It is most likely stupid, and certainly irrelevant, to heap invective upon PT 109, the story of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's war exploits in the South Pacific. But being an invective-heaper from way back, I cannot help myself.
I did not really expect the film to be great drama. Nor did I anticipate an inventive cinemagraphic effort, whose form would transcend the rather meager contents. The most I hoped for was a little excitement--bombs and air raids and daring rescues and all that stuff--to enliven a dreary Cambridge afternoon. But even that modest wish remained unfulfilled.
Occasional scenes did penetrate the torpor induced by the first half-hour, surely one of the dullest film segments produced by Hollywood in a long while. But for the most part PT 109 was horrendous, devoted primarily to showing off Cliff Robertson's repertoire of facial expressions, all of which seemed to be subtle variations of a smirkish half-smile.
Robertson plays Kennedy: a tough skipper with a soft shoulder; a good head ("he wrote a book, or sumpin'" a crewman remarks) but with a capacity for human error (he rams his boat into the dock, then gets it cut in half by a Japanese destroyer). Above all "the skinny, boyish lieutenant from Boston" is a fount of homely wisdom. One can sense the echo, if only dimly, of the famous Kennedy rhetoric: "They'll do a good job for us" he says of his crew, "if we do one for them."
The supporting players, a series of well-worn cliches; are all present to bask in the light of Robertson's omnipresent grin. There is the hard-nosed commander who wants to see action, after spending the last war "hooked up at a pier in Bayonne, N. J.;" the funny cook, the wisecracking old butler, the boobish aide, the guy who knows he's going to get killed, and does. Ty Hardin, as Kennedy's second in command, wears a ridiculous blond beard, but mumbles well. And he's terrific at diving into foxholes. James Gregory, as Commander Ritchie, who finally shoots down a Japanese plane, is out-smirked only by Robertson.
On the same bill with PT 109 is that oldy but goody, Bad Day at Black Rock. Spencer Tracy is at his best, playing John McGreedy, a one-armed ex-Marine who comes to a small Western town looking for the father of a dead buddy.
A gang of local hoodlums don't exactly appreciate McGreedy's intrusion, since they happen to have murdered the man he's looking for. Finally the antagonisms well over: Ernest Borgnine (as one of the gang), chides Tracy and gets clobbered with some one-armed karate. Another gang member, Lee Marvin, gets dispatched by a fire hose. And the leader, Robert Ryan, meets his fate when Tracy makes a Molotov cocktail from a bourbon bottle and the gasoline from a jeep.
This is the real stuff. Tracy is in the grand tradition of Grant and Bogart, and that makes Bad Day well worth seeing. Let Roberston smirk his way around the South Pacific; I'll take Bogie or Tracy facing down a gang of toughs any time.