Some people are born to get ahead of everyone else. They can’t help it; it’s not their fault they seize opportunity faster than everyone else.
This is the kind of person Hume Cronyn portrays in The Cross of Lorraine (1944), a WWII war drama about French prisoners in a German military prison camp. The film stars Jean-Pierre Aumont and Gene Kelly as two Frenchmen taken prisoner shortly after German occupation. The pair become friends despite their philosophical bents: Aumont is tempted by opportunities given to those who cooperate with Germans; Kelly, on the other hand, hates the Nazis and undermines them in every way possible.
Cronyn, however, isn’t one to agonize over ethics when it comes to Nazis. Early in the film, we learn Cronyn is a successful wine salesman who has several German customers. But, as he sees it, money is money. Why should he discriminate? If anything, he’s the victim! Is it his fault he has a good product that people want to buy?
When the prisoners disembark at the camp, officials ask for a translator. Our man Cronyn steps forward and and offers his help with registering prisoners. (Is it his fault he’s fluent in German?) He’s not translator for more than two minutes before he starts acting in a brash and superior manner. He asks for peoples’ names even though he knows who they are.
Cronyn is perfect in the role of the weaselly stool pigeon. He’s cocky and smug as he struts around the barracks. “This isn’t so bad,” he says cheerfully, with clean face and uniform. “Things could be a whole lot worse.” His fellow Frenchmen, haggard and dishevelled, respond with icy silence.
We dislike Cronyn’s character, but we admire the actor’s ability to play such a distasteful person. In one scene, he tells a starving prisoner, “You really want to know what I eat? Soup. Real vegetable soup. Sometimes with a piece of meat in it!” But this braggadocio is no minor quirk. We soon learn how dangerous he can be.
In one of the film’s darker scenes, a man is shot while escaping and is left hanging on the prison fence like windblown laundry. The priest (Cedric Hardwicke) and the other prisoners decide to hold a makeshift funeral service for the man, even though religious services are forbidden. Cronyn makes a special effort to remind Hardwicke of this regulation. He’d hate to see harm come to the priest. After all, Cronyn is a decent fellow at heart.
The men gather for the funeral, pretending to boil weeds so they won’t catch the guards’ or Cronyn’s eye. But Cronyn decides to stroll through his fellow prisoners, trying to sniff out their plan, even though they refuse to talk to him. (Is it his fault camp officials want to know everything that goes on? He doesn’t make the rules, for pete sake!) When he hurries to fetch the guards, Harwicke begins the funeral service and does not not stop – not even when the guards arrive and execute him.
The Cross of Lorraine is a gritty war film with performances that wrenches your heart. Hume Cronyn, above all, is perfect as a man who’s a victim of his own cleverness.
The Cross of Lorraine: starring Jean-Pierre Aumont, Gene Kelly, Cedric Harwicke. Directed by Tay Garnett. Written by Michael Kanin, Ring Lardner Jr., Alexander Esway, Robert D. Andrews. Metro-Goldwyin-Mayer Corp., 1944, B&W,90 mins.