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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Sun Never Sets (1939)



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One of the most beautiful of the "simple things" in life, I think, is being in a warm, dry place when hard rain can readily be heard, pounding against the walls and roof of the haven. Rarely does this effect survive transition to the screen, but there's a long sequence in the middle of The Sun Never Sets where it does.

A grandfather begins a story -- it's one that everyone has heard, several times, and when he asks if he has told it before, the next generation down nods, and the grandfather never finishes. While true to life, in many circumstances, it's almost a cliche. But a scene later on has brief exchange between two members of the youngest generation, where it is learned that neither one of them knew the ending to that story, because the grandfather was never allowed to finish it.

Neither one of the above moments are especially distinguished (although the latter has bearing on the plot later on), but they are examples of the kind of care put into the film to make it rich and alive. The first is but one example of the subtle care taken to create the appropriate atmosphere. The second is but one example of the delightful exchanges between the film's characters. The two heroes, Basil Rathbone and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., are two brothers of a very large and rightfully proud family. One has a wife, one soon will. One is in the service, as have all the men in the family before him, and one soon will, albeit under great protest. The strength of this film is that it successfully pulls off a moving, human drama, as well as a wartime espionage adventure. The main characters, especially in the early scenes with the rest of the family, come off so real and human that the film warms itself to the audience right then. We care about these characters, about their victories and defeats, and that, of course, is the key to nearly any good narrative film. It is therefore but a minor fault we quickly excuse when the film's espionage plot resolution relies too much on luck and contrivance. Who cares? By that point we're too preoccupied seeing the human side of the drama conclude as it should.