Hitler - - Dead or Alive (1942)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
-Nelson Muntz. Patriot. Bully.
As Lisa Simpson notes, this essay contest is “fiercely pro-American.” For that matter, so is the ludicrous but very entertaining 1942 propaganda/wish-fulfillment fantasy war film Hitler - - Dead Or Alive (note the two dashes. Really nails the point home), a major inspiration for Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). This idea screams a late-night drinking binge that results in spending your life savings on war bonds. A tough-talking trio of bootlegging gangsters turned bounty hunters try to make a buck by killing Hitler. The impossibility of that task doesn’t bother them in the least. This is pretty much the perfect example of idiots who are too confident and arrogant to realize that they’re idiots. You’ll find many of these people working in the U.S. Government.
Within about 2 minutes, I knew we wouldn’t be seeing much of those two reporters nor Mr. Thornton (Russell Hicks). I can smell a wraparound story a mile away. I find them worthless and they’re mainly a transparent effort by the filmmakers to comment on the preceding action and vocalize something the film was trying to say. There’s enough rah-rah-rah and speechifying in the movie to power a star-spangled rocket ship to Mars. Thornton tells his secretary to let the reporters in, which she apparently confirms telepathically since the filmmakers seem to have forgotten to dub her voice in over the intercom. He proceeds to explain the real reason he’s donated one million dollars worth of bombers to the war effort.
Our three “heroes,” recently sprung from Alcatraz, saunter into Thornton’s office, eager to inquire about a front page headline they saw in the paper. You know they’re classy since they call the secretary “toots.” These palookas are fourth-rate Jimmy Cagneys and consist of their leader Steve (Ward Bond), the muscle Dutch (Warren Hymer), and Joe “The Book” (Paul Fix), a.k.a. the nerd. Thornton has put out an offer of one million dollars for the capture of Adolf Hitler, dead or alive. Steve is unbelievably cocksure about his odds of collecting the dough and little things like knowing German or infiltrating the Nazi war machine seem like small potatoes to him. He assures Thornton that they ran a beer racket in Milwaukee, so the German language shouldn’t be a problem. Why that is? I have no idea. Hitler is known to employ doubles, but fuck all that! AMERICA!!! LEROOYYY JENKINS!!
We’re treated to an insane montage of stock footage where a never-heard-again Thornton informs us that they caught a train out of town, somehow (literally, he says that word) join the Royal Canadian Air Force, make it to England, enlist as paratroopers, and lickety-split, they’re parachuting into Nazi Germany. I don’t know what the deal with probation was back then, but how could they just up and scram without repercussions? They’re criminals, yes, but it’s still a big risk. Then joining the Air Force, crossing an ocean and becoming paratroopers sounds like it could take at least a year. Maybe they just had so much moxie they were moved up to the head of the line. They drag their poor pilot Johnny (Bruce Edwards) along with them, whose plane presumably crashes, not that it matters to these guys. They don’t even clue Johnny in to what’s going on and Johnny spends half his time trying to figure out if they’re Nazi spies. By the way, you have to jump out of a plane in a cluster. Even waiting the 30 seconds it takes for Steve to drag Johnny out would put them miles away from their compatriots.
I’ll be the first to admit. Gangsters fighting Nazis is a great idea. Hilarious and stupid, but great. These guys act like they’re back in Brooklyn. They steal a truck full of beer, promptly indulging in their sudsy ill-gotten gains. No need to stay sharp while being American and driving a stolen car in wartime Germany. The SS nabs them but their attitude is “What? Me Worry?” They bullshit their way into a Nazi headquarters (whose banner is upside down) by practically saying “Hey guy! Relax! If I were an American spy, why would I use an American accent and act American?” There they encounter a prototype Colonel Klink, here named Colonel Hecht (Felix Basch), a buffoon who can’t figure out what message these Americans could possibly have to personally give the Fuhrer but decides to keep them alive anyways. Here’s what the SS would have done in real life. Tortured the ever-loving fuck out of these guys until they talked or died. Instead, they’re thrown into a pretty neat and tidy cell with a poorly hidden listening device. Seriously, German ingenuity is not well-represented here.
The Colonel blabs to some socialite-type named Else von Brandt (noted feminist Dorothy Tree) about his recent American acquisitions. He clearly wants to put the frankfurter in the sauerkraut. After he leaves with a fresh batch of America balls, also known as blue balls, she reveals herself to be codename “Rosebud,” part of an anti-Hitler resistance movement. She sends the boys a message in their food trays written on an Ace of Spades card. Johnny tosses the card without looking at it, but Steve has a major problem with bugs, so he grabs it. Reading the message (they can read?!), they plan their escape.
These Nazis are pussies since they get knocked out super easily and their accents are also a bit suspect. The radio operator seems to have been told to say “Yah” a lot and that would cover it. Uniforms stolen, they pop out and breeze through without arousing any suspicion. Johnny acts as a prisoner and looks like he’s wearing pajamas. Needing more firepower, Steve gets into an ammunition cabinet by judo chopping an officer. Else shows up just then (convenient) and in the scuffle, Dutch is killed. They smash through the flimsy gate, which is satisfying since it practically evaporates on impact, and there’s a decent shoot-out and chase. Steve takes half-a-second to mourn Dutch and then they’re whisked off to a hideout by Meyer (Frederick Giermann). They feel safe with him because of his signal: whistling “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” No Nazi would ever whistle THAT!
