November 12, 2020

The Hidden Horrors of War

Poster, Seven Thunders (1957)

Now Playing:
Seven Thunders (aka The Beasts of Marseilles, 1957)


Pros: Deftly mixes suspense, romance, personal tragedy and comic relief; Dr. Martout is particularly fascinating as a cool, calculating monster.
Cons: Some may lament the emphasis on romance at the expense of action.

In my post on the ‘70s cult horror classic Tourist Trap, I examined the relatively rare species of serial killer that, instead of stalking his/her prey, sits tight in his lair, waiting for the unwary victim to come to him.

The UK World War II drama Seven Thunders features an even rarer version of this spider-waiting-for-his-fly-type killer -- one who plies his quiet, deadly trade surrounded by the chaos, destruction and death of war. I’ll get to that particular spider soon enough, but first an outline of the film’s more conventional war drama plot.

Two escaped British POWs, Dave and Jim (Stephen Boyd and Tony Wright), have been led by a member of the French resistance to a hideout in a crumbling tenement in the heart of Marseille’s Old Port slum district.

It’s the best they can do for the moment, as the occupying Germans are reluctant to send search parties into an area that, in the words of one German officer, is a “rabbit warren” of secret tunnels and connecting rooms teeming with cutthroats, thieves and deserters.

When Dave’s contact tells him it may be a month or more before safe passage can be secured for them, he’s not happy, but has no choice but to sit and wait.

While Jim seems reconciled with the situation, sitting around does not come naturally for Dave, and he paces the dilapidated flat like a caged tiger. He soon risks exposure when he spies a drunken German soldier about to assault a young woman, Lise (Anna Gaylor). He tackles the soldier and whisks the girl off into the night before the would-be assailant can rouse his comrades.

There will be some hell to pay later, but in the meantime, the brawny Brit and the petite street urchin naturally fall for each other. At first, after a night of passion, Dave thinks he’s been taken when he wakes and finds his pocket money and Lise are gone. He’s relieved when she breezes into the flat with a basket filled with goodies, including a single rare expensive hen’s egg, which she merrily plops into Dave’s hand.

Anna Gaylor and Stephen Boyd in Seven Thunders, 1957
Dave and Lise share a rare quiet moment

Even as the two soldiers’ lives are put on hold waiting for the resistance to show up and smuggle them out of the country, life, love and tragedy swirls all around them.

Lise has decided that she loves Dave and that he loves her, despite his protestations that he has a fiance back home. She is all instinct and heart, as guileless and childlike as they come. Dave calls her a “little animal,” as much out of affection as exasperation.

Jim finds respite in the company of upstairs neighbor Mme. Abou (Kathleen Harrison), a bawdy, earthy fellow Brit who is married to a French dockworker no one ever sees. In spite of circumstances, she sings at the top of her voice while she cleans and never misses an opportunity for a spot of tea with friends.

Outside of the hideout, life is grimmer. Emile Blanchard (Eugene Deckers) can barely put food on the table for his family, and supplements his income by steering desperate people to Dr. Martout (James Robertson Justice), who is rumored to be in charge of a network that can help unfortunate souls escape to neutral countries.

The film even conjures up some sympathy for one of the German occupiers, private Triebel (James Kenney), a timid young man who is constantly being needled by his older, rougher compatriots. They take Triebel to a brothel on his birthday, where the young virgin cowers like a deer in the headlights. Later, when Triebel’s unit is mobilized to “clean out” the Old Port of all its undesirables, he will try to prove his manhood with tragic consequences.

James Kenney as Private Triebel, Seven Thunders, 1957
Pvt. Triebel faces his greatest wartime challenge: two very friendly ladies.

The various characters’ stories wind through the film and intersect much like the labyrinth of secret tunnels underneath the Old Port. Many lives crash into each toward the climax, when the Germans decide that enough is enough and send in the storm troops.

The “Seven Thunders” of the title refers to the massive detonations the Germans resort to when they realize the futility and danger of searching house to house. This is based on a real incident in early 1943 when the Germans, aided by Vichy French police, evacuated the residents and then proceeded to blow up large portions of the old city in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of an ungovernable populace.

