Release Date(s)1968 (November 2, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Counterpoint is an odd World War II film that combines classical music, an arrogant conductor, Nazis, the Battle of the Bulge, and an intricate escape plan. It’s an often compelling picture in which a battle of wills is the primary conflict.
It’s the winter of 1944. The Allies are advancing and the end of the war is in sight. A large symphony orchestra on a USO tour of Europe, led by their temperamental maestro Lionel Evans (Charlton Heston), is interrupted mid-concert by a massive counter-offensive. The orchestra members board a bus to be taken to safety. But they’re tricked into capture, driven to a medieval Belgian castle, and imprisoned. The commander, General Schiller (Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg), is under orders to execute them but, aware of the famous conductor and his work, he asks them to perform. Realizing that as soon as they’ve played for Schiller, they’ll be killed, Evans tries to buy time, rehearsing in an on-premises church. Through a combination of duplicity, bravado, and sheer arrogance, Evans butts heads with Schiller to save his musicians from execution while two American soldiers hidden among the musicians attempt to escape and summon help.
Evans is an egocentric tyrant when we first meet him. He’s all about the music and regards the war as an intrusion into his work. Rather than behave as if cowed by the Germans, he makes demands, insists that he and his musicians be released, and seems unable to realize the danger they face. Later, we see his strategy—delay as much as possible while exploring possibilities for escape. Heston’s Evans, with his imperious manner and opera cape draped over his shoulders, is both pompous and intimidating.
Schell plays Schiller not exactly as the “good Nazi,” but one with a degree of humanity that’s constantly tested by cold-blooded Colonel Arndt (Anton Diffring), who wishes to dispatch the entire orchestra immediately. Schiller is a stereotypical character—on the surface a dreaded enemy, but within, compassionate if self-serving. In secondary roles, Leslie Nielsen (Forbidden Planet) plays concertmaster Victor Rice and Kathryn Hays (Ladybug, Ladybug) portrays Rice’s wife Annabelle. A tired sub-plot about Evans’ attraction to Annabelle goes nowhere.
Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field) works with an interesting premise but resorts to unlikely and uncharacteristic histrionics when Evans grabs a machine gun in a climactic scene and turns into an action hero. This ludicrous turn of events is the kind of silliness that has sabotaged many a film. The action finale looks as if it was borrowed from Colditz or The Great Escape. The script by James Lee and Joel Oliansky is filled with testy encounters between Schiller and Arndt, and cat-and-mouse verbal gamesmanship between Schiller and Evans. Director Nelson allows the pace to drag with philosophical discussions between Evans and Schiller. The inconsistency in style between the first two thirds and the final third of the picture is jarring and undermines its effectiveness. Though far from a great film, Counterpoint does benefit from beautiful classical music.
Counterpoint was shot by director of photography Russell Metty on 35 mm film using the Techniscope process and spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and framed at the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Scorpion Releasing and Kino Lorber bring the film to Blu-ray for the first time with picture quality that’s exceptionally clear. Details on German uniforms, orchestral instruments, and patterns in wood beams and stone walls are nicely delineated. Universal films of this period typically have a rather flat look, but in Counterpoint, the lighting is more like what we expect of a feature film. The color palette tends toward dark tones of grey and blacks with only a few bright colors, such as the lining of Evans’ opera cape, standing out. The basement scenes have a noir-ish quality with deep shadows dominating and only dim light. Director Nelson uses subjective shots when Schiller looks out of his window periodically and the camera switches to what he’s seeing.
The soundtrack is English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio Mono. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. German is spoken (without subtitles) occasionally when officers talk to each other, but they eventually lapse into English. Heston’s performance is broad and theatrical in early scenes, likely to emphasize Evans’ huge ego. The music, recorded by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, includes selections by Schubert, Tschaikovsky, Brahms, Wagner, and Beethoven. The sound is deep and rich. Occasional explosions are heard in the distance to suggest Germany’s counter-offensive. Machine gun fire shatters the silence in a couple of critical scenes.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin
- Theatrical Trailer (2:34)
- Number One Trailer (2:47)
- Slow Dancing in the Big City Trailer (3:06)
- The Time Travelers Trailer (2:25)
- Trackdown Trailer (2:53)
- Who’ll Stop the Rain Trailer (2:09)
Audio Commentary – Filmmaker/Historian Steve Mitchell and Combat Films: American Realism author Steven Jay Rubin share this commentary. They note that the film defies traditional war movie tropes with its emphasis on music as a driving plot point. Actual snow is supplemented with manufactured snow so that scenes retain continuity. A sign of “movie snow” is evident when one of the soldiers walks on a snow-covered roof and fails to leave footprints. To enhance production value, special effects artist Albert Whitlock created mattes to give the film less of a back-lot look. Charlton Heston’s career in the 1950s and 1960s is chronicled and the qualities that made him an enduring star are noted. Heston’s coaching as a conductor is detailed. Maximilian Schell, the most successful German-speaking actor in English-language films, made a specialty of playing Nazi officers. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for Judgment at Nuremberg. Career overviews are provided for Leslie Nielsen, Kathryn Hays, Peter Masterson, and Anton Diffring. Mitchell and Rubin discuss the actual Battle of the Bulge, which provides the film’s background. Rather than a stream-of-consciousness, rambling commentary, this is a well-researched, informative accompaniment to the feature.
Unlike other Kino Lorber releases, the trailers are not listed separately. They appear one after the other, meaning that access to specific titles is not a matter of a simple click.
Counterpoint did not do well at the box office or with critics when originally released and is almost forgotten today. It cleverly juxtaposes developments in the plot with the classical music selections, making them integral to the drama. Performances are good, though Heston chews up the scenery in early scenes in order to portray Evans’ sense of self-importance. Because it’s unlike other war pictures, it holds a certain fascination but not enough to make it a “must-see.”
- Dennis Seuling