Seven Thunders

Referring to a film as a war movie probably brings to mind images of large set piece combat scenes, of pitched battles raging across the screen with intensity. Seven Thunders (1957) is a war movie and although it does feature an impressively destructive climactic set piece it is really a story (in truth a series of interlocking and interwoven tales) which is played out against, and given added urgency due to, the backdrop of war and occupation. It combines elements of a thriller, drama, and romance and ultimately ties together all the apparently disparate strands. As such, like all genre pictures, it is able to draw in and blend that which one might more readily associate with a different genre. That said, it perhaps tries to cast its net too far and too wide.

And speaking of casting nets, the opening scene by the dockside in the port of Marseille during the Nazi occupation sees a fishing vessel deposit its latest catch. Along with the bounty yielded by the Mediterranean is a pair of escaped Allied prisoners of war on the latest leg of their journey, having escaped from prison camps in Italy. Dave (Stephen Boyd) and Jim (Tony Wright) are taken to a safe house, somewhere to lie low till they can be shunted further along the line. The principal narrative thread is the experience of these two men, with particular focus on Dave and the street smart  young French girl (Anna Gaylor) he finds himself reluctantly falling in love with. Running parallel to this is the matter of Doctor Martout (James Robertson Justice), on the surface a man who is dedicated to aiding the flight of large numbers of refugees and otherwise doomed individuals, but in reality a cold and utterly ruthless serial murderer. Eventually, these two plot strands converge as the relentless Nazi pressure contrives to force the increasingly restless Jim to seek an alternative means of exiting a neighborhood that is soon to be razed to the ground. As these plotlines creep toward their dramatic confluence, other characters and tales spin out of and around them, adding more layers of both tragedy and comedy. There is the impoverished  intermediary (Eugene Deckers) who unwittingly sends victims to the psychopathic Martout and then finds his own life touched by an unspeakable loss. There is the young Wehrmacht soldier whose lack of lack of judgement, self-confidence and self-control brings about that loss. There is then the Englishwoman (Kathleen Harrison) who provides some much needed comic relief, not least when it is discovered that breaking through her wardrobe leads not to a magical land such as C S Lewis might have imagined but instead to a bordello. So, there is no shortage of incident as events build toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

All told, I don’t feel Seven Thunders ranks as one of Hugo Fregonese’s more successful pictures, although there is much to enjoy and appreciate in it and the director does some characteristically strong work. The main story is a compelling one and Fregonese gets the most out of the burgeoning romance between Boyd and Gaylor, capturing the immediacy of wartime relationships and gaining credibility both from the performances and the Marseille locations. On the other hand, the Martout sub-plot feels largely unnecessary – it’s neither poorly executed nor uninteresting, but it feels a little undeveloped in itself and also nudges the principal story aside on occasion. If it’s purpose is to add extra tension to the climax, I’m not sure that is necessary. In terms of linking elements together, the Martout strand fleshes out Eugene Deckers role and that in turn affords greater significance to the shocking and tragic business involving the Wehrmacht soldier. Still, I’d have thought those aspects could have been blended in by  some other means. I guess my criticism would be directed at the writing then as opposed to the direction. That writing derives from a novel by Rupert Croft-Cooke, someone whose work I’m more familiar with under his Leo Bruce pseudonym. Leo Bruce wrote some witty detective fiction and those lighter moments I mentioned involving Kathleen Harrison recall this.

Stephen Boyd was on the cusp of real stardom when Seven Thunders was made. He had recently had a memorable part in the fine thriller The Man Who Never Was and was about to get another good role in Henry King’s The Bravados, as well as prominent parts in some glossy melodramas in Hollywood. Overshadowing all this though would be the plum role as Messala in Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He handles the action scenes very competently, including a rooftop fight with a snooping German and the final escape from the city that is collapsing around his ears. The romantic relationship with Anna Gaylor works well too, there’s a sweetness to it and some chemistry between the players. Tony Wright, who had been cast in the early Hammer picture Bad Blonde / The Flanagan Boy opposite Barbara Payton and then portrayed the villain in Tiger in the Smoke, has less to do but carries it off satisfactorily. I tend to think of James Robertson Justice as primarily a comic actor, for the simple reason that those were the parts I first saw him in. However, he did plenty of dramatic work and I think there is something startlingly effective about seeing actors one associates with lighter work portraying out and out evil characters. I know I got a definite chill from seeing him calmly informing one of his victims of the fate which awaits him.

Kathleen Harrison had a long career, and a long life too, playing some wonderful eccentrics and brings both humor and believability to her turn as the woman who has made a life for herself in the French port. As the proprietress of the adjoining bordello, former dancer Katherine Kath nails the world weariness of her character and seasons it with a dash of knowing levity. In other supporting parts, Eugene Deckers has about his creased features that careworn seediness that is a close cousin to despair and, along with Rosalie Crutchley as his downtrodden wife, deals sensitively and effectively with some of the most touching and heartrending moments in the movie.

There is a UK DVD of Seven Thunders available; while the image is generally clean and attractive I’m not sure about the aspect ratio of the presentation, it may be open matte but I think it looks a little cramped at the sides in some shots. In the final analysis, I would rate this as a movie that works well for the most part despite the fact the script attempts to pack in more story than is strictly necessary.

A Double Life

Hollywood’s penchant for picking away at the veneer of its own glamorous facade to steal a furtive glance at the preening, grasping and backstabbing that lies beneath has been noted before. It tends to be fascinating, to this viewer at least, to watch people indulge in this type of cathartic soul-baring. A Double Life (1947) offers a variation on this theme, inviting us not only backstage on Broadway to peer behind the greasepaint of the performers, but drawing us deep into the soul and psyche of that master of duality, the actor. And in this case, it’s a journey into darkness indeed.

How does one go about describing a man, catching the essence of the person concisely? There are people who seem to be the epitome of simplicity itself, engendering responses from those around them to the effect that he’s a great guy, or perhaps not such a great guy. Sometimes there is a general consensus on this point. Then again, many a man is a much more complex proposition, a walking cocktail of positive and negative characteristics where the question of whether or not he’s a right guy is wholly dependent  on the opinions and experiences of the person one happens to ask. Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is an actor and is also an example of the complexity I referred to. The sense of the dual nature of man is apparent right from the beginning in both visual and narrative terms. He is first presented in the lobby of the theater where his latest successful play is running and he is caught in a brief pose in front of a portrait of himself, looking over his own shoulder in a sense, and this is then reinforced as he strolls through the city on his way to see his agent, provoking varying reactions from the individuals he encounters, some of whom sing his praises while others are somewhat less flattering.

