Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Nicky Smith
Two years went by, marked by an unsuccessful effort to make a movie from James Michener's novel Hawaii. There was a great deal of script work and some fascinating research in Norway and in the South Pacific, but things did not work out, and a year later I found myself looking for other stories. After a while a slim volume with the curious title To Kill a Mouse on Sunday [It was called "Killing a Mouse on Sunday"] arrived, sent by Mike Frankovich, the chief of Columbia's overseas productions. It was written by the eminent Emeric Pressburger and was set in Spain, several years after Franco's 1939 victory, ending the Civil War that had divided the country in utmost bitterness and hatred. That conflict had been a turning point in world history, the dress rehearsal for World War Two; the moment, signposted by Picasso's Guernica, when civilization began its slow relapse into barbarism and the New Dark Ages. A worldwide outcry was raised when, for the first time in history, a civilian population was bombed from the air and an entire town destroyed. Fifty years later, this now seems like an everyday occurrence.
Making a picture on this subject had always seemed important and Pressburger's novel revived my hopes. The story was based on one of the anti-Franco heroes, a man named Zapater, who had escaped to France after the Civil War, lived across the border and made occasional daring and crazy sorties into Spain until he was ambushed and killed. He must have been a very brave man. His friends said he had the heart of a fighting bull; they all felt guilty to be still alive. In the novel he is called Artiguez; his antagonist is ViZolas, a captain in the Guardia Civil, the elite Gendarmerie Corps, who organizes a deadly ambush. Artiguez' mother, dying in her hometown hospital, is the bait. The bad news is delivered by an informer to her son, who immediately decides to visit her; he is about to cross the border into Spain when he hears of the trap. Deliberately he accepts the challenge, knowing that it means almost certain death.
He does not see his mother, already dead by the time he arrives. The trap is sprung; choosing to kill the informer, rather than his declared enemy, he himself dies in a hail of bullets.
Tony Quinn had originally wanted to play Artiguez, but I had a feeling that such type-casting could make the film seem literal and predictable. It seemed that we needed someone who could be deceptively gentle, yet capable of ice-cold ferocity. No wonder I was thrilled to hear of Gregory Peck's interest in playing that sort of desperate character. Turning in a riveting performance, he succeeded in hiding the warmth and gentleness that are so much a part of his nature. Tony Quinn, a great actor and a joy to work with, came through with the portrait of a powerful and frightening bully. The rest of the cast were excellent, especially Paolo Stoppa, Raymond Pellegrin and Marietto Angeletti, a sensitive ten-year-old boy who is now a doctor in Italy.
The book had a mechanical feeling about it: it needed a lot of work, but the prospects were exciting. We would have to go to Spain and do all the police research on the spot - and of course this was 1962, when Franco was still very much in power, using the Guardia Civil as an instrument of repression: we had to assume that we would be stopped and questioned. The idea that ollas, a captain in that officially sacred institution, would be the villain of the film raised delicate questions, especially for Columbia Pictures: a film on the subject could destroy their company in Spain. (In fact, this is what happened: Columbia was forced to sell its Spanish distribution business. Unofficially, they were quite relieved, as they could make more money by selling each picture outright from then on. They even made a profit from the sale of their facilities.)
Thanks to Mike Frankovich's connections, the Spanish authorities agreed to let me and Trauner, the great Hungarian production designer (also known as 'trap cher' - too expensive), travel freely through northern Spain. It was important for me to observe how people behaved vis-a-vis the gendarmes in what was still a Fascist police state. Also, it was important for Trauner to get details of the buildings to be constructed later in the Paris studio, since there could, of course, be no question of shooting the film in Spain. (Later, Trauner fell in love with his sets to such an extent that he kept adding details to his studio street for days after we had finished shooting there.) All went well on that trip but there was no doubt that we were closely watched at all times.
An even more important reference for Artiguez would be contacts and meetings with political refugees, mostly anarchists still living precariously on the French side of the border, mainly around Perpignan, many still actively involved with the remnants of the underground movement inside Spain. We needed to see how they lived and what they thought and felt after twenty-five years in exile. They couldn't afford to trust outsiders; but we were able to have some very hush-hush meetings that turned out to be instructive. Herewith a few notes I made during that trip in 1963:
'Many Spanish refugees who live in Perpignan want to stay there, where they can still "smell the air of Spain just across the border", even though this means menial work and poverty, and better jobs are available further inland in Toulouse.
'The incredible thing about all these people is their intensity. As soon as they start talking, the years seem to drop away. It is as though all of their Civil War happened yesterday. It is like the way Southerners used to talk about our Civil War of 120 years ago. Zapater is a legend among all of them.
'One of the men had worked actively with Zapater. During one of their actions a hand grenade which he was to throw at a Guardia Civil got stuck in his sleeve. As a result he has a steel hook which he manipulates very deftly; his right hand is also in very bad shape. He is the most bitter among them, smoldering all the time. He listens intently, but his look is turned completely inward except when he wants to make a point. He then fixes one with his intense black eyes.
'One of them said, "We are always carried away by our emotions. We don't stop to listen to reason, we are victims of our temperament and of our ignorance. We are not civilized. The bourgeois revolution never took place in Spain."
