A little suffering is good for the soul – that would appear to be the message of Inferno (1953). It’s a classic tale of man against nature with a liberal sprinkling of deceit, infidelity and murder thrown in for good measure. The movie is generally regarded as a film noir and I suppose that’s fair enough given its themes, although the visuals (technicolor and wide open spaces) suggest it should be the antithesis of that style.

The opening pitches you right into the middle of the plot with no time wasted on backstory or build-up. Within a few minutes the viewer knows exactly what’s going on and what led up to it. A man has broken his leg out in the desert and his wife and her lover have decided to abandon him and let nature take its course. The unfortunate victim is one Don Carson (Robert Ryan), a hard drinking businessman with plenty of money but few friends. Carson has gone out to a remote part of the desert in the company of his faithless wife Gerry (Rhonda Fleming) and a mining engineer, Duncan (William Lundigan), to scout for manganese deposits. When an accident presents Gerry and Duncan with a heaven sent opportunity to rid themselves of Carson they grab it with both hands. All they need do is manipulate the evidence and cook up a story about Carson going off on an alcoholic bender to be home free. However, the scheming  lovers underestimate their victim and his resourcefulness – Carson may have led a pampered life of privilege but he has a powerful will to live and an instinct for survival. The film twists and turns its way to the conclusion and, as it does so, the character of Carson moves smoothly from being initially an unsympathetic boor to a man the viewer can both admire and root for. The best scenes in the movie have Carson battling against the merciless desert, with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. There’s also some clever cutting to point up the contrasting fortunes of the protagonists: while the hero grows desperate for water there’s a sudden jump to a shot of Duncan diving into a crystal clear pool; and when Carson finds himself on the verge of starvation the next scene has his wife delicately carving a roast back at the LA mansion.

Inferno saw Robert Ryan near the top of his game in a career that had more than its fair share of highs. He spends the bulk of his screen time alone in the vast wilderness, crawling and dragging his broken body over the unforgiving terrain. There’s no one else present to play off and that fact makes it even more remarkable that he managed to develop his character into a fully rounded human being that we actually care about. He starts out as a spoiled, sullen drunk petulantly taking pot shots at a discarded whisky bottle, but by the end of the picture his trials and torments have transformed him into a man of character and humility. Rhonda Fleming was well cast as the devious Gerry, brimming with a kind of loathsome sexiness. She is the typically heartless femme fatale with a perverse sense of morality, who doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of leaving a man to a slow, aching death but baulks at the idea of shooting him. William Lundigan was a fairly bland actor but a capable enough one for all that. Although Inferno would be one of his last major roles before moving into television he does a reasonable job with a basically one dimensional character. Director Roy Ward Baker made a handful of movies in Hollywood in the early 50s before moving back to Britain. Inferno was the last of them and it wasn’t a bad one to finish on. He makes wonderful use of the desert locations to emphasise the harshness of the environment and the lonely struggle of the hero. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a cameraman of the calibre of Lucien Ballard on hand, and the two of them managed to turn out a film that’s tense, uplifting and visually arresting. This movie was originally shot in 3D, a process that sometimes led to gimmicky effects shots, but it never really intrudes too much here – though a lantern is fired directly at the camera during the climax.

A while back, when Fox was still in the business of issuing DVDs, it was rumoured that Inferno was due a release in the US, possibly as part of the noir line but nothing ever came of it. However, it has been given a release in R2 in Spain by a company called Impulso. They have licensed a number of titles and market them as Fox Cinema Classics. The transfer for Inferno is a generally pleasing one. Viewed on a 37 inch screen I thought it looked fine for the most part – the image is mostly smooth and sharp but there are instances of heavy grain (especially during the titles). The colour is quite strong but it can take on a slight pinkish hue at times. The disc itself is pretty basic with the only extra of note being a gallery. All told, I was satisfied with this one and it is the only way to get your hands on this title at the time of writing. Inferno is a tight, pacy little movie that clocks in at 80 minutes and rarely stops to take a breath. I’d rate it highly as a noirish thriller in an unusual setting, boasting classy performances and excellent visuals.

7 thoughts on “Inferno

  1. Wow, can’t believe there hasn’t been anything in the way of comments on this fine post, Colin…I guess this was back before yo had developed such a strong and vocal following. 🙂 Perhaps also the limited availability of this film at the time of writing (2011) played a factor. At any rate, you did your usual sterling job writing up this terrific adventure noir, which I just viewed in 3D thanks to Panamint’s lovely restored Blu-Ray (which I hope you have by this stage, it’s also available in 2D on the disc, and both versions look great!). What a corker this was, with plenty of twists and turns before the fade-out. Ryan is letter-perfect as the put-upon lead, Lundigan is suitably weaselly and Rhonda Fleming is gorgeous as hell as the duplicitous wife. Nice to see Henry Hull in there too, as the philosophical prospector. The only slightly rum note is we’re never really shown the unlikable side of Ryan’s character – he’s pretty sympathetic from the off; we’re basically just told by other characters who knew him before being stranded that he was a callous, alcoholic jerk. This is a small gripe, of course, and of no real consequence in such a fine film. I quite enjoyed the 3D, mostly just providing depth until the fiery finale.


    • Thank you, Jeff. This would have been one of the posts I wrote when the blog was on the old platform and any comments – and I can’t remember whether there were many – were lost when I moved the content across to the current site. It’s good of you to take the time to dig this old posting out though.
      It’s a classy little movie, well acted by Ryan and the others and Baker does fine work behind the camera too. Believe it or not, I still haven’t gotten round to picking up the Panamint Blu-ray, although I was eyeing it once again online the other night so I do intend to buy it sooner rather than later.


      • It is a rather expensive Blu-Ray release, though kudos to Panamint for putting the film out and holding out for a better restoration than the one the original studio initially provided. Apologies for the lack of commenting on your site, still have been reading and enjoying as always. Got a bit tired of the whole blogging thing recently (obviously) but hope to get back in action soon. I did recently purchase a BenQ HD projector and 100-inch screen, which has given my film viewing a real shot in the arm. Anyway, hope all is well with you, Colin, and best wishes!


        • It is expensive but I can understand that since it’s coming via a small company – I’m also interested in their release of Abilene Town.

          Blogging is fine as long as it remains fun and doesn’t feel like a chore – if it does, then it really is time to take a break. I look forward to reading your stuff whenever you feel in the right mood to get back to it.
          As for myself, I’m not bad. I had a bit of a health problem recently but, happily, I’m recovering.


  2. Pingback: The Color Noir | Riding the High Country

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