He is about to be offered the role of Othello, one he has shied away from in the past but the allure is to prove too powerful to resist on this occasion. His ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) is to play the part of Desdemona, and all of this prompts hesitation and trepidation. This legally estranged couple remain close, Anthony is still in love and Brita, though more cautious and reluctant to expose herself to hurt, clearly retains feelings too. Obviously, there is the potential for two people working together under such circumstances to get swept along, or even carried away, by their passions. Initially, Anthony busies himself with rehearsals and a casual fling with a smitten waitress (Shelley Winters) but as the success of the production grows and the run is extended he  finds himself drawn more and more to Brita. All well and good, but the fact is this man is known to be an actor who throws himself body and soul into his characters and that’s not good news when he starts to suspect Brita of being in love with press agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien). Slowly, he finds himself identifying more and more with the murderous jealousy of the man he has been portraying night after night on stage.

Frankly, I don’t readily associate George Cukor with films noir, although he did make a few movies which to a greater or lesser extent drifted in that direction, such as A Woman’s Face, Keeper of the Flame and Gaslight. However, A Double Life heads determinedly down those half-lit byways of the human psyche, aided enormously by the rich, shadow-laden cinematography of Milton Krasner. While there is no shortage of talent among the principal players the quality of those behind the camera is every bit as impressive and the presence of such depth and experience adds immeasurably to the finished picture. Besides Cukor and Krasner, the writing of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, the lush scoring of Miklós Rózsa, and the editing of future director Robert Parrish all contribute to what is an undoubtedly classy production.

Ronald Colman won the Best Actor Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe, for his work in A Double Life, which I feel was well deserved. It’s a complex and challenging role, and it’s to Colman’s great credit that he embraces its inherent melodrama and plays it with resolute conviction and the type of sensitivity that is vital in retaining the sympathy of the viewer. After all, he is breathing life into a character who in less capable hands could so easily alienate the audience. I’m reminded of something I once read by the critic Ian Cameron in relation to the viewer’s identification or sympathy with noir protagonists. As I recall, he spoke about both the comfort and discomfort this can provoke in the audience. We get drawn in by those characters for whom we can feel some affinity, those whose positive qualities are clear to see and are more than simply cardboard heroes or villains. Still, when they are at best ambiguous or at worst outright criminals then there is an undeniable sense of discomfort on our part too; we don’t really want to find ourselves sympathizing or identifying with such types, and when we have been manipulated into that position the duality that characterizes the better, or more nuanced, films noir becomes apparent. As viewers, our comfort and discomfort (and perhaps the ethical no man’s land in between) is a reflection of the movies’ blending of light and dark, of its frequent sallies into the murky grey areas of moral ambivalence.

A Double Life has a tight core cast with Colman obviously remaining the focal point of it all. Signe Hasso gets across the conflicted feelings of her character effectively and brings the audience along with her. Her continued love for he ex is apparent as are the reservations she has about allowing those now dormant emotions to be awakened. The delicate balance of such contrasting desires can be tricky to convey successfully but Hasso remains convincing throughout, this emotional tightrope walk as well as her portrayal of Desdemona in the drama within the onscreen drama acting as another example of the ever present theme of duality.

Shelley Winters turns in another solid performance as the earthy and ultimately tragic waitress. It’s not a big part in terms of screen time but it is pivotal and Winters handles it well. I know that in the past I wasn’t so taken with her work but with some recent viewings I find I’m increasingly impressed. Edmond O’Brien makes yet another appearance in yet another noir. He is good enough here, but it has to be said the part doesn’t offer him as much as some others he was doing around this time. Still, what he does is fine and his presence is always welcome.

A Double Life has been given a Blu-ray release in the US by Olive, but I’ve been making do with my old DVD so far. This is a beautifully shot movie that oozes the noir visual aesthetic while the tragic conflict at the heart of the story anchors it firmly in the choppy waters of dark melodrama. This is a very polished production and one which I find repays repeated viewings.

Some Came Running

Some Came Running (1958) is quite simply a great movie. It’s a study of fear and frustration in small town America in the post-war years. Every main character is scared or insecure in one way or another, scared and insecure within themselves, wary and mistrustful of their strengths and weaknesses, and frequently unaware of or unclear about the difference.  Essentially, everybody we encounter wants what he or she cannot have, all except one. That one person appears to be the greatest dreamer of the lot, and yet it’s the purity of that dream that means it stands more chance of being realized than all the other castles in the sky combined.

Homecomings ought to be happy affairs, a chance to strengthen bonds and reacquaint oneself with family and friends, but as Elmer Bernstein’s frantic and vaguely discordant score plays over the credits, there’s no suggestion of joy ahead. We’re riding a bus, and the view through the windows is of countryside dipping and rolling down towards the town of Parkman, Indiana. There’s a touch of symbolism in that shot, the physical descent mirrors the spiritual one the protagonist is on, the process of stepping down from his emotionally and intellectually detached position to confront and reconnect with his past (indeed with himself) before he earns the right to ascend once more. It’s a practically deserted bus too and you get the impression that Parkman isn’t the kind of town people are in a hurry to reach, quite the opposite in fact. Slumped by the window and sleeping off what must have been a heavy night is Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra), a demobbed soldier back in his home town for no better reason than the fact his friends told the driver to drop him there. The only other passenger is Ginny (Shirley MacLaine), a “hostess” from Chicago who has followed Dave. While others naturally impact on the development of the story, it is these two who form the dramatic axis at the heart of the tale. He’s what might be described as a lapsed writer, a man who has lost his spark somewhere along the line and has traded his talent for a sour mix of whiskey and cynicism. And yet he hasn’t completely resigned himself to idle contemplation of the shot glass, as evidenced by the fact he still carries around his last manuscript, one he appears to regard with fond dissatisfaction.

