Fire Down Below

Romance, revenge and renewal – introduce a movie from the mid or late 1950s with those words and the chances are people will think you’re talking about a western. I guess there’s a point that could be made here about those themes being more a reflection of the era than a specific genre, even if that genre seemed to favor them more or treat them with greater sensitivity. Fire Down Below (1957) is certainly not a western – if it’s necessary to find a label, then I suppose it could be called a kind of Caribbean adventure/melodrama – but it does take a good long look at the three words I used as an opening. Of course it also follows the cardinal rule of moviemaking by ensuring this is woven into a consistently entertaining story.

Many a good yarn has originated in a bar, and this one essentially begins there. Tony (Jack Lemmon)  and Felix (Robert Mitchum) are two drifters, the kind of figures who seemed to abound in mid-20th century movies, men who have either lost something in life and are casting around for it, or who have never possessed it in the first place. A combination of curiosity, disillusionment and aimlessness has drawn these two to the Caribbean, and fate has thrown them together as joint owners of a clapped out boat. Their morals are, shall we say, flexible and they’re not overly particular about how they earn a dollar. So it is that Irena (Rita Hayworth) comes into their lives, a stateless person hailing from somewhere in the Baltic and now in need of someone to smuggle her through immigration. While the two men are friends they are very different characters, Tony being a romantic idealist whereas Felix is jaded to the core. The effect on these two of sharing a confined space with an attractive woman is as powerful as one might expect. Enthusiasm, desire, envy and bitterness all make an appearance as the tensions simmer in the tropical heat and eventually boil over into conflict and betrayal. The upshot of it all is that Tony swears vengeance on his former friend, but there will be a further trial to be endured before any form of closure can be achieved.

I don’t  imagine it’s any coincidence that the ship carrying Tony back  for his longed for reckoning is named Ulysses. Just like the hero of Greek mythology, his is a long journey home, not quite a decade perhaps but it certainly develops into a supreme challenge and, as with all fables, there is a lesson to be learnt. Vengeance is a wonderful narrative device, it drives characters toward a confrontation, frequently with their own personal demons, and the better tales leave it in no doubt that it’s an unworthy goal. I think Fire Down Below is one of these better tales and the way the conflict is ultimately resolved lays bare the lie at the heart of the quest for revenge. Personally, I think it’s hugely satisfying that after the great conflagration, both emotional and physical, everything is settled not through violence but with a simple kiss. It’s somehow fitting that it is Irena who emerges Athena-like to restore harmony.

Robert Parrish was in the middle of a very strong run here, and would follow this up with two exceptional westerns, Saddle the Wind with Robert Taylor and The Wonderful Country which reunited him with Mitchum. This was a rich period for the director, blending timeless stories, attractive visuals and the kind of themes that defined an era of filmmaking. The movie looks very good and makes fine use of its locations, as shot by Desmond Dickinson,  but it’s not just a glossy travelogue. Parrish was adept at these stories of intertwined relationships and crises of conscience, and he seemed to raise his game when presented with the right material.

I said at the beginning that the movie could be characterized in three words and it’s also true that it all hinges on three different people. Jack Lemmon had already won himself an Oscar in John Ford’s Mister Roberts, and Fire Down Below was another step on the path to growing stardom. He’s a good choice for the mid-West rover; he had that fresh charm and impishness about him at this stage that made his romanticism believable, as well as the subsequent shattering of illusions and his thirst for revenge. The only point where I felt skepticism taking over was at the notion of him going head to head with a bull like Mitchum in a stand-up brawl. Mitchum is his typical cocksure and swaggering self, looking askance at the follies of the world and, you feel sure, not sparing himself any of that acerbic assessment.

However, everything ultimately depends on Rita Hayworth’s Irena. She provides the motivation for all the drama and passion, and I think the honesty of her performance is a big plus. This was her return to the big screen after an absence of four years and, by all accounts, a truly rotten and abusive marriage to Dick Haymes. She wasn’t yet 40 years old but she had about her the aura of one acquainted with disappointment, a woman grown aware of both the pros and cons attached to her beauty. I’m back with honesty again, but there is a raw frankness to her admission at one stage that she has debased herself in life, and the need this woman has to recapture some sense of self-respect is pivotal. Her great triumph, dramatically and spiritually, is sealed right at the end – one simple action serves to restore her own self-esteem, redeem her lover,  and grant a precious gift to his rival, dignity.

I’ve concentrated a lot on the three main characters here but I think the supporting cast of Bernard Lee, Bonar Colleano, Herbert Lom, Edric Connor, Anthony Newley and Eric Pohlmann deserve a brief mention at the very least.

I have an old DVD of Fire Down Below which was released many years ago and it still looks quite strong with rich colors and an attractive CinemaScope image. I understand it’s recently been included in a keenly priced 12 movie set of Hayworth’s films on Blu-ray via Mill Creek, and I imagine it will look even better in high definition. To date, I don’t believe the film has had an official release in the UK, an omission I would have thought one of the independent labels might seek to correct. Anyway, for the time being, I’ll leave you with Jeri Southern’s rendition of the theme tune:

The Furies on Blu-ray

It’s just come to my attention that Criterion in the US are upgrading Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) to Blu-ray, it’s due out in April.

