If you think of Sean Connery only as suave James Bond and Ossie Davis only as Da Mayor from Do The Right Thing, then watch The Hill immediately. In fact, watch The Hill regardless of your thoughts on Connery and Davis because Sidney Lumet’s 1965 is his best film within a fantastic filmography, and an all-time great.
You can run down the line of reasons why The Hill sings. The performances are flawless. It’s not only Connery as Roberts, the lead voice of resistance in a WWII military prison, or Davis as Jacko King, a point of humor despite being the subject of racism. Ian Hendry (who did Repulsion the same year) is chilling as Williams, the sadistic prison guard who reminds me a lot of Hume Cronyn as Munsey in 1947’s Brute Force; Harry Andrews is pure square-jawed-fury as Wilson, the head of the camp (he gets some chilling close-ups); Michael Redgrave has a nice turn that wavers on cowardice and courage as the Medical Officer who must stand up to Williams and Wilson.
The script is also great. A good third of it takes place in near-real-time and is pure exhaustion: men running. It’s amazing how compelling those sequences are.
But for this blog, the movie is transcendent because of the sound design and the camera. This is a cacophonous film. The first 30 minutes are noisy as we move all around the fairly vast camp hearing soldiers in drills, running in and out of frame. It’s amazing sound design and it really adds to the chaos and commotion that Roberts, King, and the rest of their small crew face upon first landing in their North African prison.
Check out this clip. The sound design is present throughout, and it’s ramped up by the constant movement of minor characters. The other prisoners crossing frame starting at 0:19 is an intentional aural and physical distraction. That, alongside the beautiful craning down wide-shot (0:08) really makes the main group of men feel small:
The clip above ends with some deep focus that Lumet uses a lot. He constantly places people too close to a too-wide lens. That distortion in the first image below really adds to the discomfort of much of this film:
Here’s a smaller audio moment from The Hill. That eponymous monster factors hugely into the film, particularly the first act. The first time Roberts and company come face to face with it features a nice bit of design. Hear those mosquitos and cicadas come in at 0:04? It’s the sound perspective of heat. It’s pretty figurative (does the sound at the top really change that much from that of the bottom of the hill) and it’s super-effective:
That sound design moment is followed by this really fluid long take, as the camera pans and tracks with the prisoners marching around the hill. There’s also an incredible line at 1:26: “The only thing known to grow on that hill is soldiers. They grow weary!” Great writing and Hendry’s voice cracking is horrifyingly good.
The end of that clip is also fantastic. The camera moves fluidly after them as we get dirt kicked in our face. It really emphasizes the height of the thing.
Lumet’s camera is never better than in The Hill. The film mixes gorgeously fluid shots with stark close-ups, like in this clip, which starts with two elegant camera moves and then harshly moves to extreme close-ups.
Also, listen at 0:09. Great example of sound-suspense. What is that sound? It’s revealed seconds later:
0:28 is another grandiose camera move. Like the sound and those wide angle lenses, Lumet’s strategy of alternating between long takes and short, static CUs is uncomfortable. it’s awesome. It also goes hand-in-hand with the dichotomy of rigid discipline being a thing of beauty and thing of torture, which is very much a theme here.
Like so many Lumet films the acting is central. That’s a main reason why Lumet favors long takes. There’s a long take at the end of this clip, but I also put it in here for that quick CU to Wilson right at the beginning. It’s perfect. It’s so fast. We only hear half of the line during the CU. The overhead angle is jarring. The way Wilson peers out from the doorway makes him seem like some creeping voyeur. Everything about it is almost eerie and shocking:
And then, as in other takes and in the whole film, those quick initial cuts are followed by a gliding long take as Williams circles the men. The sun flares the lens as they (and we) sweat, and he very nearly tiptoes up behind them like he’s ready to pounce.