Dave Hirsh is the man through whose eyes we follow the majority of events, watching his struggle with his art, with his friends and relations, and of course with himself. While he acts as our point of reference, it’s through his interaction with Ginny above all that we gain the broader perspective that adds depth. The growth and development of the character of Dave is propelled mainly by the presence and actions of Ginny, even if she is not always aware of the pivotal position she occupies.

“I don’t understand you neither, but that don’t mean I don’t like you. I love you! But I don’t understand you. Now what’s the matter with that?”

When we first encounter him, he is quite literally in a dark place, deflated, directionless and drunk. By the end of the movie, while there’s grief and sorrow on show, he’s returned to the light by having rediscovered everything that matters – he has recaptured his spirit, and that is reflected both in his renewed awareness of his artistic worth and his  recovered self-esteem as a human being who now understands he is capable and deserving of love.

What then of Ginny? Well, if Dave’s moment of truth, the bittersweet dawning of realization, comes late in proceedings, much of the impetus has derived from the presence of Ginny. Dave has spent an inordinate amount of time kidding himself that his salvation lies with the bookish and frigid Gwen (Martha Hyer). However, this is an illusion fed by his desire to escape the carefully constructed edifice of hypocrisy as represented by his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) and the grand soulless house he inhabits with his disaffected wife (Leora Dana) on the one hand, and the creative wasteland he’s found himself wandering through for years on the other. Gwen is incapable of loving anyone or anything real, at least in a physical sense. She resides in a house steeped in learning, a place where culture is a staple to the point that books proliferate and are to be found even in the kitchen, offering sustenance to the mind. Yet Gwen worships a kind of chaste and empty conception of art, one where the artist is a detached and essentially impotent figure, rendering art itself barren in the process. Juxtaposed with the emotional vacuum presented by Gwen is the simple, inarticulate tenderness of Ginny, the type of honesty that defines humility, and therefore selfless love. There’s a pathetically beautiful scene played out in an empty classroom just before the movie’s climax, that lays bare the contrasting characters of the two women – Gwen buttoned into her suffocating propriety, with just a hint of spite peeking out, while Ginny is a gushing mess of devotion and rouge. It is hard to imagine anyone essaying the vulnerability, warmth and utter lack of pretension or guile more successfully than Shirley MacLaine.

This shopworn ingenue who displays more nobility and emotional candor than anyone else is portrayed as a semi-comic figure throughout, with her ever present fur piece struggling to achieve some uneasy sophistication alongside the hopelessly immature handbag. Then right at the end, the mask is reversed to become the embodiment of tragedy. It seems fitting that this plays out as a Technicolor (Metrocolor, for the sake of accuracy) symphony, showcasing the intense and hypnotic use of color by Minnelli. In fact this sequence is shot, as indeed are a number of key passages, like a cinematic ballet; figures drift from light into darkness according to the ebb and flow of emotion, alternately cloaked in shadow and bathed in rich, vibrant hues, dancing around the flame of Minnelli’s camera.

If aspects of the movie are visually (by the way, cinematographer  William H Daniels’ contribution should not be underestimated) and rhythmically reminiscent of a musical, this is perhaps to be expected given the involvement of Minnelli, Sinatra and Dean Martin. Sinatra was at the height of his powers at this stage; he had a series of strong performances in some fine movies behind him – his screen work beginning with another James Jones adaptation From Here to Eternity and continuing up to the underrated A Hole in the Head for Capra constitutes a remarkable run – and his recordings for Capitol during these years are just sublime.

There is a lifetime of full-blooded living coloring Sinatra’s performance as Dave Hirsh and it feels as though this inspired those around him to travel that extra mile too. Dean Martin could be a lazy actor, falling back on that easygoing charm and his drawling drunkard shtick all too readily. Sure there is some of that in his Bama Dillert, but he brings a shading to the role that elevates it. He’s every bit as much a victim of the insecurity which runs rampant among the characters as anyone else – after all, isn’t the gambler, with his affectedly casual love affair with lady luck, the very epitome of uncertainty? What stands out most of course are the stubbornness and loyalty (two traits which aren’t all that far removed when you think about it) which define him. His pig-headed refusal to consider any change to his behavior, even when faced with the loss of a friendship and the threat to his health and life, feels credible in his hands. And the hat business is treated almost as a running gag, right up to the last shot of the movie, where it suddenly transforms into something deeply touching.

Like MacLaine and Hyer, Arthur Kennedy was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the movie – none of them won but it has to be said there was pretty stiff competition that year. Recently, I looked at Impulse, a relatively obscure British thriller, from a few years earlier and which saw Kennedy falling prey to middle-aged dissatisfaction. The part of Frank Hirsh offered the opportunity for further exploration of that theme. It’s a strong piece of work in truth, the calculating suspicion he feels at the beginning is slathered over inexpertly with fake bonhomie and unctuousness, none of which stands much chance of deceiving anyone for long. That dust dry laugh and back-slapping hospitality is just as much of a front as the image of familial harmony he works so hard to project. Yet, when it all comes crashing down in the aftermath of an ill-advised evening with Nancy Gates, there’s a sense of wistfulness about the whole affair. It is to Minnelli’s and the film’s credit that neither Gates nor Kennedy are explicitly judged or condemned; that mature generosity of spirit is admirable.

Warner Brothers released Some Came Running years ago in a box set of Sinatra movies. The CinemaScope image looks fine, and there’s a 20 minute feature on the movie as a supplement. Still, I have to wonder why a film of this quality hasn’t yet made it to Blu-ray since Minnelli’s mise-en-scène and use of color and shadow would surely look spectacular in high definition. Hopefully, this omission will be addressed sooner or later. The movie itself remains a great favorite of mine, and has been ever since I first viewed it many years ago. So, let me just end as I began by stating that this is simply a great piece of cinema, and I recommend it without reservation.

Moonfleet

Recognizing the familiar in the atypical; that sounds like the kind of triumphant banality commonly attached to a piece of cod sociological theorizing. In fact, it’s just my own clumsy way of pointing out how even the apparently uncharacteristic works of great filmmakers are frequently nothing of the sort. When one has in mind Fritz Lang’s time in Hollywood it’s tempting to think of film noir and leave it at that. However, that would be not only a mistake but a disservice to a man whose mastery of cinema meant that genre labels represented no limit, but instead offered extended opportunities to tackle the themes which interested him. Moonfleet (1955), despite its smugglers and 18th century trappings, is recognizably a Lang film and features elements that crop up all through his  work.

