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February 19, 2015

Ten Seconds to Hell

ten seconds to hell italian poster.jpg

Robert Aldrich - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The choice of artwork for the new blu ray of Ten Seconds to Hell is from the Italian poster. What I like about that poster is that what is suggested, with that face of Jeff Chandler's as a partial skull comes closer to suggesting some of Aldrich's thematic concerns. Death is never very far away for the six men who take on the job of diffusing bombs found in various locations in a ruined, post World War II Berlin. In the way that their faces are lit, there is the sense that Chandler and Jack Palance were cast in part because of their nearly skeletal faces. Chandler, forty years old at the time of filming, looks at least a decade older in some shots. While a collapse in communications meant that Ten Seconds to Hell was the last of three films Aldrich made starring Palance, many of the shots emphasize the tautness of Palance's face, with pain or anguish unmistakably expressed.

What I didn't know until I did a bit of research is that Aldrich's original cut ran over two hours. The version we have available is the theatrical release, a little over an hour and a half long. I have no idea if any of the deleted footage is still in someone's vault, nor do I know what was cut regarding the content. Aldrich has been dismissive of this film, and has readily taken some of the blame for the critical and commercial failure. Time has not made Ten Seconds to Hell a better movie or some kind of lost masterpiece, but visually, it is very much an Aldrich film. Additionally, with a script by Aldrich done with Teddi Sherman, the film demonstrates the consistency of Aldrich's themes revisited throughout his other films.

Others have already pointed out that the six demolition experts make for a not so dirty half dozen. They are somewhat similar to the characters of Aldrich's most famous film in that they are former rejects of the German military, who were assigned to the bomb squad instead of prison or concentration camps. There is a very loose sense of camaraderie between the six, and a sense of not belonging to society at large. Unlike the Dirty Dozen, the six men, recruited by Allied forces to diffuse stray bombs, work alone, each man taking on an assignment in turn. The six pool part of their money, based on a bet that the funds will be claimed by whomever is survives the next three months.

There is suspense during the scenes of bomb diffusion, even though you have to figure that Palance or Chandler would be the last to go, as you don't go killing off the main star in the middle of your movie (unless you're Alfred Hitchcock). Still, there is tension, especially in an almost silent scene of Palance alone in the rubble, diffusing a bomb, sweating, the only sound being the squeaking of a bolt loosened. In another scene, Aldrich just shows the arms, legs and hands of one of the men diffusing a bomb, unsuccessfully, so that we don't know until after the explosion who was killed.

As in other Aldrich films, Chandler and Palance alternate between being partners and rivals. The rivalry is in part philosophical, with the seemingly nonchalant Chandler, concerned his needs and winning at all costs, versus the brooding Palance who risks his life on behalf of the other team members. There is also the romantic rivalry for Martine Carol, another outsider as a French woman married to a German officer, also without a sense of belonging anywhere.

There are a couple of Aldrich's signature overhead shots. Much of the film is made up of low angle shots, frequently with two or three characters within the frame, sometimes placed in such a way as to play with differing proportions within the shot. Part of it is also that this is a more economical way of presenting the characters, but it also goes back to the thematic concerns of characters sharing a space that barely contains them or their respective tensions. This is made especially clear near the end when Palance and Chandler work together on a double fused bomb, only part of their faces seen in an extreme close-up.

ten seconds to hell german poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 19, 2015 06:07 AM