In Germany, in the year 1936, seven prisoners escape from a concentration camp. One by one they are caught and their bodies are placed on crucifixes at the camp as a warning to others who may attempt escape. Only one man from these seven, George Heisler (Spencer Tracy), remains uncaptured and it is his escape from the Nazi’s Gestapo that becomes the dramatic premise of MGM’s The Seventh Cross (1944).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios made a number of excellent espionage films right in the midst of the war. The Seventh Cross was a novel written by Anna Seghers that the studio had purchased to adapt as a film. The novel had all the makings of a blockbuster hit and indeed, the film itself raked in a tidy profit, but in comparison to other espionage pictures of the era, The Seventh Cross, lacks a few qualities that could have elevated the film to becoming a real classic.
While Spencer Tracy gave a wonderful performance as our lead character George Heisler, Robert Taylor would have been more suited to the role. Tracy just wasn’t convincing enough to be a bitter hard-hearted escapee from a concentration camp. His character has little dialogue throughout much of the film and Tracy’s eyes were not expressive enough to convey what he was feeling in these scenes…..hence, the audience is given off-screen narration by Ray Collins to help us better understand his plight.
At one point in the story, George hides at an inn where a pretty maid (Signe Hasso) aids him in hiding from the Gestapo. Within a few hours we are to believe that she falls in love with him, but this, too, would have seemed more plausible with Robert Taylor in the lead instead of Tracy.
George Heisler’s past could have been established better, too. Helen Deutsch’s script smoothly avoided the topic of why George was put in a concentration camp in the first place (the novel explained that he was a Communist). For a brief moment, we are shown a flashback of George’s sweetheart Leni (Kaaren Verne) vowing that she will love him always. He flees to Leni’s apartment as soon as he escapes the camp only to discover that she refuses to aid him – and is now married to a German officer! This, of course, is a major shock to George but it fails to elicit much emotion from the viewer because Leni’s character was given less than 3-minutes of screentime in the flashback scene, which is hardly enough time to flesh out a character.
Nevertheless, The Seventh Cross has many redeeming highlights, most notably a fantastic performance from Hume Cronyn which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. Hume portrays Paul, an old friend of George’s who is willing to shelter him from the Nazi’s and help him find underground connections who can arrange his escape out of Germany. Cronyn’s wife Jessica Tandy is also given a wonderful part as his character’s wife Liesel. It is worth watching the film for the performance this dynamic duo alone gives.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”