Young John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) is an orphan, on his way to the village of Moonfleet on the Dorset coast to look up the man his mother told him to find after she had passed. With a lowering sky and a deserted road, the atmosphere is already vaguely threatening and a tumbledown churchyard watched over by a stone angel heighten that feeling. When a claw-like hand is suddenly thrust from below the ground, well we’re veering into the realms of a Gothic nightmare. That sense is hardly dispelled when the youngster awakens in a local tavern to see a gallery of grotesques gazing down on him. Nevertheless,  he’s a phlegmatic type and unfazed by the experience, which is just as well as he’s about to witness a flogging and a shooting, carried out by the man he’s been traveling to see. Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger) is an ambiguous character, a man of some means but clearly a rogue too. It’s apparent that Fox and the boy’s mother had been close but it’s also plain that he’s reluctant to have responsibility for the child’s welfare thrust upon him. The lad is a determined sort though, neither intimidated by the violence all around nor the dissipated and bawdy company his new guardian regularly keeps. As the trappings of a horror movie ebb and flow like the tide itself, the adventurous elements of the story gradually dominate, with the prospect of lost treasure being recovered, and all the romance that promises. While the characters hunt for a fabulous diamond, the fact is both Fox and young Mohune are mining for a different kind of treasure, the former slowly coming to the realization that he might just have a chance of regaining some semblance of the honor he’d thought forfeit and the latter, well his treasure is the boundless optimism of youth and a simple faith in the the notion of friendship.

A colorful CinemaScope adventure with swashbuckling elements is unlikely to be the first mental image conjured up with the mention of a Fritz Lang film. Nevertheless, as I said above, Lang wasn’t a servant of any particular genre. He even made a number of westerns – Western Union, The Return of Frank James, Rancho Notorious – with varying degrees of success and all of those were at the very least interesting and bore signs of the director’s stamp. His films frequently deal with concepts of justice, of an uneasy relationship between morality and hypocrisy, where ambiguity resides on the periphery of society and the facade of respectability is ever at risk of slipping and revealing something altogether less savory underneath. Moonfleet weaves all of this into the fabric of its narrative and the heavy reliance on sets and the studio backlot suit the director better; with Robert Planck’s cinematography casting brooding shadows, Lang creates some wonderfully atmospheric tableaux in the church, the cemetery and the crypt below, where the monuments to the past watch impassively over the  intrigues of the present, all punctuated by the rich score of Miklos Rozsa.

Moonfleet is a movie with what I would term a deep cast, meaning there is an abundance of well known and instantly recognizable performers right down the list. Despite that, the focus remains firmly on Stewart Granger and Jon Whiteley at all times. Granger had a real flair for playing characters who had a dismal opinion of themselves, if not outright villains then heroes (or perhaps even anti-heroes) burdened with doubt and locked into a lifetime of regret. His Jeremy Fox quite literally carries the scars of a thwarted love, and there is the sense of some distant guilt hanging heavy on his conscience. His courtship of villainy and vice feels more like a self-imposed punishment than an indulgence. His potential redeemer comes in the form of Whiteley, who it is strongly hinted but never explicitly confirmed may be his own son. It’s not so much the innocent adoration but perhaps more the steadfast belief of the boy that imbues the man with the moral courage he thought he had squandered. There is something both moving and uplifting about the coda that brings the movie to a close, where Whiteley throws open the gate to his ancestral home, opening up the path to a better future and asserting in response to the doubts cast by the parson whether his guardian will ever return, not with boldness but with a simplicity borne of conviction: “He’s my friend.”

As for the rest of the cast, the majority play types of varying degrees of worthlessness. George Sanders could take on the part of a cad  with his eyes closed, his debauched and decaying aristocrat, purring with honeyed ennui plots and schemes in vain. His faithless wife is portrayed in her trademark slinky style by Joan Greenwood, a woman who will be forever associated with the role of Sibella in Kind Hearts and Coronets in this viewer’s mind. The striking Viveca Lindfors is a venomous blend of the pitiful and the malignant as Fox’s spurned mistress, beautifully framed with a serpent as companion in the image above, although I feel she’s underused. To some extent, the same could said of Melville Cooper, John Hoyt, Dan Seymour, Jack Elam and, in his final screen role, the unforgettable Skelton Knaggs.  Sean McClory fares better as the dissatisfied innkeeper/smuggler and gets to shine in one of the movie’s big set pieces – the face-off with Granger, where he swings a cruel looking halberd, must have been something to behold projected on the big screen.

Moonfleet has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Brothers but, for now at least, I’m still reliant on my old French DVD. It’s been a while since I last watched anything by Lang, which is odd as he has always been one of my favorite directors, and I’ve had it in mind to feature this title for some time. I believe it hasn’t the greatest reputation among Lang’s works but I like it a lot. It has mood and atmosphere, chills and adventure sharing screen space with tried and tested themes of the director, and what’s even more  important, there’s a positivity and buoyancy at its core that I cannot fail but respond to.

Blowing Wild

“You’ll never get away from me. I’ll never let you go. I’ll say you helped me. I’ll say I killed him and you helped me. I don’t care if they hang me just so they hang you, too!”

That sample of dialogue comes near the end of Blowing Wild (1953), during the climax and just before a no holds barred shootout. It is pure unashamed melodrama, as indeed is the entire movie. It came up in the comments section of a piece I wrote back last autumn and provoked the expression of a number of markedly contrasting opinions. At that point, I hadn’t seen the movie but my fondness for the stars and director not to mention the polarized views it prompted meant I was going to have to do something about that. It took a bit of time for me to get around to it (why break the habit of a lifetime, I suppose) but I have to say I’m delighted that I did – I had a wonderful time with it. Sure, as I said, the melodramatic aspects are dialed up as far as they can go and the emotions on display are raw and unrestrained. And I think that’s precisely what I liked about it, the fact that the director and cast wholeheartedly embrace the burning passions it depicts.

