To Climb an Evil Mountain
Director: G. Sakke
played by Martin Landau
played by Barbara Bain
played by James Mason
played by Montgomery Clift
Sakke begins the film with an overhead shot of one of the Levittowns that honeycombed the nation, zooming slowly in on the run-down prefabricated house owned by a starry-eyed Dennis (Landau), and his long-suffering but charming wife, Carol (Bain). The scene is suffused with light, making the Wains’ cluttered house and even their mangy dog into something warm and familiar, reminiscent of the most treacly sitcoms of the era; indeed, Sakke seems to urge the viewer to embrace the Wains as a lovably ambitious couple before we even get to know them.
The film follows Dennis through the next few weeks of his new job as a salesman. A series of fortunate coincidences in Dennis’s equally warmly-lit office follows; after each one, the camera pulls away at the end to reveal Dennis’s boss, Mr. Rex (Mason), lurking nearby. The immediate suggestion is that Mr. Rex is merely observing Dennis’s apparent skill at selling and at office politics, and indeed, only a few minutes of screentime pass before Dennis is promoted to the executive board.
This prompts another scene with Carol at the Wain house, in which she does not display harried affection towards Dennis as in the first scene, but begins to loudly plan the things she will buy and the additions she will make to the house with the promotion money. As she plans, the house becomes a little more starkly lit, the focus more claustrophobic, and Dennis becomes more visibly dismayed. By the end of the scene, in which Carol plans to have a baby and insists upon putting down their dog, Sakke has transformed the film from a domestic comedy into a drama.
The dream sequence directly afterwards, in which Dennis slowly strangles his dog and destroys the house, is shot in a series of intense close-ups and lit in a flickering, smeary soft focus, as though Sakke is afraid to let the audience think that it might be the logical next step in the narrative.
Back at the office, Dennis is shown to be in over his head as he accidentally becomes embroiled in a complex business scheme, handling each inexplicable encounter very badly; this time, Mr. Rex’s presence at the edge of each scene is sinister rather than passively benevolent. When Dennis is fired for reasons that neither he nor the viewer is allowed to fully understand, the look of anguish on Landau’s face is exquisite, and the camera lingers on it as the light fades from the scene, accentuating each shadow and wrinkle on his face.
There is a smooth transition as the camera pulls back to reveal Dennis in a gloomy bar, knocking back drinks, tie undone. He is soon approached by Pyotr (Clift, with a charmingly atrocious accent), who offers to buy him drinks and lend a sympathetic ear. Their dialogue and body language is intriguingly ambiguous; Clift plays the role with a tense seductiveness, and Landau (who shot the scene completely sober, despite rumors spurred by the realism of his acting) plays a receptive, tactile drunk. When Pyotr escorts him home, the contrast between his physical protectiveness of Dennis and Carol’s brusque handling of her passed-out husband is so great as to be almost ironic.
This first half hour of the movie has only set the stage for the bulk of the action, as Sakke weaves the story of Dennis and Pyotr’s friendship into a Cold War thriller. Sakke draws out the audience’s realization that Pyotr is a Communist spy by alternating emotionally complex scenes of Dennis’s growing alienation from his wife and his obvious dissatisfaction with the myriad menial jobs he takes (and is subsequently fired from) with scenes that illustrate the growing friendship between Dennis and Pyotr, in each of which Sakke makes it more and more obvious to the viewer (but apparently not to Dennis) that Pyotr is constantly engaged in various subtle forms of espionage.
Sakke sets up the movie’s climax by having Dennis storm out of their house during a fight, after which Pyotr invites Dennis to “sleep on the sofa” (the line is delivered with unambiguous irony), ostensibly while he finds a better-paying job. In a brief and ironic return to the atmosphere of domestic bliss set up at the beginning of the movie, Pyotr’s apartment is warmly lit and inviting, suggesting a haven for the worn-down Dennis. But before the audience can see them engage in any telling scenes of domesticity, Dennis is captured and relentlessly interrogated by American agents who demand, in a stark and intense scene, details about Pyotr’s anti-American plans that neither the audience nor Dennis is privileged to know.
The movie briefly dips into formulaic action territory as Pyotr rescues Dennis from his captors. Sadly, the climax is the weakest part of the movie, as Sakke intersperses quick, almost identical shots of Dennis in a cramped cell with the progression of Pyotr’s movements. One wonders why Sakke would choose this moment to depart from the narrative limitations he has placed on the rest of the movie; perhaps it is because he could not resist showing off the bogglingly complicated rescue plan he had created for Pyotr, a sequence which would have worked better in Landau’s later vehicle, Mission: Impossible.
Their escape is unhampered by more guards or agents, which leaves Dennis and Pyotr ample time for a wrenching, emotional conversation, during which Pyotr tries to convince him to defect to Russia. Dennis faints before he can begin to agree or refuse, and Pyotr must carry him for the second time in the movie.
The movie then jumps to its second dream sequence, in which Carol, smiling and demure in the Wains’ newly luxurious house, hands a baby to a bruised and disheveled Dennis, who strangles it in an almost shot-for-shot replica of the first dream sequence. This scene, considered by many critics to be one of the most disturbing in mainstream cinema, was cut out of the movie for American audiences but fortunately reinstated in the DVD edition (along with “deleted scenes” showing Clift and Landau exploring their characters in the set for Pyotr’s apartment).
The last scene shows Pyotr and Dennis, well-groomed and in suits, in an airport preparing to leave for Russia. The very last shot before the credits roll begins with the pair with their backs to the camera, arms around each others’ shoulders, as the camera slowly pans out from the airport and into a wide, gleaming shot of New York and the Atlantic Ocean.