This is an impressive if imperfect work, the western, film noir and melodrama converging in Anthony Mann’s movie, adapted from the Niven Busch novel. I wrote about the film here almost nine years ago (now that’s a sobering thought!) and it’s good to hear it’s getting reissued in high definition. Unfortunately, I’m locked in to Region B for Blu-ray but I’d like to think it might come on the market in Europe, maybe via Eureka if not Criterion’s UK division.

Canyon River

Back in the saddle. It’s been a while now since I’ve featured a western on this site, not that I’ve been consciously avoiding them, it’s just that other material has been occupying my thoughts as far as posting is concerned. Added to that is the fact I like to vary the content, to try to keep staleness at bay if nothing else. Anyway, I’ve found myself watching, and indeed writing up, a number of CinemaScope movies lately – others will follow in the weeks ahead. The first of those to make an appearance is probably the least of them, which is not to say it’s a bad movie. Canyon River (1956) is perhaps unremarkable yet it’s also entertaining and, what’s even more important, quietly satisfying in the way so many 1950s westerns manage to be.

There can be few things more satisfying than seeing a bullying loudmouth such as Robert J Wilke’s character have his pistol spectacularly kicked out of his hand and then get laid out by two well aimed haymakers. The man meting out this punishment in the opening scene is Steve Patrick (George Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher who may be facing financial difficulties but isn’t taking anything lying down. No, this is a man with a plan, albeit a plan which plenty of people will tell him he’s crazy to attempt. In brief, he wants to introduce a new cross breed of cattle, something which will involve a big gamble on his part and necessitate driving a herd along the Oregon Trail in the opposite direction and out of season. Aside from the hardships to be faced, there’s also the challenge of finding a crew willing to go along with this, not to mention the fact that the man he considers his closest friend (Peter Graves) is secretly plotting to take both his life and his herd. If all that didn’t represent sufficient difficulty, there’s also the matter of a young widow (Marcia Henderson) and her son (Richard Eyer) to consider.

What Canyon River presents is a fairly standard trail drive western, blending in that familiar yet always welcome 1950s focus on redemption and the potential for a fresh start. The redemptive aspect is related mainly (though not exclusively) to the greed and betrayal of Peter Graves’ character. I’m not entering spoiler territory here as the treachery is revealed to the viewer very early on and the knowledge of that adds a layer of suspense to the plot. How, or indeed whether, Graves will redeem himself is not resolved until late in proceedings and in the meantime another thread of redemption – more straightforward this time – is explored. This concerns the crew hired by Montgomery to undertake his unconventional drive. Well, they are an unconventional group, headed up by Alan Hale Jr and consisting of a ragtag bunch of criminals and ex-convicts. For them, this represents an opportunity to find a path back into society, a means of escaping destructive get-rich-quick schemes and winning back some degree of self-respect. Last but by no means least, the whole affair offers a chance of a fresh start for Montgomery himself along with Henderson and Eyer.

Canyon River, from Daniel B Ullman’s script, is a remake of the 1951 Bill Elliott western The Longhorn. Not having seen the earlier version, I can’t comment on that or make any comparisons but I do like this iteration. A number of films directed by Harmon Jones have been featured here in the past and I’ve found them all quite enjoyable. While this is a modest picture overall there is plenty to admire, from the attractive widescreen imagery, shot by director of photography Ellsworth Fredericks, to the feelgood positivity of it all, and that latter aspect is something I think we can all do with sampling in these stubbornly trying times.

A big part of what makes Canyon River work so well is the presence of George Montgomery. He imbues the part of Steve Patrick with an enthusiasm and verve that is infectious. However, what is even more important is the generosity and openness of the character; this is the key to the success of the central theme. It’s his simple faith in himself and human nature in general that draws in, inspires, and indeed shames some of the other characters. The sheer likeability of the man makes Graves’ betrayal of him appear even less appealing. I liked Marcia Henderson’s work in Back to God’s Country and she brings great warmth to her role in Canyon River, making the romance which blossoms between her and Montgomery especially sweet. This also applies to Richard Eyer, who is wonderful as the hero worshiping youngster. At one point, after a hard day on the trail, the boy quietly falls asleep by the fireside and Alan Hale’s reformed outlaw spots this.  Demonstrating unexpected tenderness, he carefully picks him up and gently deposits him in the wagon; it’s a fleeting moment but a telling one and a delightful little grace note.

Hale is extremely engaging all the way through and his gratitude is in stark contrast to the jealousy and duplicity of Peter Graves. Graves does fine work portraying this, and he also succeeds in getting across the inner turmoil of the character as the doubts and guilt slowly grow within him. Other villainous parts are taken by perennial louse Robert J Wilke, whom I spoke of above, as well as a somewhat underused Jack Lambert and Walter Sande. I sometimes feel no western would be complete were Ray Teal not to appear at some point, and he obligingly pops up as the cattleman who sells his herd to Montgomery.