Amidst the chaos of the brutal occupation, a quieter, more personal form of horror is at work in the person of Dr. Matout. Rather than being a savior for poor souls desperate to escape from the Nazis, Matout is the human embodiment of the corpulent spider beckoning hapless flies into his parlor.

Matout is based on a real-life monster, Marcel Petiot. Petiot, a French sociopath who was in trouble throughout his life for crimes large and small, somehow managed to earn a medical degree, and even successfully ran for public office. When the war and the German occupation came along, he concocted his greatest and deadliest scam.

Accomplices steered people wanted by the Nazis or the Vichy government to Petiot, who, for a price, would supposedly help them escape to a safe haven in South America. Instead, Petiot injected them with cyanide (with a cover story that it was a required inoculation), then took their valuables and dumped the bodies. After the war, Petiot was convicted of 26 counts of murder and executed, although indications are that he murdered many more than that.

As portrayed by James Robertson Justice, the Petiot-inspired Dr. Martout is an elegant, if somewhat rotund, member of the upper class. He is a smooth talker who exudes calm, competent authority.

In the course of luring dozens of unwary people to their deaths, Matout has worked out a failsafe scheme. In his initial consultation, he advises that any currency the client takes with him can be traced, and to convert it into gold bars and jewelry (all the better for Martout to sell on the black market while the client dissolves in a bath of quicklime).

As Martout shows one desperate client out the door after the consultation, he reassures him that all his troubles “will soon be over.” Suave and urbane to the end, Martout dispatches his victims with a glass of poisoned brandy instead of an injection, while cruelly telling them what’s really going to happen as the poison takes effect.

James Robertson Justice and George Coulouris in Seven Thunders, 1957
Dr. Martout treats his client to a very special brandy from his private reserve.
The brandy may continue to age, but the client won't.

As with the other colorful characters inhabiting the Old Port, the paths of the POWs and Martout are destined to cross. The Germans are systematically clearing out the old city. The French resistance hasn’t shown up yet. The Brits desperately need a plan B. Martout is known to run an escape network. Everything is set for a nail-biting climax.

Seven Thunders is the “Rear Window” of war dramas. Holed up for who knows how long in a run-down apartment, Dave and Jim are ready to explode with impatience. They both find supportive female companionship, but there’s little else they can do except to sit and watch as the frenetic life of the city plays out all around them -- at least until the Nazis decide that the solution to their slum problem is to blow it up.

Seven Thunders came along shortly after Stephen Boyd’s break-out role as an Irish spy in the war picture The Man Who Never Was (1955). As a result of that performance, Boyd was signed by 20th Century Fox with high hopes of major stardom. He appeared in a string of big budget A pictures throughout the late 50s and 60s: Ben-Hur, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Oscar, and Fantastic Voyage, among others.

By 1970 the big pictures had dried up and Boyd was doing a lot of B’s in Europe. Tragically, Boyd died of a heart attack in 1977, cutting short a diverse and very underrated career.

The “little animal” Anna Gaylor had plenty of energy and vivaciousness to spare, racking up nearly 140 movie and TV credits in the following decades, appearing as recently as 2018.

James Robertson Justice was already a film veteran prior to his stint as the sinister Martout, and with his regal appearance and booming voice, would continue to be in high demand until his retirement in 1972. According to his IMDb bio, Justice was just the sort of renaissance man he appeared to be on film, acquiring a Ph.d., working as a journalist, and becoming an expert race car driver and falconer.

With its exotic setting, poignant drama and solid performances, it’s a shame that Seven Thunders hasn’t gotten more attention over the years -- it seems to have been buried in the huge pile of war pictures that UK and US studios churned out like sausages during the period. Granted, it lacks impressive battle scenes, but it juggles suspense, romance, personal tragedy and even a bit of comic relief exceedingly well, and is well worth seeking out.

Tony Wright, Stephen Boyd and Anna Gaylor in Seven Thunders, 1957
Strolling through the Old Port of Marseille can be hazardous to your health,
especially when buildings are blowing up all around you.

Where to find it:
For the moment, there's a decent print streaming on YouTube.

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