The wave of the constant conductor’s baton
Arises and dips as each note’s liaison.
It nods to the strings
As the clarinet sings
And the audience clings
To the melody’s wings.
The music is steady and blind to the world,
Where battle is brutal and bullets are hurled.
The music will stay,
If the artists still play
And the hearers, like they,
Let war’s din fade away.
MPAA rating: Might as well be PG
In the annals of semi-classic Hollywood, there are bound to be undiscovered gems, and I’m glad to say I found one, a World War II thriller worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Great Escape. Counterpoint begins on the front lines of the European theater, where a USO symphony orchestra plays for the troops only to have their performance cut short by the advancing German army. Quickly captured by the Nazis, the orchestra’s director Lionel Evans (Charlton Heston) demands they be released, but the Germans have orders to kill any and all prisoners. The only thing that saves them is the cultured admiration of the Nazi General Schiller (Maximilian Schell), who wants a concert and offers no guarantees of what is to follow it.
Heston and Schell make an outstanding pair of rivals, both self-absorbed and confident and used to getting their own way. Evans’ personality is summed up by an early line to his orchestra: “Each one of you will be responsible for your instruments, your music, and yourselves, in that order of importance.” Only two members of the seventy-member orchestra are actual characters (Leslie Nielsen, Kathryn Hays), but they and the rest know Evans’ ego all too well, and when he refuses to give in to General Schiller’s demands, they assume he’s satisfying his own opinions at their expense. Below the surface, however, he does care for his people and tries to stall the shooting squad that awaits them once the concert hall goes silent. Opposite Heston, Schell has a grinning, scheming charisma, looking perfectly at ease as he threatens his “guests”, like a precursor of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. His treatment of an antique chair implies that he cares little for art, yet he’s a firm admirer of Evans and trades sharp-witted barbs with him to either convince or coerce him into submission. With one of his underlings clamoring for the prisoners’ blood, Schiller wants his concert before the war must resume.
I’m honestly surprised that Counterpoint isn’t a better-known film. The Nazis’ periodic acts of aggression keep the tension high, and close calls and narrow escapes are juxtaposed with the grandeur of the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Wagner. The climax even kept me guessing right up to the end. It’s not necessarily an award magnet that got spurned, but it’s an excellent and thoroughly underrated film that deserves far more recognition.
Best line: (Schiller) “To paraphrase Napoleon, morality is on the side of the heaviest artillery.” (Evans) “Whatever happened to Napoleon?”
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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