Under Fire (1957) Poster


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Film Noir on the Battlefield!
jr-565-263663 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I have not seen this movie in almost 40 years, but it used to be standard fare for Saturday afternoons on Los Angeles TV back in the 1960s and 1970s. And because it ends on a sad and poignant note, it has haunted me ever since. This movie is classic film noir. But instead of the story taking place in some back alley of New York or on a street in Hollywood, the plot plays out on the battlefields of 1945 Europe. Because this underrated movie has never appeared in video, it has been largely forgotten.

The story begins soon after VE Day 1945. Four American soldiers, decorated veterans of the campaign to liberate Europe, are called together at the Division JAG Office to be informed that they are being investigated for the of murder of a young soldier, PVT Steiner (George Chikiris) who went missing during a patrol they were part of in Germany's Black Forest in early 1945. One of soldiers, SSG Joseph Dusak (Harry Morgan) was the patrol leader. The other soldiers, Corporal John Crocker (Jon Locke), Corporal Quinn (Gregory LaFayette) and Private Pope (Robert Levin), are the only members of the patrol to survive the war.

The soldiers are informed that the remains of the missing private were recently found and evidence pointed to the cause of death as murder, the bullet being fired from a US made .45 cal pistol. Investigators found irregularities with SSG Dusak's patrol report who wrote that they got lost. Suspicious, investigators uncovered the report of another patrol from an adjacent unit that stated they encountered SSG Dusak's patrol and suspected them of goofing off. The patrol leader, Sergeant William Hutchins (Karl Lukas), testifies that the patrol did not appear to be lost as was reported, but appeared to be having a good time. In addition, SSG Dusak was the only member of the patrol who carried a .45 cal pistol.

1LT Steve Rogerson (Rex Reason), a combat veteran, is appointed to defend the soldiers and as the evidence mounts, LT Rogerson suspects that the patrol members are not telling all that they know. Under pressure, one of the soldiers comes clean and confesses they hid in a cave to rest and get warm. While looking for materials to start a fire, one the patrol members uncovers a cache of thousands of US dollars hidden in the cave. SSG Dusak is all for turning the cash in but the other soldiers convincingly argue that they have fought for three years and deserve more than just a pat on the back. So all agree to keep and divide up the money. Since they cannot carry the loot back to their unit, they all agree to leave the cave one at a time so that each can find a secret location to bury their share and then reassemble at the cave.

However, every soldier returns to the cave except PVT Steiner. A quick search fails to find any trace of the soldier and PVT Steiner is reported as MIA. With this new information, LT Rogerson reports the confessions and arms the prosecution, CPT Linn (Steve Brodie), with a motive. During testimony, SGT Hutchins states that one of the patrol members he saw was armed with a .45 cal pistol and had a frostbit hand. He further states that he does not recognize any of the suspects as the soldiers he encountered that day on patrol.

LT Rogerson has his suspicions and requests that all camps holding German POWs report any with frostbite injuries. Within days, a LT Karl Stagg (William Allyn) of the Wehrmacht is escorted to the courtroom. Under intense questioning, LT Stagg admits to being a member of a patrol in the Black Forest that same day. Dressed in US Army uniforms, they were scouting for the American battle positions when they encountered and captured PVT Steiner burying his loot. Afraid that he will reveal their location, LT Stagg executes the soldier. It was his patrol that SGT Hutchins encountered and reported that day.

With the charges dropped, the four soldiers are celebrating when LT Rogerson drops in to announce that not only is the US Army dropping charges against them concerning the money, but that SSG Dusak will be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for courageous acts he performed earlier in the war. He also drops a bombshell - that the money they risked their lives and freedom for was all counterfeit.

As LT Rogerson grabs his coat and turns to leave, you hear SSG Dusak's voice-over state, "and that was the last time I saw LT Rogerson". The scene fades to refocus again to show former SSG Dusak at Arlington Cemetery. The whole story was being told in flashback and he is standing over the grave of Major Steve Rogerson. His headstone reads that he was killed in action in Korea in November, 1950. As SSG Dusak lays his DSC on Major Rogerson's headstone, he says, "you deserved this medal more than I did".

