“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: