Just watched 49th Parallel (1941) off the DVR tonight, and despite missing the last few minutes because of a scheduling glitch, I would have to say it’s the best Nazis escaping across Canada movie I’ve ever seen.
And why wouldn’t it be, with an all-star cast — including Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massie — featured prominently in the credits? It was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1942.
Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story. For one, those three cast members, although somewhat crucial, occupy smaller segments of the movie as people the German fugitives meet as they flee back and forth across Canada, dropping one by one. For another, this is a propaganda film designed to show Canadians what they were already fighting for and Americans what they soon would be. As a result, it’s kind of like the fugitives are walking through a living civics lesson, but one in which they keep leaving behind the dead bodies of their victims.
In a trick that seems foreign to today’s movies, 49th Parallel really centers around the fugitives in a way that doesn’t cause you to pull for them even a bit, despite our usual sympathy for the underdog. These guys aren’t underdogs; they’re just evil. (Well, except perhaps for Vogel, who is the only one who seems to have a heart…and then pays for it.) It’s effective that way, and very much fits into the milieu of criminal fugitive films popular at the time.
Speaking of which, the film includes a couple of added bonuses. One, it features the creepiest undersized killer to be seen in movies, at least up until Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon that same year. It takes him a while to get started, but about halfway through the movie you learn to watch the little guy.
Second, Laurence Olivier plays a French-Canadian whose accent later led to the creation of Pepé Le Pew. (It must have, right?) 🙂 That’s the second bad-accent Laurence Olivier movie I’ve seen in a row. He plays The Mahdi in Khartoum (1966) in such a fashion that you realize the man just liked to work, no matter what they asked of him.