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December 2010

The Master Race

cast: George Coulouris, Stanley Ridges, Osa Massen, Carl Esmond, and Lloyd Bridges

director: Herbert J. Biberman

96 minutes (PG) 1944
Odeon DVD Region 0

RATING: 6/10
review by Gary Couzens

The Master Race

The Allies have invaded Europe and the Germans stare defeat in the face. Sensing that theirs is a lost case, many top-ranking Nazi officers go into hiding. One of them is Colonel Von Beck (George Coulouris), who takes on a false identity and conceals himself in the Belgian village of Kolar, just at the time when Allied troops liberate the town.

The Master Race was ultra-topical on its release, which took place in the USA on 22nd September 1944. It begins with footage of the D-day landings, which of course took place only three months before. While I won't go so far as to call it a work of science fiction - though its final scenes take place in its original audience's near future - but it could so easily have become a work of alternate history. There's a telling slip when the end of World War I is described as being 25 years earlier instead of 26, giving away the fact that the script (by Anne Froelick and Rowland Leigh, from a story by the director Herbert J. Biberman) was being written, presumably in hope that events would not make it obsolete, in 1943.

That's the most interesting aspect of The Master Race, which is a well-acted but ponderous and preachy piece of work. It's nice to see Coulouris, two years on from Citizen Kane, in a leading role, but it's something of a slog. RKO's production values certainly help matters along, particularly Russell Metty's high-contrast b&w camerawork, and Roy Webb's score. You have to allow for the fact that all the dialogue is in English (when characters would have been speaking French and German as well as English), as that was the convention in Hollywood at the time. However, you have to wonder how quickly Von Beck's accent might have given him away.

Herbert J. Biberman is known nowadays for being one of the Hollywood ten who were sent to jail for six months for refusing to answer questions about his communist party affiliations, and being blacklisted from work in Hollywood thereafter. His best known film is the independently made leftist cult film Salt Of The Earth from 1954. His only other film since then was Slaves, from 1969. He died in 1971.

Odeon's region-free DVD is one of several licenced from the RKO catalogue. The US rights-holder is Warner Bros, who have released The Master Race as part of their Warner archive line, available as a download or a burn-on-demand DVD-R. So the good news is that this film is available on an actual pressed DVD and at a cheaper price.

The not so good news is that it's a NTSC-to-PAL standards conversion, and progressive-scan viewing devices will be especially unforgiving as the transfer displays plenty of ghosting artefacts common to such conversion jobs. (I wish more UK distributors would release NTSC-sourced material in NTSC instead of PAL.) As you might expect from a 1944 film, the DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.33:1 and has a Dolby digital 2.0 mono soundtrack. There are no disc extras, and no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.



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