Canyon River was an Allied Artists production and therefore it can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive. It’s a reasonably good looking transfer, in the correct aspect ratio and boasting strong, attractive colors. As far as I know, there are other copies available on assorted European labels. I remember coming across this movie on TV years ago and thinking at the time that it was passable but nothing special. Revisiting the movie recently, I came away with a far more favorable impression. Nevertheless, I don’t want to oversell it and have people thinking it’s some unmined gem that has just been unearthed. It is no world beater yet the mood, the message, and some good performances make for a very pleasurable 80 minutes of entertainment.

House of Strangers

Back in 2015 I looked at Broken Lance, a superior western and a remake of an earlier movie. I remarked at the time that I preferred the later version of the story and that’s still the case. Nevertheless, House of Strangers (1949), the original adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel, is an excellent piece of work when viewed in its own right. All versions and adaptations of stories bring something different to the table: the sensibilities of the filmmakers involved, themes added or removed, highlighted or suppressed. Where Broken Lance broadened and extended the scope of the material, House of Strangers retains a tighter focus overall.

A crowded sidewalk, bustling and bursting with life, and amid it all the eye is drawn to one solitary figure making his way through the vibrant mass, a detached and determined figure. He pauses before the imposing facade of a bank, the guard inside eyeing him fishily through the polished plate glass. This is Max Monetti (Richard Conte), once a sharp and arrogant lawyer but now just another ex-con. Actually, he’s a bit more than that; the bank was once the domain of his late father Gino Monetti (Edward G Robinson) before it was taken over by three of his sons, and before Max spent seven years as a guest of the state for jury tampering. Some of the brashness is still there though, and it’s enough to worry his siblings. It’s here that the lengthy flashback which occupies most the running time kicks in, showing how a family turned upon itself and slowly disintegrated, how rivalry and dissatisfaction became the seeds of hatred, how an old woman’s heart was broken and how a once grand home was transformed into a mausoleum to pernicious pride.

As in the image above, the past is forever peering over the shoulders of the characters. And it’s not just the malign spirit of Gino Monetti haunting his sons and poisoning their hearts, for even the old man in life was haunted by the specter of penury and subservience. The whole movie concerns itself with characters racing to keep a step ahead of their past, be it the stifling “old world” traditions that Gino professes to be desperate to throw off while apparently reveling in their trappings or another generation’s desire to be free of the too firm hold of an overcritical patriarch. Underpinning all of this is the concept of revenge or retribution, and the corrosive effect it has for all who drink from that particular cup.

I opened by speaking of a narrower focus, and I feel House of Strangers actively seeks to present a sense of restrictiveness. Instead of showing family as a symbol of fertility, it offers up a view of a stagnant and suffocating household, and I think it’s no coincidence that much of the action is rooted in the Monetti house and the old bank. Both structures have an old-fashioned ambience, a workplace where the sons are kept firmly in place – literally caged in the case of the elder brother Joe (Luther Adler) – and with limited options, and a home that is almost overpowering in the sheer weight and oppressiveness of its decor. The contrast with the light, spacious and airy apartment of Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), the one person in the movie with an outward-looking perspective, and the one who represents the chance for a clean break with the past and new start on the west coast, is marked and unmistakable.

Susan Hayward’s presence adds much to this movie. Her drive, allure, and most of all her infectious self-confidence represent the best hope of salvation for Richard Conte’s Max. The frank and witty dialogue those two trade is a highlight, giving an edge to their passion and, in Conte’s case, allowing his character to become much more rounded. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who apparently had an uncredited hand in the writing alongside Philip Yordan, was noted for the use of sophisticated dialogue and it’s a real boon in this picture. The visuals and themes are well handled and well realized, but the smartness of the script gives everything extra vigor.

Richard Conte could always be relied on when you needed someone tough and streetwise, and he starts out incredibly sure of himself, unpleasantly so in fact. It’s largely through his interaction with Hayward though that he unbends gradually, looking out instead of in, realizing what to embrace and what to reject. Edward G Robinson plays a man it’s hard to like – even in his more expansive and beneficent moods there’s a shade of self-importance about him. As the story progresses, this latter quality develops, eventually running to bitterness and, ultimately, spite and vindictiveness. With a trio such as Robinson, Hayward and Conte headlining, there’s not a lot of space left for others to make their mark. That said, Luther Adler is subtly impressive, enduring the pettiness and humiliations as he broods and nurtures a deep resentment. In support Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr are the other two browbeaten offspring, while the imposing Hope Emerson seems an unlikely mother to the diminutive Debra Paget.

House of Strangers was released on DVD years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir line and the image is pleasing if not perfect, with a few trailers and a commentary track by Foster Hirsch as supplements. All told, this is the kind of highly polished picture one would expect from 20th Century Fox and Joseph L Mankiewicz. The shift to a western setting allowed Broken Lance to successfully explore other ideas and make it a more satisfying experience. However, I like to examine every movie on its own merits and I feel House of Strangers deserves to be praised for what it is rather than disparaged for what it isn’t.