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Put two acting legends like Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner in any movie, and you'll probably wind up with an entertaining spin, even if the material is second-rate. Fortunately, 1965's Morituri, an overlooked espionage thriller, is far better than that, offering both stars with their distinctive acting styles and a script that keeps up the twists and turns until the very end. Brando stars as Robert Crain, a man posing as a Swiss exile living in India during World War II. However, he's soon identified by British intelligence as a Gestapo deserter who was a demolitions expert before the war, and an officer (Trevor Howard) visits his spacious, tasteful home with an offer he can't refuse — take passage on a German blockade runner or become a pawn in a hostage trade between Britain and Germany. Crain realizes he has no choice, and in short order he's rechristened "Hans Kyle," complete with Nazi Party card and SS insignia. A small bit of subterfuge gets him on board the Ingo, a German freighter carrying 7,000 tons of rubber from Tokyo to Marseilles. The mission? Dismantle the vessel's 12 scuttling charges before the ship is intercepted by an Allied convoy in the Pacific, where the American military will take possession of the precious wartime cargo. But if that's a tough enough job, dealing with the captain will be even tougher — German Merchant Navy Capt. Rolf Mueller (Brynner) secretly opposes the Nazi regime and loathes the SS. And since his last command was sunk by a torpedo, he's been given short shrift by the German authorities. Mueller does everything he can to limit Kyle's movements on board, while Kyle takes the ship's executive officer, Kruse (Martin Benrath), into his "confidence" as a fellow Party member. Complicating matters even further are a group of German political prisoners who may be of some use to Kyle at the right time, and later a group of American prisoners who are transferred to the ship for passage to European prison camps.

The '60s found Marlon Brando mired in a variety of film projects, some better than others, but none matching his star-making work in the '50s or his '70s resurgence with The Godfather. But despite the fact that it's been seen far less than, say, 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty, Morituri offers one of the actor's best roles, and in a straightforward suspense-thriller, no less. Now 40, Brando still looks every bit as good as he did 15 years earlier when A Streetcar Named Desire seared the screen, but without the Kowalski histrionics. At one point he offers to play chess with Capt. Mueller, summing up the film's tone right away — each move alters the strategic landscape, requiring even subtler choices that carry increasing risks, and with various layers of meaning. Like Brando, Brynner is equally appealing on the screen, quick to temper when he doesn't get his way but retaining a noble humanity that the captain shares with Kyle — a humanity the pacifist spy is forced to conceal. Thankfully, Morituri never gets bogged down in its own premise, with new allies and opponents revealed moment by moment (Brando's ice-cool bluffing against two German submarine officers is priceless). In fact, when the final confrontation erupts and everyone's secrets are out in the open, the swift, violent action isn't as much a release as a bit of disappointment — with suspense so subtle and delicious up that point, one almost wants to send back the dessert.

Fox's DVD release of Morituri features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from an acceptable source-print that has virtually no collateral wear and good detail, although at times it seems a touch too dark, while the DD 2.0 audio is as good as can be expected from a catalog film of this period. Two Morituri trailers and trailers for other Fox War Classics. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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