Thunder in the East

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An exotic locale, a morally dubious lead, and a set of circumstances with all the potential of a powder keg in a raging inferno – this is the kind of scenario which generally grabs my attention effortlessly. Such movies always hold out the promise of adventure, intrigue and, if we’re lucky, maybe a little something extra to spice it all up. Thunder in the East (1951) is a film that could have sold itself to me on the basis of the cast alone, and the aforementioned plot elements simply ramped up the appeal.

India, in the period just after independence, and a plane lands in the fictional province of Ghandahar. The pilot is Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd), one of those rootless Americans so beloved of films of the period. He claims to have an appointment with the Maharajah, and positively exudes the kind of cockiness that is the preserve of men confident of making a quick and substantial profit. We never learn much about what made Gibbs the man he is beyond the fact he once was a member of the Flying Tigers, but that’s not really important. He’s in Ghandahar to sell a shipment of arms to the head man and the unstable political situation thereabouts leaves him feeling pretty sure of his chances of success. Regardless of all that, our man is riding for a fall as he’s failed to count on the presence of the Maharajah’s right hand man, and the real power in the province, Singh (Charles Boyer). The latter is a man of rigid principle, one who has seen what can be achieved without resort to violence and is thus determined to be rid of Gibbs and his cargo of munitions. Before he knows what’s hit him, this flyer finds his wings clipped and his weapons impounded. Still and all, a man like Gibbs is naturally inclined to sniff out the chance of making a deal wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. If that means selling his wares to the rebel opposition in the surrounding hills and later topping up his take by evacuating the Europeans he’s placed in greater danger, then so be it. But fate, or perhaps destiny if one’s mind runs in that direction, has a habit of intervening and toying with such schemes. Few men are truly devoid of conscience or feelings, and the apparently innocuous presence of a blind woman (Deborah Kerr) stirs memories of such sentiments within Gibbs. What remains to be seen is how this mercenary character will respond, and indeed how others will similarly address their own preconceptions, as the militia relentlessly burns and butchers its way towards the practically defenseless palace.

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Thunder in the East was directed by Charles Vidor, a man whose work I’m not all that familiar with. Gilda is clearly his standout title (Ladies in Retirement is one I intend to get round to as I work my way through my unwatched pile) and ought to mark him out for attention even if he’d never shot another picture. His work on here is fine although it flags a little in the middle as the tension drops off slightly. The film was photographed by Lee Garmes, who was in the middle of a fine run at this point, and his touch is particularly evident in the second half. While it never reaches the heights of exoticism or atmosphere to be found in von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express there’s much to admire in the filming of Ladd’s drive through the sacked town and the tense climax in the besieged palace grounds.

For me, the theme underpinning a film is the aspect which stimulates or interests me most. Even the most casual viewer to this site will be aware that I’m an unashamed fan and champion of the western, that purest and most beautiful of all cinematic genres. The classic western theme is that of redemption and spiritual rebirth, yet it’s by no means confined to that genre and can be found throughout cinema, particularly in the classic period. Thunder in the East is therefore no exception in this respect, and I think it’s this which is its greatest strength. The intrigue and suspense have a part to play of course but the heart of it all, that which gives it life and artistic value, is the redemptive journey undertaken by Steve Gibbs. Allied to this, and bolstering it all, is the focus on the restorative power wrought by the faith of others in the inherent decency and humanity of even the most jaded of souls; just as Ladd becomes the eyes of Kerr by proxy, so she becomes the small voice whispering persuasively within his mind to kindle the embers of half-recalled ideals.

