On The Beach

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(1959) ★★★★

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The most striking aspect of Neville Shute’s Atomic Bomb story is not just how sombre it is, but how sanguine. Assorted Australians, a couple of Brits and an American submarine crew wait, passively though pensively, for the lethal radiation clouds to filter through Down Under.

As the US Navy commander, Gregory Peck is suitably grave, Fred Astaire (as a boozy English scientist) untypically serious, and – a year before turning up in charge of the Bates Motel – Anthony Perkins is utterly convincing as a young Australian officer fretting over his wife and baby. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white by the great Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno, it’s a grimly compelling, effectively understated drama. “I shouldn’t drink, you know,” says Astaire after upsetting Perkins’ wife. “I inevitably say something brilliant.” No more damning, though, than the Salvation Army banner fluttering impotently in the breeze: “There is still time… brother.”

There’s not much music, but composer Ernest Gold makes affecting use of Waltzing Matilda. Producer turned director Stanley Kramer was a leading Hollywood liberal, an earnest film-maker more solid – some would say stolid – than inspired. But On the Beach, Inherit the Wind (1960), The Defiant Ones (1958), and Marlon Brando’s 1950 screen debut, The Men (directed by Fred Zinnemann, who then made High Noon for Kramer)… they can all be counted among his successes.

Having presided over Brando’s first film (and his notorious 1953 biker flick, The Wild One), Kramer later made Spencer Tracy’s final three movies: Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – a rather limp look at attitudes to race in the US that lost out at the Oscars to co-star Sidney Poitier’s other big hit that year, In the Heat of the Night. A film that faced Southern bigotry head on.

Certificate: PG
Duration: 134min

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