topic released around the same time). Edge of Darkness is adapted from William Woods’s novel of the same name, published the prior year. In many respects, the plot is straightforward: the denizens of a small Norwegian town presses back against their invaders with the film recounting the understandable back and forth that takes place between those who are oppressed, with some compelled to fight under the bitter end, some voicing a preference for the relative safety of acquiescing to the invaders, and all sorts of people unsettled somewhere else on the spectrum in between. There are no real storytelling shocks at play, simply the escalating anguish of a citizenry that is unwillingly at war.
Humphrey Bogart was apparently the original choice for the leading role, as was assuredly the case in all sorts of similar World War II dramas. In his place, Errol Flynn plays rebellion leader Gunnar Brogge with wild vestiges of his trademark swashbuckler bravado, and that approach to role provides the flavor for the entire film. Edge of Darkness metaphorically swings from the rafters, condensing the swelling uncertainty and anger of war into a piece of forceful, resounding storytelling. By the end, its blazing certitude in unfurling a saga of uncommon heavy drama feels like the only reasonable response to the human mania of war, no matter how just it may be in the retroactive reckoning. People are forced into a place where practically nothing makes sense, so any film trying to capture it should strive to capture at least a touch of that unhinged fret. Milestone brings a sure hand to the direction, but that doesn’t mean the result is measured, nor should it be. Edge of Darkness tells its story exactly the way it should be told.