Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Blu-ray debut for ICE COLD IN ALEX -- J. Lee Thompson's World War II desert road trip -- part of Film Movement's new five-disc set, THEIR FINEST HOUR

Forget having ever seen ICE COLD IN ALEX, I had never even heard of the movie prior to receiving news of Film Movement's new five-film/five-disc series entitled Their Finest Hour, devoted to classic World War II films. (Also included in the set are the unusual and quietly spectacular Went the Day Well?, German prison-escape thriller The Colditz Story, deservedly heralded The Dam Busters and the original 1958 version of Dunkirk.)

All these are worth seeing (probably more than once), but Ice Cold in Alex, TrustMovies feels, proves a splendid discovery for those of us viewing it for the first time, and very likely a rediscovery for anyone who saw it long ago.

Made in 1958, it is also one more reason to re-assess the career of journeyman filmmaker J. Lee Thompson (shown at left) -- not only for his well-known and popular movies such as Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, but for his even better, lesser-known work like Yield to the Night and this first-rate genre-jumping film.

Ice Cold in Alex derives its title from the delicious cold beer one of its main characters hopes to have a glass full of, once he and his party reach Alexandria, Egypt -- if the place has not been already conquered by the German army by the time the rickety ambulance, by which the party is crossing the desert, arrives there.

En route from the military base at which the film begins, this quartet of characters faces all sorts of hazards -- from a minefield to pursuing German troops, a collapsing axle to, yes, desert quicksand -- all of which makes the movie off and on extremely suspenseful, in addition to its much-better-than-average ability to create complex, full-bodied, emotionally resonant characters who consistently engage and surprise us.

Those characters are played by (left to right, above) John Mills, Anthony Quayle, Harry Andrews and Sylvia Syms, and each could hardly be bettered -- either in choice of casting (Ms Thompson was a master at this) or via the performance each actor gives.

Mr. Mills, in particular seems cast against type (not to mention his platinum blond locks!) as an angry, alcoholic, often petulant fellow who still manages to almost rise to most occasions, while Ms Syms -- so gorgeous in her younger years -- helps transform a role that could have been played in fairly standard fashion into something rather feminist, considering its time frame. (Be sure to watch the terrific interview with the actress today, as she recalls, wittily and with great pleasure, what it was like to be a part of this movie.)

The crack supporting actor Harry Andrews (above, left) gives another of his subtly memorable performances as the fellow who provides the most help whenever needed, while Anthony Quayle (below, center left) essays the film's most interesting personality: a South African of beefy body, questionable character (and maybe suspect nationality) who consistently surprises us -- not to mention his effect on the other characters.

The screenplay by T. J. Morrison and Christopher Landon (based on the novel by Landon, which in turn is said to have been based on a real incident that happened during the African campaign) is replete with smart pacing, crisp dialog and plenty of "incident." The movie movie never lags, despite its 130-minute length.

Even though Ice Cold in Alex was made a bit more than a decade after WWII, its attitude toward the Germans is surprisingly benign -- which, as we learn via some of the Bonus Features on the disc, didn't prevent the film from becoming a huge hit both in its home country and internationally.

And the finale -- funny, witty, suspenseful, moving and surprising -- could hardly be better. This is a wonderful war film, even without any battle scenes, as well as a fine road movie, character study, suspense thriller and more. And given our current age of everything black and white, good and evil, truth and lies, it's a salutary reminder of a time when we were still able to modulate and see those necessary shades of gray.

From Film Movement in a sparkling new Blu-ray transfer, Ice Cold in Alex is available now as part of the five-disc set, Their Finest Hour, for purchase and (I hope soon for rental, too). My single caveat regarding this transfer -- and this entire new set of discs -- is that there are no SDH English subtitles to be found. Shameful!

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