Every now and then Gene Kelly demonstrated that he didn't need the crutch of hoofing to get by in Hollywood. 1952's THE DEVIL MAKES THREE is a bleak post-war thriller that required Gene Kelly to desist from tap dancing and mugging for the camera. As evidenced in Cross of Lorraine (1943), Black Hand (1950), Inherit The Wind (1960), and even in his film debut For Me and My Gal (1942), Kelly's dramatic acting chops were solid.
Oh, hey, here's a mild SPOILER alert.
"Germany's full of kids; just one big cradle," philosophizes an American officer as he tries to convince our protagonist to play his young German friend for a chump. It's the winter of 1947, and Captain Jeff Eliot (Kelly), a navigation instructor, is in Munich on a fifteen day leave for the holidays. Owing a life debt, he intends to pay his respects to the German family who once gave him sanctuary when he was being hunted by the Nazis. Except that the home he visits is this blasted pile of rubble, the family become the casualties of an air raid. The sole survivor is 18-year-old Wilhelmina Lehrt (Pier Angeli) who was only fifteen when Eliot ran for his life three years before. Eliot used to call her "Willie." They're pals.
Willie has had to fend for herself ever since her parents died. Today she's a hostess at the shady Silhouette nightclub, and when I say "hostess" the wink is implied. Eliot and Willie renew acquaintances, but on a more level playing field. She's not fifteen anymore. Willie is practical, having learned to be so in these lean times. Everything she does revolves around earning a commission. When she agrees to let Eliot take her somewhere nice for Christmas eve, she's still working on a commission, but Eliot doesn't know that, not yet. When he learns that he's been duped, that she'd been smuggling contraband on his vehicle, he still has to be coaxed by a superior officer to play along with the kid and spy on her. Eliot protests: "She's a good kid!" This is where that third paragraph comes in: "Germany's full of kids; just one big cradle." Except that the U.S. military's investigative unit suspects there's more to it than just a petty smuggling operation. Rumor is that sentiment for the old Nazi regime yet thrives in Deutschland, that a secret organization is carrying out the Third Reich's last will and testament.
THE DEVIL MAKES THREE starts off in faux-documentary style, with that solemn voiceover insisting that the narrative is based on the U.S. Army's real-life search for gold snuck out of Germany by the Nazi Party. It's a curious film on several fronts. First of all, the black & white cinematography flourishes from location shooting in Germany and Salzburg, Austria (the overseas shooting was mostly for tax break purposes). But there's a pervading sense of desolation and of abject struggle evoked from glimpses of those bombed-out structures. There's an authentic feel to the story, a verisimilitude that's especially earned during the third act when the head neo-Nazi is cornered in The Berghof, Hitler's Alpine home. It's also pretty cool to listen to the nightclub music acts. I got a kick out of "The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" being sung entirely in German. There's also a German rendition of "Oh Christmas Tree."
3.5 out of 5 stars for THE DEVIL MAKES THREE. The script could be tighter, I guess. But Gene Kelly and Pier Angeli are exceedingly watchable. It's always interesting to see Kelly in his rare purely dramatic roles. Pier Angeli as the guarded bar girl generates brittleness and wounded vulnerability. There's something so fragile about her. And maybe you'll disagree, so I'll gloss over that bit of ickiness underscoring the romance between Angeli's character and Kelly's. There, I just earned my prude badge. My buddy from Europe is laughing at me and just handed me DVDs of HAROLD AND MAUDE and ICE CASTLES, the jerk.