Sunday, April 5, 2015

Birthday Take: Gregory Peck in "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949)

Gregory Peck
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Gregory Peck
Born: April 5, 1916
Died: June 12, 2003 (87 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Twelve O'Clock High (nominated) as Gen. Frank Savage

The Take

When people think of Gregory Peck, they think of the stern actor who fought his way through a trial exploring racism in the classic To Kill A Mockingbird or talking his way through antisemitism in Gentleman's Agreement. However, there was a film that came in between both that showed a different side to him and one that is arguably more charismatic. It may not be as important, but what he did in Twelve O'Clock High is an exceptional hat trick of a moment in which the familiar drab leader turns into a neurotic mess and elevates the film into something outstanding.

In this case, Peck played the lead of a squadron of air flyers during World War II. He started with an incompetent band of men and worked their best to train them. He didn't believe that they had to like him to be a great leader. The results, mixed with actual WWII footage of aerial attacks, created a unique and intimate drama of a leader forced to withdraw his emotions and turn his crew into the best possible attack team possible. As some could presume by the war in general, it wasn't entirely as straightforward or neat as the history books would have you believe.

For the most part, Peck's brilliance comes in the lack of showiness. He doesn't immediately grab your attention. If it wasn't for his charisma, there wouldn't be much to care about. It is the abuse that he takes in this time, forcing himself to question his own mortality  and whether what he did was right. The final 10 minutes, which are some of Peck's finest moments, don't work without the build-up and help to serve as yet another example of how people function under wartime. The films digression into the complexity is something that has become commonplace in war films, notably again with Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny or Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. However, few were able to make it look as cool as Peck.

He inevitably lost the Oscar to Broderick Crawford for All the King's Men, which also won Best Picture. Still, between being president of the Academy and his four Oscar nominations, he left behind an impressive legacy and became one of the finest actors of his generation. He may have not had the range of his peers, but as proven in Twelve O'Clock High, he could put on the charm when necessary and blow his competitors away. Along with the mechanical scenery and the dark rooms, the gloomy feel of the film only adds to the mechanical nature and with a very reserved performer, it results in something unique.

Peck may have been known for other films, but I feel like it's important to note his contribution to the war film genre. It wasn't the most violent film nor did it rely on any big twist. It was a simple story predicated on completing a mission. Much like the best performances, he managed to present the front image while hiding his own feelings. He came from a conservative time where crying was not allowed. He knew how to shove authority around without be entirely off putting. It is also one of the few films about aerial attacks during WWII, which gives it a little bit of an edge. 

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