The credits roll to the accompaniment of Dimitri Tiomkin and Frankie Laine’s soaring and swooping theme song and the camera tracks the progress of a group of heavily armed bandits picking their way through locations that film fans will recognize from countless westerns, from Garden of Evil through The Wild Bunch. The screen caption tells us it’s “South America” but we know it’s Mexico. Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper) and his partner Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) are wildcatting, drilling for oil and about to lose their shirts. The fact is they are lucky not to lose more as those bandits led by El Gavilan (Juan Garcia), channeling Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, demand payment of the money the two oilmen don’t have before laying waste to the derrick and campsite. Our two hapless prospectors find themselves suddenly destitute and desperate to find some means of buying their fare back to the States, desperate enough to agree to haul a load of nitroglycerine back through the badlands they just vacated. When payment for this is withheld by Ian MacDonald’s smooth chancer – shades of To Have and Have Not creeping in here – the only way out seems to be taking a job with an old friend. Now why would anyone be reluctant, no make that downright hostile, to accept an offer from a friend? Well, that friend is Paco (Anthony Quinn) and the problem really relates to his wife Marina (Barbara Stanwyck). We first encounter her primping and sneering like a cat in heat in an already smouldering atmosphere, and it’s apparent to all, except the smitten Paco, that she and Jeff have what might be delicately referred to as a past. I’ll leave it at that for now; I reckon most people reading this can guess where the story is headed, and the real pleasure to be had is observing the emotional temperature get ratcheted up remorselessly.

While I have not seen all of Hugo Fregonese’s films – to be honest, I’ve really only seen a fraction of his output – I can confidently say that I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like, and some of them are quite wonderful. Saddle Tramp is very good while Apache Drums, The Raid, and Harry Black and the Tiger are all excellent. Blowing Wild is all about love, loyalty, passion and betrayal, and every one of those elements is given an extensive workout in Philip Yordan’s script. Some will say it’s overdone, that the seasoning is too rich and the blend is too heavy. I have to disagree though. When I think of passion I think of the Greek πάθος, from which it is derived, and all the full-bodied and full-blooded longing and suffering it implies. One cannot portray something so primal and powerful with subtlety or delicacy, it needs to be given full rein, and Fregonese’s movie certainly does just that.

As for the casting, Cooper looks worn and a little beat up as he so often did in the 50s, but it’s a good look for him, complementing that characteristic halting delivery of his and making him seem a little more human. His Jeff Dawson is a stoic creation, a solid man of principal with most of the edges smoothed down by the hard experience of just living, yet still vital and still hungry. Whether his hunger relates to the black gold he’s drilling for or the two women vying for his attention is eventually resolved, but not before all have had a chance to flirt with him. The focus is mainly on Stanwyck, a woman who looks as though she’s got what she wanted, but it’s clear enough that this is only what she thought she wanted. Her realization that she has actually succeeded only in deceiving herself lies at the heart of her obsessive pursuit of Cooper. Love has become twisted into fixation and all the destructiveness that follows in its wake. The age of these two works in their favor as well, in my view anyway. Cooper was in his early 50s, but looking older, and Stanwyck in her mid-40s when Blowing Wild was made. To me, this lends a touch of urgency that would be missing had a younger pair been cast in these roles, and it amounts to an added layer to appreciate.

Ruth Roman seems to have been a bit short-changed in her part. It’s a key role and one that you would expect to offer more, but her character is ill-defined and frequently sidelined. This isn’t a criticism of Roman, who plays the part well, but the way her character is written. Anthony Quinn is as large as ever; it’s a typical performance in some respects with all the bravado and heart you tend to associate with the man, but touchingly and admirably vulnerable too. When Paco acknowledges his own fears and powerlessness (are we to read into that some allusion to a different type of impotence?) we are treated to one of those moments of honesty that are always welcome. Ward Bond’s sympathetic sidekick is fine too but the second half of the movie sees him off screen for long stretches as he recuperates in hospital from a gunshot wound.

As for availability, Blowing Wild was released  some years ago by Olive Films and the picture quality is very strong, crisp and clean with only one very brief sequence early on looking a bit rough. I don’t believe the film is that well thought of and it probably has more detractors than supporters. However, I’m happy to place myself in the latter category and I certainly recommend it to those who enjoy their melodrama bold and brazen. With that, I’ll sign off and leave you with Frankie Laine’s rendering of the theme song:

Impulse

Billy Wilder made The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Twelve months before that, Cy Endfield’s Impulse had a moody Arthur Kennedy longing to scratch the 8 year variety in the UK – perhaps things developed at a more measured pace in Britain in those days, even dissatisfaction. That said, there’s nothing especially slow-moving about the film itself and it has that generally attractive vibe that I find in a lot of Tempean productions.

It all begins with a suitcase, that simple object that signals the beginning or end of a journey, hinting at romance and the tantalizing  promise of escape too. Here though any escape alluded to is of a slightly darker hue. Pretty much everybody in the movie is looking for an out, even those who only gradually come to realize it. Alan Curtis (Arthur Kennedy) is one of those types, an American who hasn’t made it back to the States after the war and has instead married an English girl (Joy Shelton) and settled down to a quiet life in the Shires. The trouble for our unlikely estate agent is that it’s become just a little too quiet, too ordered and altogether too predictable. His wife is off on a trip to town and even the car ride with her to the station reveals the restlessness that’s gnawing away at him; this is a man yearning for a taste of excitement once again, and such men are only a step or two away from trouble. Well that trouble will find him soon enough, a stormy night, a breakdown on a lonely stretch of road, and a glamorous woman in need of assistance is all it takes. That woman is Lila (Constance Smith), a night club chanteuse and the person who will not only lift Curtis out of the rut he’s been grouching about but send him spiraling into a nightmarish world of stolen gems, racketeers and sudden death.

They say you ought to be careful what you wish for, well we all know the punchline to that one I guess. In a way that’s slightly reminiscent of Edward G Robinson’s bored professor in The Woman in the Window, Arthur Kennedy sees an apparently innocent flirtation lead to all kinds of unexpected and potentially ruinous consequences. The idea of an essentially average type stumbling into an increasingly dangerous and bewildering set of circumstances, with  salvation forever near yet forever dancing back into the shadows with a provocatively ironic laugh every time the poor sap is on the point of grasping hold of it, is such an archetypally noir setup. The screenplay is by director Cy Endfield (although the on screen credit reads Charles de Lautour) and Lawrence Huntington (The Upturned Glass), and the protagonist’s lurch into a twilight world is plausible enough, although noir purists may feel they drop the ball at the end. Personally, I’m not troubled by that aspect and prefer to look at the whole thing as an ethical fable, a warning for the curious if you like, where where it isn’t necessary to take matters to full on Scarlet Street extremes.

