When I tossed the disc for 1958’s Orders to Kill into the blu-ray player, I thought I was going to see a film noir. Although the black-and-white photography makes excellent use of shadows, I ended up getting far more than I bargained for.
The plot takes place in 1944. Paul Massie plays a soldier who has been on multiple successful bombing runs. The government decides he is the right man to take out a French operative who might be selling out Allied agents. Needless to say, there is considerable difference between dropping bombs from a great height and killing a person in close proximity.
Massie radiates a nervous energy that had me suspicious of him from the first glimpse. Through roughly the first half of the picture, he has a shy smile as if he has a secret he is keeping to himself. Eddie Albert, playing his handler, wryly observes Massie seems to think this mission is all play-acting, just a game.
That training is interesting. James Robertson Justice plays an instructor cheerfully providing guidance on various means for committing homicide. In one particularly memorable bit, he casually takes a rock tied up in a sock and obliterates a corner of his desk with it.
He also has a creepy haunted-house type of simulator he calls “The Tunnel of Love”. It isn’t too far off from the simulator in the first Men in Black, where Will Smith fires multiple rounds into a little girl while leaving all the menacing-looking aliens intact. How I wish the scene in this movie had gone in that direction.
Albert, in the meantime, works on Massie’s mental preparation. I especially like the line he says when he starts giving Massie details to memorize about his alter ego: “I’ll tell you more about yourself later.” Then there’s what he tells Massie when first showing him a photo of the target: “Never trust a kind face when you’ve only met its owner once.”
Massie’s problems begin when he meets the owner of that face. Leslie French, as the alleged traitor, is funny, kind and soft-spoken. He has a cat secreted in his office, as felines were on the menu at local restaurants during that difficult time. Massie will also meet French’s wife and daughter, to whom his intended victim is a very good husband and father.
There is an excellent scene between Massie and Irene Worth, playing his Paris contact. He brings to her his doubts that his target is actually guilty. She asks him if, as a bomber, he had the magical ability to kill only evil men, woman and children. Taking it one step further, she asks him if none of those people had mothers, wives, children or even cats that they loved.
I don’t want to say anything more about this picture, as to not potentially spoil anything. Suffice to say, the core of this film is how any killing is morally dubious, regardless of intent, method or even the victim’s degree of guilt. That is something I did not expect from a studio film made in 1958.
Orders to Kill was not allowed to be screen at Cannes that year, due to the objections of a juror who declared it to be “Un-American”. I found this a challenging movie which asks questions I think are relevant for any culture and at any point in history. Highly recommended.
Dir: Anthony Asquith
Starring Paul Massie, Eddie Arnold, Leslie French, Irene Worth
Watched on Powerhouse/Indicator blu-ray (region A)