'All the Catalonians have a lot to say about the Church of those days. Obviously there was utter ferocity on both sides. "Religion is one thing, but the Church is something quite different," they say. Even the women feel the same way. Most of them are deeply religious but have never set foot in a church since they arrived in France twenty-five years ago.'
The research for the film had been very exciting; suddenly it was time for the production to begin. The exteriors were shot mostly on the French side of the Basque country around Pan, Lourdes and Gotein, and even on the Spanish border itself, high up in the Pyrenees. Renee described the scene in a round-robin letter to friends:
'One of the most breathtaking (in every sense of the word) locations was the Breche de Roland. It is something one has to see and feel and be part of. It is about 8,000 feet high, partially a glacier snow-covered the year round, on the border of Spain. There is a monumental gap in the mountain; legend says that it was made by Roland, the medieval hero, who was ambushed here by the Saracens; before dying he broke his sword against the rock. To us, the breach seemed a visual omen of what was awaiting Artiguez on the return to his country.
'The silence was soon disturbed by the far whining of a plane coming from the direction of Spain. As it got closer, we saw that it was a military plane, hovering over us for a while, circling several times, while our crew stood nervously peering into the sky. Then it disappeared as suddenly as it came and our crew heaved a sigh of relief and went back to their wine and mammoth ham sandwiches. We never come on location without our wine and sandwiches.
'We had some harrowing technical problems while in this Nirvana. The batteries for the camera gave out, someone forgot the proper filter and they ran out of film. In the midst of all this the clouds began to form and the pilot said he would be leaving in five minutes, otherwise we would have to spend the night and as many days as necessary on top of the mountain. And so in great haste the mountain was evacuated.'
The shrine of Lourdes was another fascinating location involving a sub-plot, a confrontation between Artiguez and a young priest. We were allowed to film near the Basilica by the Bishop himself, a jolly pink-faced man in his late fifties, who told me how to best control my quick temper: by wiggling my toes ten times. (I tried it and it works) He was bursting with vitality, although a few years earlier he had had a massive heart attack and had been given up by the doctors. Thereupon he decided to make the pilgrimage himself; this was hazardous as it meant immersion in ice-cold water, usually fatal to heart patients. The doctors had no objection as the man was a goner, anyway; but the Bishop's own clergy protested very strongly: 'Imagine the scandal, the Bishop of Lourdes dying of a heart attack in his own pool!' 'Nevertheless I went ahead,' the Bishop told me. 'I won't say it was a miracle but here I am.' 'Why was it not a miracle?' I asked. 'Because it was not instantaneous; it took six months for me to recover.' Many other extraordinary things could be told about this place, where only sixty-four authentic miracles have occurred in the I30 years of its existence.
During location shooting we lived in a rented villa in Pau, complete with a strongly pro-Franco Spanish maid and an elderly French cook, a rabid Communist, who spent most of the day screaming at each other. Most of the crew were new to me except for Trauner, the veteran from The Nun's Story, and 'the bookends', Haffenden and Bridge (from The Sundowners). The cameraman, Badal, a friend and fellow-Hungarian of Trauner's, was very slow and very stubborn. On occasion I had wishdreams about putting a match to his beard; but he was able to create an extraordinary mood in his black-and-white photography. A superb job of enhancing the mood was also done by the composer, Maurice Jarre. Back in Paris the sets were built in the small, now extinct Studio St Maurice in Vincennes.
(Renee's letter again:)
'Trauner spent months constructing a most beautiful reproduction of a Spanish town. It was perfect in every detail, including the merchandise in the shop windows. Walking down the street one had the eerie sensation of actually being in Franco's country. One of our refugee Spanish extras came up to me in a state of agitation. She said she had seen several Guardia Civils - what were they doing here? Should she make herself scarce? I told her to go over and talk to one of them. She did, and was amazed to find he didn't even speak Spanish. He was a French actor. Her face was a study in incredulity, relief and amusement.
'In one scene we used two Spanish refugees, dressed much against their will - as Guardia Civils. We gave them sub-machine guns and told them to go to it. No actors could have duplicated the terror and savagery they brought to their roles; they played it to the hilt, with cold and detached deadliness. It is a good thing there were only blanks in the guns.
'Anthony Quinn turned out to be a very interesting and colorful person. He was co-operative and professional and very entertaining. He is mad about his baby and hates to leave it even for a minute. It is quite a sight to see this huge man carrying a tiny little mite only five months old all over the place. He took him to the bull pen and showed him the bulls. He put him on the horse and had his picture taken riding it. He would call to him from the arena and the baby would look at him, his face wreathed in smiles.'
When it was finished the film seemed quite exciting with its haunting music and stylish photography. Frankovich and other Columbia executives had great hopes for it and launched it well. Unfortunately it fell below our expectations - and below the box office returns the company needed to get its money back. Columbia did all it could to promote the film but audiences stayed away. Perhaps we had no right to take it for granted that the general public would identify with the story and develop a rooting interest in those unfamiliar characters. Still, the movie does not seem to have aged, perhaps because the issues continue to be very much alive.