Constance Smith’s career was heading towards an abrupt halt at this stage, and indeed her life would take on a distinctly noir shading in the years to come, but none of that is in evidence on the screen. She turns in a good performance as the singer with secrets, and it’s easy to believe in anyone succumbing to her appeal; it’s a confident piece of work, combining humor, sexiness and just a hint of desperation at a couple of key moments. Kennedy is fine too and taps into a nice line in disenchantment, and he’s capable of grit and toughness when the script requires. The focus remains firmly on the two leads, which is fine as it lends a touch of intimacy to the story. Jack Allen provides solid support as Kennedy’s business partner and friend. Joy Shelton doesn’t get a lot to do, which is a pity as I think a little more development of her character might have added a layer of complexity to the drama. Cyril Chamberlain will be an immediately recognizable face to anyone familiar with British films of this era and he pops up here as a persistent henchman. I don’t think I’m straying too far into spoiler territory here if I say that the main villain is played, with suitable oiliness, by James Carney. Impulse was his last role and it appears he died the following year from gunshot wounds (if IMDb is to be believed) but I’ve not been able to learn anything else beyond that.

Impulse probably isn’t the most readily available title, in all honesty. It can be found in Renown’s Crime Collection Vol.2, and it’s in fairly good shape overall – I imagine it pops up from time to time in the UK on TPTV so that’s maybe another option. I have a bit of a soft spot for the output of Robert S Baker and Monty Berman’s Tempean Films, an outfit which may not have produced any especially great movies,  but made a lot of entertaining ones nonetheless. The sheer number of crime/noir movies made in Britain in the post-war years is staggering and while some of them are eminently forgettable, there are plenty offering a good deal of viewing pleasure, either in spite or because of their modesty. Impulse is relatively obscure but well worth a look for fans of the director or the stars.

A Left and a Right

The fight game, with its allusions to glory and honor taking a ringside seat with corruption and manipulation, has often been featured in films noir, either peripherally or as a central plot element. Today, guest poster Gordon Gates focuses on a couple of boxing movies that don’t get talked about so much.

A double bill of boxing programmers with early Robert Ryan, Scott Brady and Richard Denning performances:
Golden Gloves (1940) & In This Corner (1948)
These two boxing films are early examples of what would become top flight noir films such as Champion, The Set-Up and The Harder They Fall.

First up is Golden Gloves from 1940

Richard Denning is an up and coming amateur boxer who makes a couple of bucks on the side, boxing for small time racketeer, J. Carrol Naish. Naish runs a string of boxing clubs that holds mismatched fights to packed crowds. “The people want knock-outs. So that is what i give them.” Robert Paige plays a newspaperman out to expose the racket which of course annoys Naish no end.

Paige arranges an amateur boxing tournament with straight up matches and proper refs, doctors etc. When George Ernest, the kid brother of Denning’s fiancée, Jeanne Cagney, is killed in one of Naish’s mismatches, Denning decides to join Paige and clean up the sport. Naish has other plans, and decides to wreck Paige’s next event by planting a ringer, Robert Ryan. (Ryan’s second credited role) Ryan’s job is to win the amateur event and then tell the papers he is really a pro.

This of course would destroy Paige’s attempt at cleaning up the sport. Naish now murders a boxer who threatens to spill the beans to the press. There is plenty of double dealing and knives to the back going on in this one. Edward Brophy, who plays a crooked manager, is a complete hoot to watch. Needless to say the last fight becomes a bout between Denning and the ringer, Ryan.

Denning manages to pull off a win to save the day while Naish and his gang are grabbed by John Law for the murder.

While I’m not saying this is an actual noir, there are plenty of flashes throughout the film. The cast and crew here would go on to be featured in many film noir.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk with help from an uncredited, Felix Feist. Dmytryk of course went on to helm the noirs Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, Crossfire, Obsession and The Sniper. Feist also dabbled in film noir with The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Threat, The Man Who Cheated Himself, Tomorrow Is Another Day, The Basketball Fix and This Woman Is Dangerous included in his resume.

The D of P was Henry Sharp who lensed Ministry of Fear, The Glass Alibi, High Tide and Guilty.

The film was written by noir regulars Maxwell Shane, Fear in the Night, The Naked Street, The Glass Wall and Lewis R. Foster, who did Crashout and Manhandled.


Next up on the bill is In This Corner from 1948.
This one has Scott Brady in his third film and first lead, as a just out of the Navy scrapper who wants to become a pro boxer. He tells his girl, Anabel Shaw, that he is off to join an old Navy vet who manages a boxing club. Brady tells her that once he makes his fame and fortune, they can get married etc.

Brady finds the old vet has not managed a fighter in years and the club is just an old rooming house with himself as the only boxer. Brady sticks it out and is soon hired as a sparring partner at a club owned by a mobbed up manager, James Millican. Brady is soon signed to a contract by Millican after he decks a ranked fighter during a sparring bout.

Brady KO’s his first opponent and is soon moving up with 9 straight wins. His girl Shaw joins him and life looks good. That is till Millican informs him he is to take a dive in the next weekend’s fight. Millican’s mob is placing a large wager at long odds on Brady’s opponent, and his assistance is required. Brady is more than a little annoyed at this idea and tells Millican to get stuffed. Brady intends to win and to hell with the mob! Of course the mob has a back-up plan. They stick a punch-drunk boxer one step away from the morgue in with Brady to spar with. The boxer, Johnny Indrisano, goes down in a heap at the first punch and is hauled off to the hospital. It is the night of the fight, and Brady is getting ready to enter the ring when a telegram is delivered. It states that Indrisano has died from Brady’s punch to the head.

Needless to say this news throws Brady’s game off and he is savagely thrashed, just like the mob wanted. He asks for a re-match in 3 weeks and gets it. He trains hard but the death of Indrisano eats at him. The day of the fight, Brady sends Shaw off to see about helping out the dead boxer’s family. Imagine the surprise when Shaw finds no record of Indrisano’s death.

