Trying hard to be a bring a bit of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to the European Alps, 1948’s Snowbound stumbles quite a bit in trying to be too cute and overly deft. Featuring a strong cast, including Dennis Price, Herbert Lom and Robertn Newton, dramatic scenic vistas and a climactic blizzard finale, all the key components are here.
We open as director and former British secret agent Derek Engles (referred to as simply Engles through the film and played by Robert Newton) sends one of his former soldiers (Dennis Price as Neil Blair) to a remote alpine ski chalet. Evidently folks- including a Contessa (Mila Parely) are coming together and Engles wants to know why.
It’s clear as Blair gets settled into the alps that things are amiss. Early on he comes across a motley crew of odd sods, including the Contessa and an overly English Englishman in the form of Gilbert Mayne (Guy Middleton). Though never explicitly stated, from the shifty eyes and deft editing it’s clear that all the players know each other from the not so distant past.
A bit further in a brooding Greek named Keramikos (Herbert Lom) arrives and it becomes clear from the beginning that he’s the one to watch out for. As the plot twists and turns it slowly reveals tidbits of the past and we learn that the cast of characters has returned to recover hidden Nazi gold, buried on the site in the closing days of the Second World War.
After Blair gets closer to the truth in hearing a late night talk between Mayne and Keramikos, Mayne invites him out to an early morning ski run, which of course ends in Blair’s near death and abandonment at the bottom of the slope. Only after the Contessa rouses the staff to mount a search for Blair is he found and rescued, much to Mayne’s chagrin. Ironically, much of the sequence of the search features long lines of lit torches being paraded through the night in twisting bands, eerily reminiscent of vintage Nazi newreels.
As the battered Blair recovers in the chalet, Engles himself arrives just in front of a tremendous blizzard. Now isolated in the chalet with nowhere to go, things escalate. Blair confronts Mayne, accusing him of trying to kill him. A scuffle ensues and by the end of it the Contessa is locked in a storeroom and Mayne’s down on the floor with a knife in his back.
Among many of the wonderful shots in Snowbound is one where Engles, slowly drawing on a cigarette, confronts Keramikos. As he reveals that Keramikos is actually former German officer Von Kellerman we see only over Lom’s left shoulder as the smoke slowly wafts over the bottom of a shadowed stairwell. His background and identity exposed, Von Kellerman takes the remaining men hostage and forces them into the cellar to dig up the gold as the chalet begins to burn.
As the men begin to dig up the gold they find nothing despite Von Kellerman’s urgings. Mayne comes too and struggles to free the Contessa, escaping into the cold as the chalet collapses behind them and killing the balance of the cast. As the curtain falls, she reveals that she knows where the gold is but will keep it to herself as enough men have died over gold. A rather pedantic resolution, wouldn’t you say?
And perhaps this sums up why Snowbound fails even when it has all the ingredients of a great thriller. It gets a bit too cute and has a few too many twists and shifts in perspective (some of them bordering on irrelevant) to maintain engagement with the viewer. Technically the film is outstanding, especially in cinematography and editing but by the time it is officially revealed that Herbert Lom (a Czech portraying a German masquerading as a Greek) is the bad guy, we don’t really care. Partially this is because we figured it out about a half hour earlier but it’s also because we’re tired out after all the machinations we had to go through to get the big reveal.
Though most of the significant plot points come from the perspective of Blair, for some reason he’s unable to make the climax work as we have to reintroduce Engles to the proceedings. As Engles Robert Newton is very good (but in a very different way than his iconic portrayal of Long John Silver which he’s most know for now), but why is he so underused here? His interplay with the potentially diabolical Lom on his quest to fund the Fourth Reich is excellent and makes us completely forget poor Dennis Price and his Blair, around whom most of the picture has revolved around. Though top-billed, it’s perplexing in the least to wonder about where Newton is for the middle half of the picture.
Herbert Lom too is good in a more traditional role for him at this point in his career and much different than the later caricature he later played in the Pink Panther films. From the start shrouded (literally) in shadow in a heavy coat, his humorless and ominous delivery tells us everything we need to know about how things will go down.
The balance of the cast, including would be heroine Mila Parely as the Contessa, rather blend into the woodwork as they become victimized as well by the constant gyrations of the turgid plot. By the end of things we care little about her Nazi past or even that Mayne isn’t even actually Mayne- he’s stolen another soldiers identity. At some point such undeveloped backstory tidbits exist merely for the sake of saying they are there.
Snowbound has lots of great things going for it individually, but disappointingly the final product as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Here’s the entire film if you want to check it out: