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The Films of John Huston: ‘Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison’

September 28, 2010
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*Okay, I know these usually go up on Monday, but we had a lot of stuff go up yesterday, so I saved this for today.*

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is Huston’s foray into the wonderful of what we happily refer to as “Nuncore.” Well, maybe not too explicit, but there is some latent sexual tension pervading the film.

Rusty-voiced Hollywood badboy Robert Mitchum plays the titular Mr. Allison, a U.S. marine stranded on a small island in the South Pacific, which happens to be populated solely by the comely and angelic Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). Allison and Angela bond on a fishing excursion to catch a sea turtle and life goes about as usual on the island until some Japanese land and make an impromptu camp.

The two set up camp in a cave before Allison runs some recon but gets stuck in one of the shelters when two Japanese soldiers decide to take their break and play a game of Othello and a few rounds of sake.

Allison returns the next morning and Angela makes him promise never to worry her like that again. One day the Japanese mysteriously leave the island—and their provisions—behind. One thing leads to another and eventually Allison discovers that Angela has not yet taken her final nun vows. He tries to convince her to marry hi, but she resists, prompting Allison to break open the sake and in a drunken rant chase off Angela, who spends the night in the cold, catching a bout of pneumonia.

While Allison tends to Angela, the Japanese return and prepare for the oncoming American invasion.

I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to spoil everything. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) is somewhat of a throwback to the lighter ‘40s Huston—or at least a sway from the more epic sagas of ‘50s Huston. A year out from Moby DickAllison is such a marked change from its predecessor that on the surface a casual viewer would hardly believe it’s from the same director: barely any special effects, a meager cast of two and some change, and an utter lack of melodrama, the only thing the two have in common is the ocean setting.

It makes sense though, seeing as how Huston regarded Moby Dick as the most physically difficult picture he ever made. But in his autobiography, he notes that this and The Barbarian and the Geisha were the closest he ever came to disaster—due to the final invasion scene when all the powder charges went off at once, jarring the crew but miraculously not hurting anyone.

Other than that, however, Huston regards the picture fondly and quite possibly his personal favorite.

What’s Good About It: Mitchum and Kerr. Seriously, Mr. Rusty Voice and sweet, chaste Kerr are dynamite together. It seems odd that it too this long for Mitchum and Huston to work together, but it was worth the wait. Mitchum is in top form as the polite-but-scruffy marine desperately wanting to defrock Kerr.

But surprisingly the film does so much more than milk the sexual tension, which doesn’t come into play until well past the halfway mark (and which apparently formed the basis of the novel upon which Allison was based).

Kerr, naturally looks heavenly, and treads the line between her devotion to God and attraction to Allison beautifully—so good is her performance that the ending comes as a genuine surprise, but after you think about it, it seems the only way it could end.

What’s Not: Actually not much. There’s nothing especially deep or ambitious outside of the premise, but the movie’s devoted more to watching Allison and Angela live together on the island than glaring lustily at each other’s loins.

The tone is very relaxed, and, save for a few key scenes, doesn’t try to be high drama. And yet, also save for a few scenes, it’s not quite a comedy either. It’s just a quaint little flick. Likewise, Huston covered this territory before in The African Queen, and it may be due to the strength of that film that Allison is often overlooked.

Inevitable Hustonism: For a WWII movie only 12 years after the big event, Allison is surprisingly devoid of Japanese stereotypes. Even though Huston partook in bombing raids against the Japanese (Report from the Aleutians), the most racist their portrayal gets is listening to tinny music and some (albeit appropriate for the context) references to the “Japs.”

Tales from Production: The powder story is the biggie, but the best one involves the aftermath of a party Huston threw, where two of his crewmen convinced him that he got so drunk he wandered into the hotel restaurant bare-ass naked. (The spectacle did, in fact, occur, as Huston sheepishly confirmed with the hotel staff the following day, but the actual streaker was a dentist.)

Trivia: Hello? Huston’s favorite of his films?

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