She digs deeper and discovers the whole thing was a mob ploy to upset Brady. She hunts down the quite alive Indrisano who is being stashed at Millican’s country house. Of course while all this is going on, Brady is again being pummeled in the ring. Shaw, the police and the just rescued Indrisano get to the arena just in time for Brady to rebound for a KO. Millican is grabbed up by the cops and the film is wrapped in just under an hour.

The director was Charles F. Riesner, whose claim to fame was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store. The D of P was Guy Roe who worked on noir such as, Railroaded, Behind Locked Doors, Trapped and Armored Car Robbery. The story is by Fred Niblo Jr who worked on Convicted, The Incident, The Bodyguard and The Wagons Roll at Night.

Ex-pug Johnny Indrisano sported a 64-9-4 record as a pro and beat several world champs during his career. He then became a character actor and a trainer for boxing films. He has bit parts in 99 River Street, Johnny Angel, The Bodyguard, Knock on Any Door, Tension, Borderline, Force of Evil, The Set-Up and about a dozen more noirs and numerous TV shows.

Nifty little low renter that is better than I make it sound.

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Gordon Gates

Autumn Leaves

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The present is made up of little bits of the past.

Recently, I spoke a little about filmmakers venturing outside of their perceived comfort zone and the how the ability to do so successfully can be taken as an indication of their artistic skill. The classic era of Hollywood moviemaking could be seen as a factory environment which encouraged specialization among performers, writers and directors. I say could because it’s not really the case at all and once one looks beyond a handful of headline titles it’s an assertion that rarely stands up to any scrutiny. Even the unsung journeymen were afforded the opportunity to try their hand at a range of genre pictures. I think the better or more interesting directors understood the challenge presented by these opportunities, that the form and conventions of genre (that frequently maligned term) could be adopted, applied or discarded as appropriate in the pursuit of their art. It’s easy to look at the films of Robert Aldrich and decide he was simply a classy purveyor of tough cynicism, and indeed I’ve been guilty of doing so myself in the past. However, I’d like to think that the years bring us if not exactly wisdom then at least a broader critical perspective. So in that spirit, let’s look at Autumn Leaves (1956), a superficially atypical offering from one of cinema’s great talents.

The story opens with Millie Wetherby (Joan Crawford) hard at work. She spends her days in her neat bungalow typing up manuscripts for writers, putting the finishing touches to the experiences and adventures of others, a vicarious existence if ever there was one. Her life is a mundane one, and a lonely one at that. When a satisfied customer passes on a couple of concert tickets he doesn’t need she accepts them and decides to treat herself to a rare evening out. A brief flashback sequence triggered by the familiar music makes it plain that Millie’s solitary life is the result of sacrifices she made to care for an ailing parent, that time and opportunity just passed her by. And yet her walk home takes her past a small eatery, a place that catches her eye for no special reason other than a reluctance to let the evening end. Still, taking those tickets and yielding to that impulse to stop off for a bite to eat before returning to the empty home prove to be pivotal moments in this humdrum and inconsequential life. As she sits alone in her booth, prim and composed, listening to the movie’s title song on the jukebox the shadow of a wistful smile plays across her features. Another shadow enters the frame at this point, another customer hoping to share some table space in the crowded restaurant. This is Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson), a fresh-faced and talkative young man, one more soul adrift in the urban anonymity. Here we have the beginnings of a tentative and rather sweet romance, a predictable setup in many ways. Yet the tone and direction alter radically in the second half as a far from attractive past barrels its way into the fragile present, and the threat to that fragility is what forms the basis of the drama which subsequently unfolds.

The cinema of the 1950s is an endlessly fascinating subject for this viewer. There are of course the technical advances which were ongoing and literally changing the shape of the movies, but it’s the thematic probing that seems to characterize this decade of filmmaking which intrigues me most. The promise and potential, the surface gloss of this brave new post-war world seemed to offer so much food for artistic contemplation. Time and again we encounter the notion of rebirth and renewal in 50s cinema, and indeed the characters played by Crawford and Sheppard Strudwick openly discuss the concept of being reborn in what is otherwise one of the more prosaic scenes in this picture. However, I’m of the opinion that reinvention is perhaps a more appropriate word to describe the central theme of Autumn Leaves. Millie certainly reinvents herself in the role of carer which she appears to have occupied all her life, although one might argue the ending does look to a future beyond that. Burt is without doubt the most obvious source of reinvention; he adopts and discards aspects of his past and present at the drop of a hat, unconsciously creating whatever reality feels expedient on any given occasion. Of course the consequent psychological meltdown and the road back from the mental abyss into which he descends is another part of that process.

So what can one say about Aldrich, and is there cynicism on view here? Well yes and no. If one takes the view that peering beyond the veils of society to get nearer the truth is cynicism, then perhaps Aldrich can be said to be a cynic. I’m not sure that is the case though; for one thing cynicism suggests a sourness, particularly on a personal level. As I see it, Aldrich wasn’t going down that route. On the contrary, I see a man casting a sidelong glance at society on an institutional level, almost like a more abrasive version of Douglas Sirk. Unlike Sirk’s more sumptuous, glossy presentation of a flawed idyll, Aldrich’s visual approach is starker and more direct with Charles Lang’s noir-shaded cinematography and the canted angles and mise-en-scène emphasizing the narrow range of options open to his trapped and tormented characters.

Joan Crawford’s career on screen could be separated into distinct eras, with Autumn Leaves coming close to the end of a very successful run starting with Mildred Pierce. Her role as Millie Wetherby is a strong one and a good fit for her at this stage in her life and career. There’s an open acknowledgement of all the little (and not so little) insecurities that come with ageing. There are, as expected, a number of “big” moments but it’s actually some of the smaller, more intimate instances that stick in my mind, that early scene in the restaurant for example, or some of the exchanges with Ruth Donnelly. Cliff Robertson landed a plum part as the deeply disturbed Burt and his handling of the character’s slow disintegration is well done, with vague hints dropped from early on and casual lies imparted before their enormity is finally revealed.

