Ten Seconds to Hell (1959): Aldrich’s Thriller, Starring Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance

Robert Aldrich directed Ten Seconds To Hell, a black-and-white post-WWII thriller, set in Berlin and based upon Lawrence P. Bachmann’s novel, “The Phoenix.” (The film was released in some countries as “The Phoenix”).

In post-war Berlin, British Major Haven (Richard Wattis) recruits members of a German bomb disposal unit to defuse Allied bombs scattered throughout the city.  The team includes Hans Globke (James Goodwin), Peter Tillig (Dave Willock), Wolfgang Sulke (Wesley Addy), Franz Loeffler (Robert Cornthwaite), Karl Wirtz (Jeff Chandler) and Eric Koertner (Jack Palance),

Karl bets Eric that he will outlive him, while the other men agree that half of their salaries should go to the survivors of the dangerous mission in three months’ time. The British, headed by Major Haven (Wattis), provide the men new uniforms and equipment, and assign Frau Bauer (Virginia Baker) as their liaison.

Karl volunteers to lead the unit, but the men vote for Eric, who’s been reluctant.  Karl and Eric move into an Allied-approved boarding house, run by pretty widow Margot Hoefler (Martine Carol), a French woman whose German husband died during the war.

The men effectively defuse several bombs, but are stunned when Globke is killed while defusing a heavy British bomb. Since the bomb has double fuses, Eric asks Haven to get information about its structure from British armaments.

At the boardinghouse, Karl continually flirts with Margot, to Eric’s annoyance.  When Margot loudly protests Karl’s drunken advances, Eric bursts into Margot’s room to help her and Karl ridicules Eric.

Margot explains that her uneasy situation as a traitor to the French and an outsider to the Germans has left her jaded. When Eric remains critical, Margot accuses him of denying his own desires.

Days later, Frau Bauer receives a report that Tillig has been trapped under a live bomb by the partial collapse of a ruined building. With the other men away on assignments, Eric and Karl race to the site, and despite Tillig’s protests, inspect the bomb. After Eric defuses the bomb safely, a doctor arrives and upon examining Tillig declares there is no chance for his survival. Refusing to accept the pronouncement, Eric hurries outside to request equipment to lift the bomb, but as Karl expresses his doubts, the building collapses on Tillig and the doctor. Distraught, Eric returns to the boardinghouse where he seeks solace from Margot. The next day, Eric takes Margot to another ruined section of the city and reveals that before the war he was an architect. Eric struggles to conceal his growing feelings for Margot, admitting that he is confused about becoming romantically involved while his life is in danger daily.

Haven tells Eric that because of the post-war chaos, they have been unable to gather information on the thousand-pound bombs. When Haven discloses that he knows of Eric’s former profession, Karl, unaware that his colleague was an esteemed architect, expresses surprise. Eric tells Haven that he was forced into demolitions when he fell into disfavor for making anti-Nazi statements.

Karl and the other men were all pressed into demolitions as punishment for some indiscretion and all vowed to do everything they could to survive the war. Mocking Eric’s growing anxiety, Karl urges him to quit the unit and give up the wager, but Eric refuses.

A month before the wager’s deadline, Sulke is killed while defusing a double fused bomb. Eric, Loeffler and the men agree to adhere to the terms of the wager but discuss giving the salaries to Sulke’s widow and child. When Eric presents the proposal to Karl, he scoffs at the suggestion, explaining that his motto has always been to look after himself.

The next day Loeffler is called to defuse a bomb found in a canal. Later, Eric learns that Loeffler has drowned in the attempt. That afternoon when Margot urges Eric to give up the bet and quit the unit, Eric explains he must know whether he can triumph over Karl’s greed and selfishness.

Karl is assigned to defuse a thousand-pound bomb and Eric joins him at the site to make an inspection. The men discuss a strategy to avoid the potential second fuse, then Eric departs, but worriedly hovers nearby.

After removing the top of the bomb, Karl gently handles the cap then abruptly calls for help, claiming the detonator pin has slipped. Eric rushes in and provides a pencil, which he offers to hold in place of the pin while Karl retrieves his tools from the landing.

Moments later, Eric is stunned when the rope Karl used earlier to remove the top pulls tautly across his hand, forcing him to release the pencil.  The bomb doesn’t explode, however, and Eric realizes that Karl has tried to kill him. A fight motivates Karl to say, “Guess it’s still my bomb,” to which Eric replies, “Still your bomb.”

Eric walks away, and Karl resumes defusing the bomb. Once Eric is a safe distance away, the bomb explodes, killing Karl.

The film closes with salute to the ordnance removal teams, which allowed the rebuilding of Berlin.

Aldrich pays meticulously detailed attention to the issues and methods of bomb deactivation and disposal.

It would take another 40 years until Hollywood would make a major film about a bomb squad, Kathryn Bigelow’s terrific 2009 Oscar winning, “The Hurt Locker.”


Jeff Chandler as Karl Wirtz

Jack Palance as Eric Koertner

Martine Carol as Margot Hofer

Wesley Addy as Sulke

Robert Cornthwaite as Loeffler

Dave Willock as Tillig