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Alan Ladd seemed to make a habit of starring in a string of movies located in the East around this time – Calcutta, Saigon, China – and this provided a pretty good role for him. He had the laconic toughness down pat and was generally at his best when he used that quality to disguise his inner pain. I think the best acting always derives from the search, either within or without, for fulfillment and the peace which accompanies it, and Ladd was a fine exponent of that. For such a quest to take place it’s necessary for a tangible and credible motive to exist. If Ladd is the tarnished knight, then his grail is represented by Deborah Kerr. She was always a classy performer, alluring yet also pure. I alluded to the western above, and I shall do so again as Kerr’s role illustrates just how significant the female frequently is in both spurring and completing the spiritual odyssey of the hero. Playing blind, or indeed any physically challenged, characters can be problematic, the potential for descent into cliché being ever present. In my opinion Kerr avoids that danger and gives a portrayal of a fully rounded character who never strays towards the pitiful nor the superhuman. Boyer is also fine as the conflicted and idealistic Singh, embarking on a philosophical journey of his own over the course of the story. In support, Corinne Calvet is perhaps somewhat wasted as the fearful courtesan and I think more could have been made of her part. In smaller roles, John Williams and Cecil Kellaway are welcome faces in fairly typical, but highly enjoyable, character turns.

As a fan of Alan Ladd I’ve always been on the lookout for his films and Thunder in the East has been one of the more elusive titles. It’s recently been released on DVD in Italy and I was keen to sample it. The transfer is what I’d term as OK, a little soft and muddy with occasional instances of print damage visible. Having said that, this Paramount film is not widely available and I can’t say the overall presentation was a major disappointment under the circumstances. The soundtrack is offered in both the original English and also an Italian dub and there are optional Italian subtitles. The disc features the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries as extras. I should perhaps point out that the movie offers up a critique of the philosophy of passive resistance, building towards a resolution that may or may not appeal – I leave that judgement to each individual, and it’s not my intention to pass comment on it either way. On the whole, I liked the film. Some may regard the ending as being a little rushed but I can’t say it bothered me too much. Recommended to those who enjoy Ladd and Kerr, and who appreciate the kind of themes often found in westerns of the era.

Gilda

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Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

I guess one of the defining characteristics of film noir is its subversive nature. It tends to take traditional scenarios and situations and casts its dark and cynical shadows over them, carrying the audience along on a journey into a murky and unfamiliar world. This subversion can apply to the legal system, social matters, or affairs of the heart. Gilda (1946) concentrates on the latter category, spinning its tale of three people locked into a romantic triangle, unable to decide if they love or hate each other and apparently unaware of the distinction between these powerful and conflicting emotions.

The story begins in Argentina at some unspecified point towards the end of WWII. But there’s a timeless, otherworldly quality to it all – the end of the war and the ensuing celebrations are mentioned in a throwaway fashion that’s surely meant to emphasize the detachment of the lead characters from the real world and the more mundane concerns of most people. These people seem to exist and operate within their own self-contained universe, a glamorous yet nightmarish demi-monde, where the bigger picture of world-changing events are relevant only as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The opening shot of the movie introduces Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a down on his luck grifter rolling dice on the waterfront and looking for easy marks. His strategy is a high risk one, not just because he’s a gambler but because his loaded dice are sure to attract the attention of disgruntled suckers sooner or later. When the inevitable happens, and Johnny finds himself the victim of a shakedown on a dark and forbidding wharf, his hide is saved by the intervention of a suave gentleman with a handy sword stick. This is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a casino owner with an interest in shadier and even more profitable ventures. Johnny is nothing if not an opportunist and soon talks himself into employment, and a position of trust, with Ballin. For a time this mutually beneficial arrangement works and everything is sailing along smoothly on calm waters, until a woman appears and brews up a storm. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a sexual powerhouse, a woman whose passionate nature and provocative insolence seems to radiate from within. Her sudden and dramatic appearance as Ballin’s wife, after a whirlwind courtship, throws Johnny for a loop and irreversibly alters the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Gilda’s arrival on the scene has an immediate and profound effect on Johnny – their introduction is a charged affair, and the confusion that Johnny’s barely able to disguise is shared by the audience. The rippling undercurrent of hostility gives rise to all sorts of questions about these people. I’m not giving away much here when I point out that it’s soon revealed that Gilda and Johnny were once lovers, before he walked out on her. And there we have our triangle: a cagey, duplicitous affair where the three protagonists circle each other warily and seem bent on mutual destruction. While it all develops nicely, I’ve always thought that the ending is weak – a little too abrupt and not all that convincing.

