Saturday, May 09, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The General Died at Dawn (1936) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Gary Cooper stars in THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (1936), recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is one of several Cooper films Kino Lorber released on Blu-ray last month. Also newly released are THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935), ANGEL (1937), and BEAU GESTE (1939), all of which will be reviewed here in due course.

This was my first time to see THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, in which Cooper plays O'Hara, an arms runner in war-torn China. O'Hara, who believes in democracy, receives a large sum of money to buy guns for the "good guys," but before he can complete his mission, O'Hara's train is stopped by warlord General Yang (Oscar-nominated Akim Tamiroff). The general takes the money, but O'Hara survives to fight another day and attempt to get the money back.

Also surviving the incident is Judy (Madeleine Carroll), who had lured O'Hara onto the train in the first place -- he'd been advised flying would be safer. Judy was forced to plot against O'Hara by her worthless father (Porter Hall), who desperately needed the money he'd be paid by the general -- but she finds she loves O'Hara and is devastated to betray him.

Eventually O'Hara and Judy are reunited; as they attempt to discover if they can trust one another, they also face a long, difficult game battling various parties attempting to get their hands on the money. To top things off, the general reappears...

I found this to be a good if imperfect film. It was strikingly filmed by director Lewis Milestone and cinematographer Victor Milner. The movie's look is terrific, from the opening moments with the credits appearing on ships' sails, and there are some really interesting visuals.

My favorite moment was a fascinating use of split screens showing what various characters were doing as they were discussed. The creepiest moment was looking up out of a windowseat where a dead body has just been deposited. There are a number of other interesting shots, such as a doorknob dissolving into a billiard ball.

The screenplay by Clifford Odets, from a story by Charle G. Booth, falters in the early going. O'Hara and Judy's first scene on the train, indicating they already knew one another, came out of nowhere; I actually rewound the movie to see if I'd somehow missed their prior connection, but there was nothing. I felt quite lost for a couple minutes, and it was interesting that when I researched it I found the term "confusing" used by more than one reviewer to describe the movie!

At 98 minutes it also drags on about 10 minutes too long, growing increasingly dark with torture, including the general causing his own men to kill one another. It really needed to reel things in sooner, as I found the last section of the movie distasteful.

On the other hand, the movie had a number of things going for it, starting with the appealing look I mentioned earlier. Cooper and Carroll (who had made Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS the previous year) are seen at their most glamorous, dazzling examples of '30s movie star power. They carry the movie and make it well worth seeing.

I also love "train movies," so I particularly enjoyed the train scenes early in the film. That section of the film called to mind bits of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) especially, along with a touch of NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) -- both of which I've seen theatrically in the last few months.

The Blu-ray is from a brand-new 4K master, and the picture is lovely, a true visual pleasure.

I found the soundtrack a little more challenging. While the music by Werner Janssen sounded great, the dialogue seemed slightly muffled at times, which made the accents and softly spoken intrigue more challenging than the norm. The disc does have subtitles which I tried out; they weren't always easy to read, with the white lettering tending to fade into the picture.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray release includes the trailer and a gallery of five additional trailers for films available from Kino Lorber. There's also a brand-new audio commentary by Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I haven't seen this movie yet but know I will because I adore Akim Tamiroff. I'll admit Cooper and Madeleine are ok in my book as well.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm sure you're right, you'll enjoy it because of the cast! :)

Best wishes,

3:55 PM  

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