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The Malta Story
cast: Alec Guinness, Muriel Pavlow, Anthony Steel, Jack Hawkins, and Flora Robson

director: Brian Desmond Hurst

103 minutes (U) 1953
Carlton DVD Region 2 retail [released 17 May]

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Alec Guinness is Peter Scott, an implacable English reconnaissance pilot by proxy of his becoming stranded on the island of Malta during a period of heavy bombardment during the Second World War. He falls in love with the local archaeology and notices local girl Maria (the stunning if unconvincingly dusky Muriel Pavlow) while he is at it, and who wouldn't. Maria's family play their part on both sides, a brave mother (Flora Robson), a brother to die in a raid, his wife (Rosalie Crutchley) and son weak on rations and the second brother (Nigel Stock), smuggled back from Italy to spy on the major British naval base that he accuses of bringing about this trauma on his people. Alec flies one mission, gets nosy in the wrong direction, but in disobeying orders turns up information more crucial, the transportation of supplies and equipment for an invasion force. The island struggles with shortages, the supply ships mostly sunk by repeated enemy attack, the oil and aircraft of the greatest importance if the impending invasion is to be beaten back, and time is running out. When enough supplies finally win through, it is on Scott again to go out in thick cloud to locate the threat out on the water with the odds against his return.
   That may be the Alec Guinness role accounted for, but it is not the entire film, for this is The Malta Story, a tribute to the islanders' courage. It was a bravery previously acknowledged in wartime with a medal issued to the Maltese in their stronghold, here on film secondly recorded to remind a British public of a price paid in a location and by a people far more vulnerable and uncomplainingly. This film was placed in the hands of ever-reliable Brian Desmond Hurst, a formidable director, not sung of enough. Unlike the Kordas, Powell and Pressburger, or the Boultings, Hurst was modest, less self-promulgating. It appears that while the others were feeling stifled by budgeting in the 1950s, Hurst was grateful. There is nothing slack in his treatment of the subject, he is out to impress, pull out the entire bag of tricks at the same time as he is honouring the historical and emotional content of the picture.
   The relationship between Scott and Maria is never mistaken for the central focus of the film. Considerable screen time is passed with the two excused, as other characters replace them to enormous emotional effect, and these characters can be drawn from anywhere, reintroduced, enter late, seemingly peripheral, Malta Story is more like a very good wartime soap opera. All good directors have everyone in front of the camera in mind and alive, but Hurst does not rest there, he will bring extras to the fore and to effect. When the traitor son talks to his mother desultorily of the British, the hand of the anonymous guard stood against the wall aback of him flinches with anger. Jerry Desmonde is a latecomer to the proceedings but is granted tears and one line of enormous punch on the dockside. In the midst of all the effects, actual footage and chaos, a simple table scene between Flora Robson and Hugh Burden, as the Intelligence Officer with the task of informing her of her son's activities, is tenderly handled, with careful consideration to both actors, Burden's character in those few scenes become more memorable than those of co-stars or even leads in other pictures of the time. There is no distinguishing between the brave and the stupid, all of those ignorant and deadly asinine superior officers and common and courageous grunts clich�s are thrown out before the first call of 'Action!' The supernaturally calm and unmoved Guinness is wrong by comparison, a disposable automaton you care little for and an implausible love interest for the beautiful Maria.
   The 107 minutes don't seem to be enough to contain everything that occurs in this feature. In the cinemas it must have been devastatingly impressive on the audience. The editing is amazing, but so is the amount of material that was collected, real and set-up, for the editor to achieve his rich, quick montages. The editing is subtle in personal scenes, sudden when the shock and awe calls for it. For his death scene, Alec Guinness, seeing the Stukas picking up on him from behind casually comments, "Ah, this is where it gets tricky." There is no time for a dogfight, it would be disingenuous, he is not equipped for it, the sentence ends and there are flash cuts to the reverse mirror smashing, and the controls disintegrating under enemy fire. Robot or not, you reel from the suddenness of his death, there's no "talk to me while I crash to the ground, darling." The new daily routines, the improvised get-bys of the Maltese amongst the shattered buildings are equally rapidly dealt with despite the effort in their reconstruction whereas other films would have dwelt on them, demanding you recognise how quirky the shot is.
   The four scriptwriters include that remaining great British film director Thorold Dickinson and whatever their individual input it layers and blends in dialogue and story perfectly. The effects don't always work but would have impressed at the time. They are the work of Bill Warrington (who also worked on Ill Met By Moonlight) and Albert Whitlock. The work of the latter is most noticeable, his added planes reminiscent of his later work on The Birds. As bombs land near the players the camera shudders, like a Cinema USA ride, it is a violent camera movement, that would produce cries of horror from those cinemagoers who had lived through the Blitz. The night scenes are unreal, almost surreal; there is a magical dreaminess to the Our Lady of Sorrows Street sequences and a duskiness otherwise settles enchantingly over the early part of the film. These are challenged by actual footage that is terrifying, dreadful and effectual, not always perfectly blended, but these montages are sensibly separated from the re-enactments and the fiction. In one sequence, a ship that has docked despite heavy assault has the most astonishing damage at its bow, a startlingly beautiful twist of metal.
   Carlton are as meagre as usual on the disc, it is the film and nothing but. But this is a film that does not need any supplementary convincing as to its greatness. As much as I have said in my review, it stands as nothing more than an introduction, for the truly observant film connoisseur this is film to experience again and again.
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