BR: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

November 25, 2014 | By


HeavenKnowsMrAllison_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 10, 2014

Genre:  War / Drama

Synopsis: A Marine and a soon-to-be nun fend off Japanese soldiers and their simmering emotions on a remote island in the Pacific during WWII.

Special Features:  Isolated Music and Effects Track / Movietone Newsreels: “Tarawa: The Marine’s Toughest Battle” + “King-Nimitz” + “Photoplay Movie Awards” / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





Between The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) and The Roots of Heaven (1958), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) forms the middle of John Huston’s three-picture deal with Fox, and another film shot in exotic, challenging locations. One could presume that Huston’s fancy for far-off locations was purely for production value – scenes in Japan, Trinidad & Tobago, and Africa, respectively, are more impressive than a Hollywood backlot – but filming on location must have made it easier for the maverick director to work with minimal studio interference.

Not unlike The African Queen (1951), Allison is a two-character piece about a pair of strong-willed people who eventually develop an attraction in a kind of isolation. Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) missed the evacuation boat with her pastor, only to lose him to illness and be totally alone on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. She remains devoted to her faith, and is a mere month away from taking her final vows before becoming a full-fledged nun, but her convictions and desires are challenged when a marine named Allison (Robert Mitchum) drifts into the bay, himself abandoned by his sub during an attack by the Japanese.

Huston chose to engage a member of the Production Code to monitor filming – a measure made to calm fears by the Catholic Legion of Decency, a powerful anti-smut group who could reduce box office profits if the film was perceived indecent and branded with an actual rating of Condemned.

Huston and John Lee Mahin (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bad Seed) also toned-down any prurient material in their adaptation of Charles Shaw’s novel to their respective faiths: Sister Angela’s Catholicism, and Allison’s Marine Corps. Unlike the lovers in The African Queen, Angela isn’t a stringent teetotaler, and Allison is an everyman, a military Joe who may not be the intellectual equal to Angela, but is governed by genuine decency. Kerr is wonderful as the smart, witty, unwavering nun, and she frequently has deeply personal discussions with Allison which he initiates;  he’s a little clumsy, but honest in expressing his affection for the Sister Angela, and while Allison isn’t a showy role, it’s one of Mitchum’s best performances. He humanizes Allison into an ordinary guy, and Kerr’s reactions to his need to share feelings is quite touching.

Georges Auric (The Wages of Fear, Moulin Rouge, Bonjour tristesse) based his score around the popular tune “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me)”, starting the film with a severely reduced version over the main credits, and waits quite a while before playing the melody, allowing it to glide between versions sung by the characters in moments of giddy joy, and later as an almost cruel joke when a drunken Allison struggles with his feelings and starts to frighten Sister Angela.

That lengthy sequence contains some of Huston’s most beautifully directed material because of the way tension seeps into the scene in discrete stages rather than Allison simply getting drunk and boorish. The most painful moment isn’t when Allison speaks his mind and frightens Angela, but her efforts to diffuse his seething ire by bringing out a board game: it’s a scene where the tension stems from looks and idle chatter than physical actions.

Also of note is Huston depicting the Japanese soldiers not as sadistic caricatures, but ordinary men who may be the enemy, but in private moments are very collegial, playing board games, toasting, and enjoying a little music as they too are far from home.


The Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray ports over the same extras from the 2003 DVD (minus WWII movie trailers) plus an isolated music & effects track of Auric’s fairly sparse score. Allison was reportedly released in 4-track Perspecta Surround Sound, but all that apparently survives is a mono mix. (The DVD included a pseudo-stereo mix that was an acceptable.)

Allison is clearly a title that Fox either hasn’t had time to properly restore for a new HD transfer, or the surviving elements are limited. The first reel has slight red hazing from weak registration of the colour elements, and it’s tough to tell if faint black speckles in some day shots are print or negative damage, or a mass of bugs flying close to the lens. The flaws aren’t grievous, but this is a title Fox needs to fully restore; it’s not one of Huston’s better known works, but certainly ranks as one of his best character pieces from the fifties.

To place the film in its historical context, there’s several vintage Movietone newsreels: “Tarawa: The Marine’s Toughest Battle” is a beat up but informative piece on the U.S. Navy’s decisive battle against the Japanese at one of the Gilbert Islands, with plenty of stock sound effects; “King-Nimitz” is an ultra-short snapshot of the seizure of the island of Saipan; and “Japs Raid Saipan” is another brief short, showing a scorched airstrip after a Japanese attack.

The last Movietone short covers the “Photoplay Movie Awards,” with producer Jerry Wald (Peyton Place), director Leo McCarey and actress Deborah Kerr (An Affair to Remember), and star Rock Hudson all assisted by “hep motion picture columnist” Hedda Hopper holding their small trophies. Also to the side is tanned future producer Robert Evans, winner for his role in The Sun Also Rises.

(Fans of Huston’s work might want to seek out Lawrence Grobel’s lively 1989 family biography, The Hustons, which contains a good spread on the film’s physically demanding production and a few blue anecdotes that a polite Huston omitted from his brisk autobiography.)

Julie Kirgo’s essay is very appreciative of this small, beautifully crafted drama, and the reproduced publicity art is amusing for selling the film like a western; Mitchum never carries nor acquires a rifle in the film. The original trailer is even more ridiculous because Fox’ promotional department clearly had no idea how to sell Allison, so the big text captions and clips present Allison as some wry, amusing drama with romantic spurts; any action clips seem rather oblique.

Interestingly, this was part of a trio of overheated tropical island productions produced by Fox in 1957, which included another conflicted nun romance, Sea Wife, and the steamy Island in the Sun.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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