Address Unknown (1944): William Cameron Menzies’ Oscar-Nominated Noir Thriller, Starring Paul Lukas

William Cameron Menzies directed Address Unknown, a noir thriller based on Kathrine Taylor’s 1938 novel of the same title.

The film tells the story of two families caught up in the rise of Nazism in Germany prior to the start of World War II.

Martin Schulz and Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) are good friends, German expatriate art dealers living in the US. Martin’s son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck) and Max’s daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) are in love.

When Martin and his wife return to Germany to find artwork, Griselle joins them to seek acting opportunities. Martin meets Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond), joins the Nazi Party and becomes a government official.

Martin insists that Max stop writing to him, as Max is a Jew. When Max sends him a hand-delivered letter to confirm he is not acting under duress, Martin makes it clear they are no longer friends.

Griselle is acting in Vienna under the stage name Stone, when she lands the lead role in a play in Berlin. Before the premiere, the censor (Charles Halton) insists certain lines be cut (such as “Blessed are the peacemakers …”) as they contradict Nazi doctrine.

On opening night, however, Griselle speaks the lines anyway. When the incensed censor makes her reveal her real name, it causes a riot among the antisemitic crowd.

Realizing her danger, she seeks help from Martin at his country estate, but he shuts the door in her face. Martin’s wife Elsa (Mady Christians) is appalled by her husband’s heartlessness. Max and Heinrich learn of Griselle’s death in a short letter.

Martin finds Max’s first letter incomprehensible since it’s in code. Martin is warned that receiving coded messages is illegal. When letters continue to arrive, Martin is forced to resign his position.

Elsa decides to take their children to Switzerland. Martin sends with her a letter appealing to Max to stop writing to him. The border guards see the letter, so Elsa destroys it before they can read it. Von Friesche demands that Martin name his associates. When Martin insists he is innocent, but when the Gestapo question him, he’s terrified. He considers suicide, but that night, leaving his mansion, he’s illuminated by flashlight.

Back in San Francisco, a letter addressed to Martin is returned stamped “Address Unknown.”  Max tells Heinrich that he had not been writing to his father, and Heinrich’s reaction makes it clear that he was the one to send the letters.

This film was made a year after Paul Lukas had won the Best Actor Oscar for playing an anti-Nazi fighter in Watch on the Rhine, opposite Bette Davis as his wife.

Stylistics of Film Noir

Cinematographer Rudolph Maté, a noir expert, employed shadows and angular shapes and camera angles to create the required menacing imagery.

In one scene, when Martin Schulz descends a staircase awaiting his arrest by the Gestapo, the shadow of a web-like criss-cross of window panes serves as a visual metaphor for his web of deceit.

Cast

Paul Lukas as Martin Schulz
Carl Esmond as Baron von Friesche
Peter van Eyck as Heinrich Schulz
Mady Christians as Elsa Schultz
Morris Carnovsky as Max Eisenstein
K. T. Stevens as Griselle Eisenstein /Stone
Emory Parnell as The Postman
Mary Young as Mrs. Delaney
Frank Faylen as Jimmie Blake
Charles Halton as Pipsqueak

Oscar Nominations: 2

Morris Stoloff and Ernst Toch were nominated for the Best Original Score Oscar, and Lionel Banks, Walter Holscher and Joseph Kish were nominated for Best Art Direction.

Credits:

Produced and distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date: June 1, 1944
Running time: 72 minutes

Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing this film noir on October 8, 2019.

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