Both Vera Miles and Lorne Greene are fine too as the calculating ex-wife and the frankly sinister father respectively. I mentioned before Aldrich’s less than reverent view of institutions and his take on an appallingly dysfunctional family is deeply shocking. Miles’ glacial turn as the entitled and contemptuous ex is marvelously mean – leaving that cigarette smouldering in the ashtray in Crawford’s bungalow is a nice touch. And Greene is on top form as the bullying, creepy patriarch. If family is seen as representing the bedrock of society, the horrors implicit in Burt’s domestic background offers as withering a criticism of the post-war American Dream as one could imagine. In support, the aforementioned Ruth Donnelly is a joy every time she appears and there are small parts for Maxine Cooper (Velda from Kiss Me Deadly) and, as a gloriously jaded and world weary waitress, Marjorie Bennett.

Autumn Leaves is one of Robert Aldrich’s early films that seems to get much less attention than his other work from around that time. Frankly, it deserves better as all those involved give a good account of themselves, not to mention the fact the movie tackles a tricky subject with confidence. Rather than resort to dry cynicism, Aldrich takes an unflinching look at the process of decay in certain institutional pillars but reserves a cautious optimism for the individuals at the heart of his drama and for their simple hopes. And, last but by no means least, there’s Nat “King” Cole’s superb theme song:

These Thousand Hills

Innocent? Well, that depends on who the jury is. I’ll tell you a couple of things I ain’t guilty of. I ain’t prayed on Sunday. Bought cows cheap on Monday. I ain’t broke my word. I ain’t climbed up high on somebody else’s back or thought of myself better than another man. I ain’t double-crossed a friend or made a little tin god out of money. Sure, I’m innocent. I’m as innocent as you. Or ain’t you boys innocent?

Dreams, and loss, and discovery, these ideas amount to a fine framework around which to construct a drama. If they are not constants, then they are at least experiences common to all of us, situations which therefore resonate because of their universality. One could trace the course of many a life by following the line or arc punctuated and described by them, which is precisely what occurs over the hour and a half running time of These Thousand Hills (1959).

This is the story of Lat Evans (Don Murray), whom we first encounter signing on with  a cattle outfit and chafing at the bit to get ahead in the world. His is a poor background, and an unhappy one too, shaped by a father whose lack of professional success saw him turn to unbending religion and ruthless discipline. This has worked its way into the heart and soul of Lat, forging an inner steel that produces the kind of resilience necessary to rise in the world, but also encourages another colder hardness, the type that is capable of shattering the most intimate relationships. While Lat is without question the principle figure in the affair, those dreams and losses and discoveries I opened by speaking about also relate to others in the picture. Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) is direct in his pursuit of a simple philosophy that life is for living, exuberant and reckless where Lat is driven and calculating, a man whose heart will always overrule his judgement. And finally, we have Callie (Lee Remick), a saloon girl possessed of a natural compassion and charity. Her love is of the simple and uncomplicated variety, and it founders on the rocks of sanctimony and abuse.

All that may sound like a rather grim business, and there’s certainly grief and tragedy on display. Nevertheless, those elements serves a purpose, without them the film’s central message about the triumph of the human spirit would be diminished. By the end of the 1950s the western had attained artistic synergy, a place where theme, story, and visuals all came together to form something splendid. Salvation and redemption are basic ingredients of all human endeavor, they are the prize sought by all and the way these movies integrated the concepts into their fabric with such subtlety remains one of their most enduring strengths. I haven’t read the A B Guthrie novel which this movie is  based on but the film Richard Fleischer directed and Alfred Hayes scripted is a fine piece of work. The Colorado locations are stunning at times and those magnificent vistas form a suitably epic backdrop for this tale of towering ambition and high ideals. Fleischer made some very good and visually striking movies in the 50’s, exploring all the possibilities afforded by the CinemaScope image and his use of rich, vibrant colors is immensely attractive.

The character of Lat Evans isn’t an easy one to portray on screen, requiring a maturing process to take place not only over a relatively short running time but in a fairly complex way too. It’s to Don Murray’s great credit that he manages to pull it off successfully, the shifting of his priorities and the corresponding drift of loyalties and allegiances never appears jarring or affected. What’s more, the nature of the man he plays is layered at all times – enthused yet reserved, ambitious and loyal while also prone to hypocrisy. When his moment of truth finally arrives and he heeds the voice of his own conscience, although arguably it’s a two stage affair, it’s never less than convincing. Stuart Whitman is also on good form as the flighty friend and turns in a performance of great charm. His best scene is the one where he shyly asks Lat to be best man at his wedding to saloon hostess Jen (Jean Willes), and he finds himself rebuffed by his friend’s puritanical propriety. His journey from confusion and hurt through to explicit anger is so well realized, and extremely effective.

There are two significant female roles, those played by Lee Remick and Patricia Owens. Remick got the plum part, that of the woman who loves Lat unconditionally and suffers the greatest indignities for her trouble. It’s her actions that set Lat on the initial path to success and, despite all she must bear, she is not only the one who triggers his ultimate redemption but proves herself to be his physical savior as well. Patricia Owens has a less sympathetic part; she comes over as somewhat spoiled and priggish, but there’s more to her character than that, which is made clear by the end. Richard Egan is at his callous and brutal best as the villainous Jehu. Cheating, conniving, provocative and sadistic, he uses his confidence and physical presence well and the build up to the final confrontation (shot amid the garish crimson decor of the saloon) has him sneering and positively dripping malignancy.  Among the supporting cast Albert Dekker and Royal Dano offer reassuringly recognizable faces.

These Thousand Hills was put out on DVD many years ago by Fox and it still looks strong and attractive – the studio was generally releasing a lot of exceptionally fine transfers back then – in crisp and colorful CinemaScope. I’m not aware of the movie ever having been released on Blu-ray anywhere and, given the ownership of the rights now, that does not seem likely to happen in the near future. As for the movie itself, I don’t believe those dreams mentioned above are fully realized by anyone while all of the main characters experience loss, and innocence is probably the chief casualty in this regard. Still, all of this is eclipsed by discovery and it applies to practically everyone involved, though most tellingly in the case of Lat. The epiphany he undergoes is what adds meaning, bears out the words of his old boss about nobody finishing up the same as they started out, and leaves the viewer with a sense of closure. The final year of the western’s greatest decade saw a number of superior movies produced (and this is true too across a range of genres if we’re being honest) and These Thousand Hills slots neatly in among them. I never cease to be impressed by the sheer richness of the western in these years and the apparently effortless artistry of those working within the genre. A superb film and highly recommended.

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: