As they still are today, many independent movies of the past were far more interesting than their mainstream counterparts. Something akin to art could be made without the Cerberus-like studio president, publicist and bookkeeper fiercely barking at the director to hurry it up, make it commercial and account for every last penny. Something like Voice in the Wind, an ethereal drama bordering on noir. As the poster warns, it's "A STRANGE NEW KIND OF PICTURE!" And that's a compliment.
Guadalupe, 1940. A mysterious, amnesiac mute known only as El Hombre haunts the waterfront dives, his only means of communication being his beautiful musicianship on the piano. Brothers Angelo and Luigi are certain El Hombre has sunk their boat in which they falsely promised to transport refugees to the USA, only to rob and kill them at sea. (Nowadays, Royal Caribbean merely makes you throw up violently, then gives you a 50% refund. I'm not sure which is better.) While Angelo nonetheless still has a soft spot for El Hombre, Luigi promises to have his revenge.
We learn through flashbacks that El Hombre is really Jan Volny, a legendary classical pianist from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Volny puts himself in jeopardy when ending a recital with "The Moldau" by Bedrich Smetana, a Czech composer banned by the Nazis. Knowing he will pay for his "crime," Volny sends his wife, Marya, to Paris, knowing he will never see her again. While being shipped to a concentration camp, Volny manages to escape and find his way to Guadalupe.
Unbeknownst to Volny, Marya, too, has escaped to Guadalupe with her parents. (Considering I couldn't find Guadalupe on a map, I find their travel smarts very impressive.) Now dying of pneumonia, Marya has heard her husband playing piano in a nearby bar, finding the strength to leave her bed just before she collapses in the street. Volny regains his memory upon recognizing her crucifix around as being similar to the one he's kept locked in a trunk. He's ready to return to her, only to be gunned down by a vengeful Luigi. Angelo, appalled, engages Luigi in a fight that leaves them both dead. Leaving a trail of blood behind him, Volny drags himself to Marya's deathbed where -- and stop me if you've heard this -- he, too dies. The end, brother, and then some.
Obviously, studio fare this was not, especially in wartime when escapism was all the rage. Writer/director Arthur Ripley's bleak outlook was encouraged during his collaborations with film comedian Harry Langdon in the '20s. Ripley immerses Voice in the Wind with darkness, metaphorically and otherwise. Other than the flashbacks, the entire movie takes place during one, fog-shrouded evening where even the interiors feel damp. A ghostly foghorn groans every few seconds for an hour of the film's 85-minute running time, while Volny's relentlessly mournful barroom performance of "The Moldau" provides not so much relief but a soundtrack for the gloomy proceedings unfolding. Yet this desolation pulls you in like a dream too fascinating to awaken from. It's no surprise that Harry Langdon's wife described Arthur Ripley as "morbid" while fellow-director Edgar Ulmer thought him mentally unsound. Frankly, I find these excellent recommendations for a filmmaker.
Being an independent production (released by United Artists when original distributor PRC considered the final cut a little too outré), Voice in the Wind in its current worn state is a little battered around the edges, the muffled soundtrack occasionally obscuring the heavy-on-the-pepperoni accents of Alexander Granache and J. Carrol Naish as Angelo and Luigi. But there's no mistaking Angelo's inner evil when he viciously slaps a hooker into unconsciousness while Angelo and younger brother Marco laugh appreciatively.
Further disturbing violence is provided by the cold yet effeminate Nazi Capt. von Neubach, beating the senses out of Volny for playing "forbidden" music. The actor, possessing the unlikely name of Howard Johnson, seems to be setting the stage for Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.
But the movie is held together by Frances Lederer in what must have been an emotionally-draining role, Volny, the mentally-damaged mute who dies twice -- psychologically at the hands of a Nazi, then physically by a sociopath. (No coincidence both sets of killers are Axis representatives.) His is not an easy part, having to sustain a mood of melancholy without ever going overboard. Lederer acts throughout most of Voice in the Wind only with his eyes, a technique almost vanished following the coming of sound.
Called "dark and distressing" by Bosley Crowther in his original review for the New York Times, Voice in the Wind is utterly unlike other wartime dramas, demanding not only patience but a sensitivity rarely found in audiences then or now. It's a subtle, somber film whose moments of hope are as fleeting as, well, a voice in the wind. No doubt many found, and will continue to find, the film a curious evening's entertainment. Others might miss the point entirely, like the aforementioned Mr. Crowther, who sniffed that the producers could have "spent more money on lighting their sets. It might help matters slightly if you didn't have to strain your eyes to see what goes on."
Some works of art demand more than just eyes to see "what goes on." If a movie could also be considered a tone poem, Voice in the Wind is it.