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In my opinion, the reason Gilda is classified as a film noir is down to the theme more than the look. Cameraman Rudolph Maté does create some characteristically noir images – the waterfront opening, some of the nighttime casino scenes, and the way Ballin seems to blend and merge with the shadows – but much of the movie features bright, flat lighting. The edgy, darker tone stems largely from the setting and plot twists. A casino has a built-in sense of fatalism to it anyway, a place where fortune quite literally depends on the turn of a card or a throw of the dice. When this is combined with the South American setting, and the allusions to ex-Nazis involved in political and economic intrigue, it conjures up that sense of exotic danger that was very much in fashion in the mid to late 40s. Of course all this really only amounts to Casablanca style escapism; the key element that tips it over into the world of noir is the sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the tale. The film is essentially a love story, but there’s a vicious, unpleasant side to the romance. Everything revolves around the title character, as she punishes both Johnny and Ballin, but in so doing she incurs arguably greater punishment at their hands in return.

The unquestionable star of the show is Rita Hayworth, the role becoming the one with which she would remain most closely identified for the rest of her life. Hayworth herself acknowledged this and it seems she had mixed feelings about it – her frank admission that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her is very telling. Whatever the personal legacy may have been, Hayworth certainly breathed life into what, in other hands, could have been a cardboard cutout character. She was excellent at getting across the contrast between the vivacious bravado that characterized Gilda’s public facade and the uncertainty and self-loathing she felt in more private moments. Her big scene, the one that is endlessly referenced in books and retrospectives, where she tries to provoke a reaction from Johnny with a knowing parody of a public striptease is justly famous. However, it also tends to overshadow the good work she did all through the movie.

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While Rita Hayworth is the one most people will remember from the movie, Gilda worked wonders for the career of another of its stars. Glenn Ford, like a number of other actors, had seen service during the war, and Gilda was the film that gave him the boost he needed and raised his profile. Wartime experiences affected a lot of performers, it gave them a different air, a toughness and a touch of weariness too. Ford went on to work in some pretty good noir pictures, Lang’s The Big Heat being the best of them, and he did seem to belong in that world. As he did in his numerous western roles, Ford brought a kind of dissatisfaction with himself to his noir parts. Johnny Farrell has a veneer of cockiness and self-assurance to him, but Ford could always invest his characters with a nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality too. These may be little things yet they add up and make characters more believable and realistic. Although both Johnny and Gilda are flawed individuals, they’re not villainous. But a movie like this needs a bogeyman, and George Macready was a fine choice for the role of Ballin. Right from the beginning there’s a sinister air about him, and Macready’s innate charm and culture accentuates that. The repressed manner and wonderfully distinctive voice add to his calm menace – you honestly get the feeling that crossing this man would be an extremely foolish move. Of the supporting cast, I find Steven Geray the most memorable. This washroom attendant whose contempt for just about everyone, apart from Gilda, sees him making one flip comment after another seems to be given a lot of slack. I especially like the way we never find out exactly what leverage he has – the one time he’s about to reveal it he’s interrupted, and we’re left wondering.

I actually drafted this piece back in July, after I’d seen it one balmy Saturday night in an outdoor cinema in Athens – always a great way to enjoy a classic movie. However, I realized my holidays were fast approaching and so I decided to hold off publishing it. I though I might want to go back and tweak it some, but I’ve decided to leave it just as I’d written it a few days after watching the film. I’ve seen Gilda many times over the years and always enjoyed its dark romance. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those movies that reveals too many new things on repeated viewings yet it’s not the kind that grows stale either. It’s earned its classic status, and it’s well worth visiting or revisiting.