Based on the legend of the Lost Dutchman mine, Lust for Gold (1949) is a hybrid western noir. However, it differs from the handful of other movies in that category on account of its narrative structure. The western part is actually a flashback which takes place within a contemporary mystery story. As far as I’m aware this is a unique approach; I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen the technique used to combine these two styles of film anywhere else.
The film’s opening pitches you right into the action – the snappy voice-over narration gives some brief background information before the latest treasure seeker comes to an untimely end, shot dead by an unseen sniper. There’s a breathless, urgent quality to the narrator’s voice which sets the tone and the pace of the picture. Barry Storm (William Prince) has come to Arizona to try his hand at finding the fabled lost mine that his grandfather, Jacob Walz (Glenn Ford), is reputed to have discovered back in the 1880s. When the explorer he was following perishes at the hands of the unknown assassin, Storm finds himself with two mysteries to solve; one in the half remembered past, and the other much closer in time. While the shadow of death hangs over the present, his research reveals some unpleasant facts about his Grandpa. Walz is shown to be a ruthless and greedy man who has no qualms about murdering three men (including his own partner) to secure possession of an old mine with a blood-soaked history.
Such stories are usually morality plays, and Lust for Gold is no exception; Walz’s fortune is a source of little comfort to him. He starts out as an opportunistic outsider and, though his sudden riches bring the semblance of popularity, he finds himself more alone than ever. The superficial bonhomie of those around him who wish him well masks the envy and disdain they truly feel. This petty begrudgery pales into insignificance though when compared to the scheming and deceit practised by Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino). When this grasping, amoral female sniffs a chance of a fast and easy buck she doesn’t hesitate to dismiss her weak failure of a husband. The only questions are how long she can string Walz along, and how he will react when the truth finally dawns upon him.
Glenn Ford managed well in a role that called for him to be both reprehensible and sympathetic. There’s no doubt that Walz is a cold-blooded killer, but Ford was able to invest a certain childlike innocence in the character. This works especially well in his scenes with Lupino, where buys into her deception because it’s what he wants to believe. However, like any emotionally immature character, his vengeance is terrible to behold. The pleasure he takes in watching his tormentors destroying each other, as they die of thirst among the barren, sun-baked rocks, is akin to that of a small boy pulling the wings off a fly. If Ford is good, Lupino may even be better. Her self-obsessed manipulation of the men around her is the equal of any of the great femme fatales of the noir canon. Her character has not one redeeming feature, and there’s a certain grim satisfaction to be had from seeing her get her comeuppance.
Sony have given Lust for Gold an excellent transfer to DVD. The image is sharp and crisp with barely any damage. The film is out in R1 and is widely available in R2 in continental Europe, though not in the UK; I have the R2 and I believe the R1 is identical. The disc is totally barebones but the quality of the image and the movie itself kind of compensate for that. This is a fine, neglected film that should have crossover appeal for fans of westerns and film noir alike. Both the contemporary and historical parts of the story complement each other, though I feel the western flashback works best. That’s largely due to the aforementioned performances of Ford and Lupino, and the dark, bitter tone. The modern mystery does have a satisfying resolution but it suffers in comparison to the bleakness of what went before. All in all, I recommend it.