George Seaton had quite the varied career. Starting out as a struggling playwright and actor within the theater, the future screenwriter and director also became the first nationally-heard actor to portray The Lone Ranger in 1933, lated alleging he invented the famous “Hi-yo Silver!” catchphrase due to his own inability to whistle. Landing a job at MGM courtesy the legendary Irving Thalberg, Seaton’s wit and ability to think up a good gag soon caught the attention of Groucho Marx, and he helped contribute heavily to the jokes seen and heard in A Night at the Opera, and would earn the honor of co-writing A Day at the Races; both movies regarded as the Marx Brothers’ best work at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Eventually, Seaton formed a profitable partnership with producer William Perlberg, and their twenty-five-year collaboration together resulted in nearly three dozen classic fims such as Miracle on 34th Street, The Counterfeit Traitor, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Tin Star, and Airport. As their time together came to a close in the 1960s, the motion picture industry itself was experiencing a change. Patrons were beginning to grow immune to the tantalizing visual treats of CinemaScope – originally employed to get patrons into theaters instead of sitting on their duffs watching TV at home – and were instead starting to look for something else. Something realistic. Something genuine. Something human.
And so it came to pass that in 1963, Seaton and Perlberg formed their penultimate contribution to the ever-changing film industry: a wartime drama entitled The Hook. Based on the novel L’Hamecon by French author Vahé Katcha, The Hook did away with the usual theatrics of ’60s era war films – romance and/or intrigue amidst explosions, prisons, and record-selling soundtracks – and instead replaced it with some good ol’ fashion human drama.
In the final days of the Korean War, a quartet of U.S. Army soldiers (Kirk Douglas, Robert Walker Jr., Nick Adams, and Mark Miller) are given the task of reclaiming as much jet fuel as they can from one of their own now-abandoned settlements and skedaddling back to HQ. A surprise attack from a single enemy plane – itself on its last leg (or wing, if you prefer) – results in the troop’s lieutenant (Miller) being charred down to nothing, leaving young Private Dennison (Walker, making his screen debut) feeling horribly guilty, as the freshly deceased officer only bought the farm due to Dennison’s naivety. The tough-as-nails Sgt. Briscoe (Douglas) assures the poor kid it’s not his fault, and the sergeant’s faithful lackey, Pvt. Hackett (Adams, shortly before his Japanese movie period), backs up whatever the man says every step of the way.
Dennison’s sensitive nature gets the better of him once again when he swims out to rescue the only survivor of the very plane that just killed his commanding officer. But simply tossing the prisoner of war into a jail cell until he can be properly taken care of isn’t an easy task, especially since the transport the three remaining GIs and their unwanted captive are assigned to is a neutral Finnish commercial ship. The captain of the vessel in question – played with a certain amount of delightful flair by character actor Nehemiah Persoff (Papa Mousekewitz to anyone who grew up watching An American Tail), whom history primarily remembers as a guest star on just about every TV show of the ’60s and ’70s – is a very refined sort of fellow, serving his guests fine French cuisine whilst waxing philosophical remarks about man’s inhumanity to man.
The captain not only refuses to acknowledge his military passengers as authoritative figures, but also demands the army men keep their inmate in the same cabin as them. And they do, tying the mostly silent fourth man (as portrayed by decidedly non-Korean looking Filipino actor Pancho “Enrique” Magalona) to a bunk. His presence infuriates the highly manipulative and already-angry Briscoe, who repeatedly drops the “G” word in reference to his victim of circumstance. Hackett is decidedly indifferent, but plays along with his sergeant because of a favor once performed. Dennison, on the other hand, believes the prisoner should be treated in a kindlier fashion, attempting to reach his newfound bunkmate despite the huge language/racial barrier present. The situation only grows more serious once Briscoe receives orders to execute the enemy officer.
Yes, boys and girls, The Hook is one of “those” kind of movies. Anyone looking for an action-packed thrill ride will probably lose interest in the film immediately after the well-staged opening (I mean, that plane is literally falling apart as it flies by, and they’re really blowing those vehicles up). Those of you who can appreciate a fine solid drama, on the other hand, will be in for a nearly-lost treat, as The Hook definitely had me hooked within a matter of minutes. Most of this, of course, is attributable to the casting: Douglas is his usual scenery chewing self, but tones it down a bit; whereas it’s always nice to see anything with Walker and his doomed co-star Adams. Mr. Persoff’s role is an unexpected highlight, and plays one of his few “big” movie parts (even if this is a B picture) with much grace.
The Warner Archive Collection presents this rarely-seen George Seaton/MGM gem from the early ’60s in a very nice looking anamorphic transfer that preserves the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and shows off the best of four-time Oscar winner Joseph Ruttenberg’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography (interestingly, Ruttenberg also worked with the Marx Brothers in their first film, The Cocoanuts). The mono English audio (with a few tiny bits of what I presume is Korean spoken by Magalona) comes through clearly here, and the Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R also contains an original theatrical trailer (presented in 4:3 widescreen) with an introduction by former gossip columnist Erskine Johnson, who constantly sings songs of praise for the picture on account of its being daringly different.
(Johnson, incidentally, published one of Groucho Marx’s most famous quotes: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” Apparently, the whole world once revolved around Groucho Marx, and I only wish that were still so.)