As I recall, this movie was well written with twists and turns in the plot that were both suspenseful, yet believable. The movie showed a different view of American soldiers that were both flawed and war wary. Fatigued from relentless combat, they gave in to temptation to keep the money. I really would love to see this movie on DVD. Harry Morgan's performance as a combat hardened soldier is an early preview of his acting style and abilities as seen on Dragnet or M*A*S*H. But a truly good performance is acted by all in this gem of a movie.
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One of the best "B" films ever made!
JohnHowardReid23 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Producer: Plato Skouras. Copyright 1957 by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation. A Regal Films, Inc. Production. A Regalscope Picture. No New York showcasing. U.S. release: September 1957. U.K. release: 17 March 1958. Australian release: 1 May 1958. 7,037 feet. 78 minutes.

SYNOPSIS: On the same day that he is awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary valor in the European campaign during World War 2, Sergeant Joe Dusak (Henry "Harry" Morgan) is charged with desertion during combat. Also summoned to the military court are the only three other surviving members of a patrol led by Dusak. The sergeant claims that the patrol became lost in Germany's Black Forest, but this assertion is disputed by Sergeant William Hutchins (Karl Lukas) who states that when he encountered Dusak's patrol in the Forest, the men were laughing and were not lost. The prosecutor (Steve Brodie) asks for the death sentence, but the men's attorney (Rex Reason) cannot believe that heroes can turn overnight into cowards. Even though the evidence is overwhelming, Lieutenant Steve Rogerson is determined to ferret out the truth.

NOTES: The close ties between Regal Films and 20th Century-Fox is well illustrated here by the fact that the film was produced by the son of Fox president, Spyros P. Skouras. It was in fact young Skouras' second film, his first being another Regalscope picture, "Apache Warrior".

Last film of Gregory La Fayette who was killed in a car crash on 4 July 1957.

Directorial debut of long-time Fox film editor, James B. Clark, whose pictures included How Green Was My Valley (1941) — for which he was nominated for an Academy Award — I Was a Male War Bride (1949), The Desert Fox (1951), Five Fingers (1952), Hell and High Water (1954), House of Bamboo (1955).

COMMENT: Regal had a three-pronged policy when it came to choosing directors for their product: (1) Fresh talent, for example Maury Dexter; (2) Experienced quickie directors, akin to Edward Bernds, a graduate of the later Blondie movies; (3) Film editors, the reasoning being that a man who knew how to cut film must also know how to shoot it economically and professionally. This is where Regal came unstuck. Quickie directors were always reliable, if unimaginative; the newcomers, spearheaded by Dexter, luckily proved to be both cost-conscious and inventive; but the film editors on the whole seemed totally unable to relate the professional skills they'd gained in the cutting-room to the practicalities of fast decision- making on the studio set. The safest course was most often chosen, so their movies often emerged as slow-paced, flatly directed bores. James B. Clark was one of the few exceptions to this rule. And even his subsequent Fox films are not all that brilliant, though "Misty" and "A Dog of Flanders" were highly praised in their day. His best directed picture is not one of his higher-budgeted efforts like "The Big Show", but actually this one. The direction is so smooth, allowing Jodie Copelan to edit the material with such seemingly dramatic skill, it's hard to believe this was Clark's first time behind a camera. On a shooting schedule of only ten days, he has constructed a remarkably tight little drama, one of the very best of the Regalscope pictures.

If this "B" is so great, you may well ask, why isn't it better known to-day? The answer to this question is quite simple: The New York Times. Because "Under Fire" (like nearly all the Regal movies) was not given a New York send-off, it was not reviewed in "The New York Times". It unfortunately follows that for many film critics and so- called film historians, "Under Fire" simply doesn't exist. "The New York Times" is not only their bible, it, and to a lesser extent "Variety", are their only reference sources.

Of course, even given "B" production values, it's hard to go wrong with a court-martial drama — provided the script is up to scratch and at least a halfway decent cast has been engaged to interpret it. Both these conditions are successfully met here. Not only that, but the milieu and atmosphere are conveyed with creditable conviction. There's hardly a minute of the total running time that doesn't fully engage total audience involvement.

Henry "Harry" Morgan and his comrades provide absorbingly lifelike portraits. The tightly intriguing script is made more dramatic still by unusually talented technicians. The film editing as stated has been undertaken with exceptional skill, photography and art direction are unobtrusively workmanlike, whilst the excellent sound recording is not only crisp but realistically directional. Even the music has something to contribute, the score cleverly including a German version of "Don't Fence Me In".

In all, one of the best of the Regalscope films, thanks to a gripping script, charismatic acting and smooth direction. The film editing with its dramatic cross-cutting and tight pacing, is a lesson in achieving maximum entertainment quality from "B"-budget resources.
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