Released in 1959 by United Artists, TEN SECONDS TO HELL is a rare example of England’s famed Hammer Films being involved in what was largely a Hollywood production (it was a co-production with Seven-Arts, a company which would partner with Hammer for a number of their horror and fantasy films of the 1960s and early 1970s). One of a handful of Hammer titles currently in MGM’s vast film catalog and never given a home video release in this country, TEN SECONDS TO HELL finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino.
At the end of World War II, six German ex-soldiers return to Berlin and are collectively given jobs as a bomb disposal group, with excellent pay and adequate accommodations in turn for the very dangerous tasks at hand. The group consists of Karl Wirtz (Jeff Chandler, AWAY ALL BOATS), Eric Koertner (Jack Palance, TORTURE GARDEN), Hans Globke (James Goodwin, ATTACK), Peter Tillig (Dave Willock, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE), Wolfgang Sulke (Wesley Addy THE BIG KNIFE) and Franz Loeffler (Robert Cornthwaite, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD). Defusing allied bombs scattered throughout the ruined, war-torn city is a deadly business, and naturally, some of the group fall victim to their heroic work. As the men continually contemplate giving up their trade, Karl and Eric — the acknowledged leaders who are always at odds with each other — have made a wager concerning who will be the last to survive, both hoping to collect the wages the group has pooled together. Karl and Eric also are in competition for the affection of their glamorous French landlady Margot Hofer (Martine Carol, VIOLENT SUMMER), but both have a very different method of wooing the young widower, whose German husband died in combat.
By the time TEN SECONDS TO HELL went into production, Hammer Films was well on their way to concreting their niche in budgetary, expensive-looking horror and sci-fi with THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. The company still dabbled in action and drama films, but by this time, they no longer had to exploit the names of Hollywood stars, as they were now establishing a few soon-to-be screen icons of their own. TEN SECONDS TO HELL was one of the last films Hammer was involved with which relied on American stars for marquee value, and in this case, a big-time Hollywood director whose career was skyrocketing. Aldrich had already directed Palance in two movies (THE BIG KNIFE and ATTACK), as well as the cult Mike Hammer adaptation KISS ME DEADLY, and would go on to numerous celebrated show pieces such as WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and THE DIRTY DOZEN, one of the most popular war epics of all time. TEN SECONDS TO HELL isn’t exactly a war film, but rather a tense drama set in a war’s aftermath. Aldrich (who co-wrote the screenplay with Teddi Sherman based on Lawrence P. Bachmann’s novel The Phoenix) handles the human interest story well, and the scenes of the veteran soldiers diffusing the various bombs planted in ruble can be nail biting, further enhanced by Ernest Lazlo’s stark black and white cinematography. Although produced by future Hammer head Michael Carreras, the film was shot nowhere near Bray Studios, but rather on location and in a studio in Berlin, Germany, so the film looks nothing like the usual Hammer opus, which was probably Carreras’ intent. Also, the usual Hammer supporting players are nowhere to be found here, all but Richard Wattis who was in Terence Fisher’s STOLEN FACE, as the film opts for mostly American actors (including Virginia Baker, Charles Nolte and a very young Jim Hutton) in the secondary roles.
Like with his previous roles in THE BIG KNIFE and ATTACK, Aldrich casts Palance against his usual villainous type, which turned out to be a smart move. Although he indeed has been known to overact when the character warrants it, Palance here gives a subdued performance with his thoughtful, diligent character contrasting Chandler’s self-centered glory-hound character, with the two actors having an engaging on-screen rivalry. After this, Palance would soon become one of the most revered characters of all time, while popular Universal-International 1950s leading man Chandler was coming to the end of his career (he died in 1961). Sometimes it’s hard to accept these two (and their co-stars) as Germans since no accents are mandated, but you’ll just have to forget about that and get wrapped up in the story of this atypical entry in Hammer’s long line of impressive productions.
MGM’s new HD transfer (made from the original vault elements) of TEN SECONDS FROM HELL is represented on Kino’s Blu-ray, and looks quite splendid here. With the original “United Artists” logo on display, the film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio in 1080p, and the black and white image has impressive detail, gorgeously deep black levels and excellent contrasts, and the grain structure is handsome and never obtrusive (surprisingly, there’s hardly any stock footage spliced into the feature). The overall picture is very clean with little in the way of print damage, and the English DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is fine, allowing Kenneth V. Jones’ strong score to shine with dialogue replicated clearly. Optional English subtitles are included, as is the original theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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