In their HUGE hideout, they argue with Else about what’s to be done about this Hitler chap. There’s actually a bit of real writing here as they lay out a hypothetical that the war may not end with Hitler’s death. His ministers of war could cause even more bloodshed. That’s fine, but the real treat is discovering the origins of Hitler’s moustache. Meyer saved Hitler’s life, to which Steve replies, “We all make mistakes,” still an oft-used line nearly a century later, and little Addie got a bad scar for his trouble. Specifically, a lip scar, hence the need to grow his famous upper-lip shit stain. Steve figures that if Hitler has doubles, he can shave a captured Hitler to make certain they’ve got the genuine article. By the way, “shave a captured Hitler.” Does that sound oddly correct?
Steve has a major shift in morals when he overhears that the Nazis plan to exterminate women and children in an attempt to show an even-handed response to the American’s plan to assassinate Hitler. Now, the money doesn’t matter. All they have to do is wait and Else could smuggle them out, but instead, they ambush the musicians she was taking to a soiree attended by the Fuhrer himself and crash the party in disguise. It speaks volumes that a similar, but far-better executed scene takes place in Inglorious Basterds many years later.
Hitler does indeed show up, played by Bob Watson, looking a little pudgy but overall a reasonable facsimile. He launches right into reciting his resume and pressing the flesh with some propaganda chatter. He is the tyrant of exposition, running through his authorship of Mein Kampf and Munich’s rich history before he’s even had a plate of strudel. No time for that, because Nazi shithead Hecht sees through Steve’s phony disguise. Before they can shoot the Yankee scum, Steve takes Hitler hostage. They escape, but the Colonel is on the Matterhorn to call for back up, which he needs “Immediately…immediately…IMMEDIATELY!!!” Oh, and Joe is killed.
Back at the hideout, a whimpering Hitler is shaved, revealing the tell-tale scar Meyer spoke of. Stripping him of his uniform, the autocrat looks like any other German, because the house is raided and none of the officers recognize their dear leader. As they’re marched off to be executed, Hitler’s protests fall on deaf ears, so he makes a run for it. In a spectacular twist, Hecht kills him, uttering the line, “To think that Germany could produce a piece of filth like you.” It’s wonderful, but Steve and Meyer, along with some random children, are killed on the spot as Steve rattles off some more pro-American rhetoric. Swinging back to the wraparound, Thornton apparently knows all of this even though Johnny and Else had already flown the coop, and proclaims that Steve was “A great man and a great American!”
Confessions of a Nazi Spy was released by Warner Brothers in 1939 and represented Hollywood’s first public condemnation of the mad dictator of Germany. In different times, the trend of anti-Nazi films like Hitler - - Dead or Alive, Nazty Nuisance (also featuring Watson), The Hitler Gang (starring Hitler all-star Bob Watson again), and the many other similarly-themed works would have been repeated had The Interview (2014) been successful. Imagine a glut of anti-North Korea films which depicted the still-living leader of a dictatorship being brutally murdered. This was the norm for a while in the early 40’s.
This would be the penultimate film of forgotten B-movie director Nick Grinde. His previous output included such titles as Ladies Crave Excitement (1935) and Million Dollar Legs (1939). The direction is nothing special, merely adequate. The real joys of the film stem from the writing and the performances.
This was Sam Neuman’s first screen credit for his original story and screenplay, co-writing with the more experienced Karl Brown. Neuman’s future scripts include a handful of The Outer Limits episodes, The Hoodlum (1951), and the brilliantly titled Machine Gun Mama (1944). He even dipped into the Nazi well again with his screenplay for the 1962 biopic Hitler, starring Richard Basehart in the title role. The screenplay is fun, bouncy even, and thanks to Ward Bond’s swagger, contains some very amusing dialogue. Upon meeting Else, Steve says she reminds him of “Betty Paradise. Pretty as a picture and as dangerous as a pocketful of loose razors.” Meyer brings Steve and the gang a box of ammunition: “You fill my heart with joy!” Steve holds a gun on Hitler, threatening to “turn him into dog meat. And not very good dog meat at that!” He later calls Hitler a ‘drizzlepuss.’ Priceless.
Noted anti-Semite and major supporter of the HUAC witch trials, Ward Bond is fantastic in this film. Of course, that sucks because I don’t want to like him. It’s like finding out a favorite musician is a terrible person (cough, Michael Jackson). Oscar-nominated writer Josh Olsen once said “Love the work, not the jerk.” His off-screen awfulness aside, he dominates the film, leaving most of the other actors in the dust. This makes sense since Bond had been a supporting player in some of the greatest films ever made, such as The Searchers, The Maltese Falcon, It Happened One Night, and Gone With The Wind, along with his career-saving part on Wagon Train and his role in the revisionist Western Johnny Guitar. B-pictures were often the place to see character actors play much larger roles. Hymer and Fix play his loyal henchmen and they also share small but significant credits in films like Destry Rides Again and Meet John Doe for Hymer and The Bad Seed, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Night of the Lepus for Fix.
There’s a bitter irony to the scenes between Ward Bond and Dorothy Tree since she was eventually part of the Hollywood Blacklist so vehemently supported by her co-star. Although she’d worked consistently prior to 1939, she, along with fellow DOA cast members Felix Basch, Watson, Frederick Giermann, would briefly be in high demand for propaganda pictures like Confessions, Nazi Agent, Appointment in Berlin, The Boy from Stalingrad, Paris Underground, and The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler.
The movie is a clumsy rallying cry against a monstrous and evil force. The speeches are way too on-the nose, but it’s so entertainingly silly that it can shrugged or laughed off. Subtlety is not one of Hitler - - Dead or Alive’s virtues, but it does use the power of the medium to present ideas in a ham-fisted but inspired fashion.