Many of the movies that wind up being featured on this site are borderline or peripheral affairs in terms of genre, drifting in and out of that shadowy, hard to define area, which is almost, but not quite, film noir. André de Toth’s Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) is a case in point, mixing in crime, melodrama and adventure in a tale of trust and betrayal that unfolds largely in flashback. In a sense though, this is a movie which more or less defies genre and classification, but perhaps that is no bad thing as it allows viewers to approach it from multiple angles.
After some newsreel footage and a brief opening narration on the subject of hurricanes and their devastating power, the movie proper begins with pilot Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) arriving at an aircraft hangar lashed by torrential rain and high winds. It’s Miami and a beast of a hurricane is bearing down on the coast as he first grapples with and then lays out cold one of his employer’s servants. Slattery is a man every bit as driven as the raging elements around him yet his path will take him not away from danger but straight into its heart, right into the eye of the storm. As he takes the plane up and charts a course that will lead him to whatever place fate has reserved for him the flashback begins. It leads us back to a point before Slattery had fully committed his life to a downward spiral. There’s a roguishness to him, a hint of the irresponsible and the reckless, but even if he’s not as attentive to the needs of his girlfriend Dolores (Veronica Lake) as he ought to be, it doesn’t feel like a major flaw. That’s before Aggie (Linda Darnell) appears on the scene though. While she may be his old flame, she is also the new wife of his friend Lt. Hobson (John Russell). If Hobson is initially unaware of any previous connection between these two and equally blind to the heat the pair are generating every time they come near, the same cannot be said for Dolores. She smells a rat right from the get go and Slattery duly lives down to expectations. As he sets about seducing his friend’s new bride, Dolores is showing signs of fragility. Everything comes to a head when a quick spot of island hopping sees Slattery’s employer succumb to a heart condition, leaving the flyer in possession of the stash of narcotics he had been carrying. With the dead man’s partner threatening him, Dolores suffering a breakdown, Hobson finally cottoning on to what’s been happening behind his back, and a major tropical storm about to tear across Florida, Slattery could be said to be facing a crisis. When it suddenly dawns on a man that all he is and all that he has done has shattered not only his own existence but that of those closest to him, it is perhaps understandable that he might seek out some form of redemption. And so we circle back to the starting point, where a desperate individual buffeted and torn by poor choices and his own weakness has opted to flee the emotional maelstrom he has fallen into and instead tackle the wrath of nature head on.
Director André de Toth has Slattery confined within the perspex and metal of the aircraft’s cockpit for the bulk of the running time, and just as he is bound on all sides by the dimensions of his plane, so is the plane itself held in the fickle and destructive grasp of the great storm. In a sense, everything and everybody in this pared down universe is at the mercy of somebody and something else. Slattery’s hurricane is both a test for the man and a kind of isolation chamber allowing and forcing him to confront himself and his past actions and by so doing try to regain some modicum of self respect.
De Toth had a knack for using weather conditions as a reflection of the emotional states of his characters and the stories built around them. Day of the Outlaw is as chilling and sparse as its frozen setting, and even the ultimately disappointing Dark Waters uses its steamy Louisiana plantation as an effective representation of its overheated and oppressive tale. Essentially trapping his lead in the cockpit of his plane for the duration and only allowing the illusion of escape via the flashbacks takes it a step further. It is here, deep within the roaring darkness which Slattery’s world has become, that he sees himself and his life with the greatest clarity. Those flashbacks to the sun drenched days by the ocean reveal the deceptions and ploys played out in the full light of day. It is in this surface brightness that the dishonesty is presented with the most audacity: Slattery’s careless flirtations with Aggie in front of everyone, the relaxed opulence of the wealthy “candy manufacturer” hiding his drugs operation in plain sight, and of course the medal ceremony where Slattery, in dazzling whites, receives the honor his subsequent actions have now tarnished and Dolores’ ultimate collapse is triggered. Conversely, the enclosing and enveloping darkness and shadows serve to squeeze the less palatable truths out into the open.
Slattery’s Hurricane appears to have been a film that drew a fair bit of attention from Joseph Breen and the Hays Code. Obviously, the entire adultery/cheating thread had to be dealt with obliquely, but filmmakers were well versed in how to get the essentials of such affairs across subtly by the late 1940s. In short, the viewer is always fully aware of what is going on between the characters even when it’s not spelt out explicitly. More guile had to be used, however, in relation to the breakdown undergone by Dolores. Not only is the character in the employ of a couple of drug traffickers, but it turns out she is an addict herself. This kind of development was well beyond the pale though and thus there’s a deliberate woolliness about the nature of her problem and admission to a psychiatric clinic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers did show a degree of inventiveness in slipping in a close up of her doctor’s notes which make it clear that she has a drug problem. What’s more, my impression is that the affluent dope smugglers masquerading as candy merchants are a gay couple, but that too somehow got past Breen’s enforcers.
Slattery’s Hurricane came along just two years after Richard Widmark’s stunning debut in Kiss of Death and I still find it extraordinary just how assured he was even in the very early stages of his career. It was a good role for him at this point, exploiting the shady persona which had been so successful for him but emphasizing the ambiguous rather than the villainous aspects. The film, from a Herman Wouk story, was originally shot and screened with a much more downbeat ending but was then altered before its general release. It would be fair to say that the changes watered down the noir credentials considerably, but I don’t think this damages the film too much. The whole thing is at heart Slattery’s journey to redemption and, regardless of which way it ends, that goal is attained. The finished film allows for the character’s salvation in addition to his redemption, both of which are earned. If one bears in mind that Veronica Lake was playing an addict, then her drabness and shakiness make some sense. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that she looked spent or that her film career was nearing its end. She was not yet 27 years old and was struggling with her own substance abuse issues. Linda Darnell had the bigger part and got more screen time. While she is good enough with what she is given, it’s not a terribly taxing role and there is a passivity to it that leaves it not all that interesting. John Russell does not get that much to do either, although he is afforded the opportunity to rough up Widmark some for his betrayal. Gary Merrill is in there too, but mostly spends his time smoking and sweating in the control tower.
Slattery’s Hurricane is a 20th Century Fox production and was released in the US as part of the studio’s MOD line. That may be out of print now but there have been versions available in both Italy and Spain, possibly ports of the US disc. The movie could use a clean up and a sharper transfer, but it’s not a high profile title so that is probably unlikely to happen. It really is Widmark’s show all the way although there’s a lot to enjoy in de Toth’s direction too. All told, this is a well made nearly noir that I recommend checking out.