TCMFF: William Dieterle’s ‘6 Hours To Live’ – Murder… Maybe?

“I suppose it is murder… or it was.”

For my first trick, I will try to make sense of William Dieterle’s 6 Hours To Live. In 72 minutes, this 1932 Fox pre-code film manages to touch just about every genre known to Hollywood at the time, except Westerns. Although considering how it goes, you could be forgiven for thinking that Warner Baxter might hop on a horse at any time.

The basic story of 6 Hours feels inspired by the dysfunction of international politics in the wake of the First World War. The League of Nations was a disaster, thanks in part to the U.S. Congress denying the U.S.’ involvement, but also because WWI’s losers were marginalized. 6 Hours is based on a story appropriately titled Auf Wiedersehen by Gordon Morris and Morton Barteaux. It was adapted by Bradley King.

In the film, a League-esque group is meeting to sign an economic treaty that, for reasons never really explained, would help every country except a fictional one. Baxter plays that country’s ambassador, Captain Onslow, and insists on voting against the measure even though it puts his life in danger.

One night, one of the assassination attempts is successful. This is where the Monty Python troupe comes in to announce, “And now for something completely different!” Onslow just happens to be friends with a mad scientist (played to hilarious perfection by Anna Christie‘s George Marion) who is working on a life ray. Unfortunately, it can only bring the dead back for six hours (hence the title). Still, Onzlo’s friends decide it’s enough time for him to help them learn who killed him and save the world by putting in one final no vote for the treaty.

Illeana Douglas and MoMA Film Curator Anne Morra
Illeana Douglas interviews MoMA Film Curator Anne Morra before the screening of ‘6 Hours To Live’ [photo by Daniel S Levine]
There is also a romantic subplot weaved into the film, but who cares about that when there’s a LIFE RAY! Onslow is set to marry a baroness (Miriam Jordan), who can’t come to terms with the fact that she is really in love with Onslow’s friend Karl (John Boles). Onslow’s last act as a zombie is to assure the baroness that she can lead a great life with the man she really loves.

6 Hours really starts off slow. It’s still a bit creaky like other early talkies, with little to no music and characters never talk over each other as they wait for another line of dialogue to be finished.

However, once 6 Hours goes into strange Frankenstein territory, it’s impossible to look away and Diertrle starts directing the hell out of this thing. Cinematographer John F. Seitz (who would go on to lens Double Indemnity) adds a haze throughout this portion, making it as visually attractive as German silent movies. It gets wittier and more enjoyable, even as Baxter is given philosophical speeches. The film even completes its Frankenstein knock-off attempt by having Baxter deliver a speech about how man shouldn’t have the power of life and death.

Baxter is the only major star in the film and he gives one of his more nuanced performances. Still, don’t expect anything as fiery as what he does in 42nd Street here. He’s in a daze when he’s a zombie, giving a performance that will surprise many who think zombies should be thoughtless creatures. When Onslow is alive, Baxter does what he can with a one-dimensional character. Onslow only has one goal and one mission in life – get that treaty killed. There really is no time to make him a more interesting character.

Ultimately, 6 Hours is a mix of weirdness that results in a curious film that’s more interesting than good. The comedy with the scientist and his mute assistant is so jarring compared to everything else that they do look like they got lost while trying to find the Universal lot. If anything, 6 Hours to Live proves that consistency in tone can always make a film better.

TCM’s screening of 6 Hours was a world premiere of a 35mm print restored by the Museum of Modern Art.

Follow Movie Mania Madness on Twitter @dsl89.

top image: TCM

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