Judge Daryl Loomis listens to audiobooks on full blast.
There's NO rationing of entertainment here!
Before becoming the most beloved man ever to grace a television screen, Milton Berle (Whispering Ghosts) was an up-and-coming movie lead. Most of these were comedies like what he would become known for, but Margin for Error is a little different. This is straight anti-Nazi propaganda for audiences just coming to understand what a true villain looked like in this world. I don't know that it was necessarily successful at fomenting Nazi hatred and I certainly don't need to be told that Nazis are jerks, but the movie itself really worked on me.
Officer Moe Finkelstein (Berle) has just received his latest assignment: he must guard the German consulate and, specifically, its head, Karl Baumer (Otto Preminger, Stalag 17, who also directed). Now, with a name like Finkelstein, Moe is pretty sure how this is going to go with this Nazi piece of trash. But he's a good cop with a job to do, so off he goes to get treated like a second-class citizen by this German. While there, he meets Baumer's lovely wife, Sophia (Joan Bennett, Suspiria), Frieda (Poldi Dur, The Hitler Gang), and Baron Max von Alvenstor (Carl Esmond, Ministry of Fear, a man Moe sees as someone he might be able to help see the power of freedom and democracy.
The story is bookended by a framing story of Berle on a ship, heading to war, being nice to an American soldier who happens to be German who everybody else harasses. They ask him why he's nice to this supposed Nazi sympathizer, so he sits them all down to tell them a tale, the tale of Margin for Error. It was a common method of getting into a story for the time, and a pretty ham-handed one at that, but it works well in this case. In this, and a few other isolated scenes, it represents the very strong principle that, though this is anti-Nazi propaganda, it is specifically not anti-German. While I'm never a fan of propaganda, I appreciate this sentiment, as opposed to the harder-edged hatred of some of his fellow directors.
But, beyond that, Margin for Error works because of a surprisingly strong performance from Milton Berle. In its day, it may have worked as a comedy, but in today's terms, it doesn't work there on any level. I know that's not fair, but I just don't classify it as comedy anymore, regardless of the intentions of original playwright Clare Boothe Luce. When Baumer continually and deliberately bungles Moe's name into various Jewish stereotypes, it's not funny; it's mean. To me, it works better as a drama, and a fairly well-made one at that.
Berle gets some of his mugging in, but it's not much and never distracts from the story. Ultimately, he gets involved in helping to solve a murder plot and, there, the drama really takes hold. I wouldn't call it gripping, per se, but there is a sense of mystery to it that resolves itself in a somewhat unexpected way. Nothing about it is great, but for American propaganda, it's about as good as it gets. We could never match the Soviets in that arms race so, when something is even decent, you take it.
Margin for Error arrives on DVD from Fox on their Cinema Archives collection. The results are as expected. It has a decent full frame image that doesn't suffer too much damage, has relatively deep black levels and fair contrast, though obviously there's no restoration here. The mono sound has a minimum of hiss and clear dialog, with no real dynamic range to speak of. With no extras, it's exactly as I anticipated.
This is certainly lesser Preminger, but Margin for Error works for the propaganda that it is. If you were at all confused about whether the Nazis were heroes or villains, this should certainly set you straight. Plus, it comes with a somewhat anomalous performance from Uncle Miltie, so there is definitely more interest here than in plenty of similar pictures from the same time. Mildly recommended.
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