As I am wont to comment periodically when Charles Laughton figures in my recent viewing, he is one of my top favourites and in so many ways one of the most accomplished screen actors ever. I am glad to discover that I am not alone, having recently stumbled on a Laughton group on Yahoo comprised of others who believe the same. The thing about him is just how expressive he could be on screen with the most minimal of gestures or facial tics and also how moving he could be when speechifying (there is no other suitable word for some of his longer bits of dialogue). All of this wonderful ability is on display in this movie.
The illustrious French director Jean Renoir sought refuge in Hollywood during WW II and turned out an assortment of fine films of which this is one of the very best, albeit possibly the least-known. It is set "somewhere in Europe" during the German occupation, without specifically mentioning France (and all of the characters have slightly anglicized names). Laughton plays a timid schoolmaster, jeered by his pupils, who lives with his overbearing and babying mother, Una O'Connor. He is reunited with his "Hunchback" co-star Maureen O'Hara, a fellow teacher and neighbour, whom he silently worships, but who is engaged to George Saunders, a local bigwig who reluctantly knuckles under the German authorities as personified by slimy Walter Slezak, hoping for survival and a better future. Her brother, Kent Smith, appears to fraternize with the occupying soldiers but is a secret saboteur.
When Resistance activity results in German deaths, hostages are taken including Laughton, but O'Connor fearing for her rather elderly little boy shops Smith to Saunders who in turn tells Slezak, in the misguided hope of helping his fellow citizens. When Smith is killed and only Laughton is released, O'Hara assumes that he is the squealer. In a rage, Laughton goes to confront Saunders only to find that the latter has remorsefully committed suicide; found at the scene, he is arrested for murder and brought to trial in the civil court which the Germans maintain under the pretext of coexisting with local authority. Laughton known primarily for his cowardice now finds this the only available forum for free speech. After an offer from Slezak to manufacture a suicide note in exchange for collaboration and after seeing the other hostages shot by a firing squad, he uses the court to encourage resistance and sabotage. He is acquitted of the murder charge, but his days as a free man are now numbered, and he uses these to indoctrinate his students (who now idolise him) on the rights of man.
Laughton is nothing short of magnificent in this role as he moves from an awkward and scaredy-cat big baby to a noble being. From his safe haven in Hollywood, Renoir is speaking to the free world through this character, and it is as moving and effective an anti-war film as any. Without Laughton it might have been mere melodrama, but with him, it is a masterpiece.