« So Dark the Night | Main | Apollo 11 »

February 26, 2019

Desert Fury

desert fury poster.jpg

Lewis Allen - 1947
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

From the New York Times, September 25, 1947 - " . . . Desert Fury is such an incredibly bad picture in all respects save one, and that is photographically." I usually don't gush over the digital conversion of older films, but Desert Fury had me with the first close-up of Lizabeth Scott and her liquid red lips in glorious, old-fashioned Technicolor. Setting aside the story and any other concerns, one glimpse of those lips is enough justification for why blu-ray was invented. The source print was in pristine condition, and the digital rendition appears to be faithful to how the film was seen theatrically by viewers seventy years ago.

It's not just Scott's lips. There's an exterior shot of a mansion, far enough to see the entire building, where the sense of detail is such that individual leaves could be counted. Also the strands of Lizabeth Scott's hair, the sharpness of the combed part on John Hodiak, and the barely perceptible beads of sweat on Wendell Corey's forehead. The interior of the mansion is a blue-gray shade, making it easy to draw attention to anything worn by Scott or Mary Astor. In one nighttime scene, Scott blends in with her dark bedroom, except for this pink hairpin that is impossible to ignore. The combination of these visual bits of business help make the story one that can be disregarded.

The source novel is titled, Desert Town. Location shooting in Arizona was used for the fictional town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. Two gangsters, Eddie Bendix and Johnny Ryan are driving into this small town for vaguely hinted at reasons. Stopping in front of the narrow bridge, which figures more prominently in the story, they temporarily block Paula Haller. Paula just dropped out of college, and wants to work for her mother, Fritzi, who runs the popular Purple Sage casino. Deputy sheriff Tom Hanson is in love with Paula, and knows a thing or two about Eddie Bendix. Almost everybody seems to be running away from their respective pasts. There are no ellipsis, but the in almost every scene that would normally explain motivations and relationship, there are interruptions with incomplete or unstated thought.

In the commentary track, Imogen Sara Smith discusses why Desert Fury can be considered film noir. The New York Times review categorized the film as a modern western. Some might even consider the film as strictly melodrama. There is none of the visual stylization usually associated with film noir. The exception to that would be in a rather unusually composed shot. Lizabeth Scott is having a conversation with Wendell Corey, while Corey is doing some minor car repair. Following a conventional full shot of the two actors in the frame, Lewis Allen cuts to an upward angled two-shot with the faces of Scott on the left, and Corey on the right, filling the frame. In a later scene, John Hodiak and Corey have a shoot-out inside a cafe. There is a shot of Hodiak facing the camera, gun in hand. The lights behind Hodiak go dark, but there is no explanation as to the change of lighting, suggesting this was simply for dramatic effect.

Desert Fury has developed a reputation over the decades for what has been read as gay subtext. My own feeling is some critics are putting a bit more into the film than was probably intended, or that any suggestions of sexuality are deliberately ambiguous. The quotation from the dialogue in the Film Comment article, also reproduced in Wikipedia, has been edited in such a way that what is deleted in Eddie Bendix explaining that he was lock out of his previous home, and Johnny Ryan brought him to his rooming house that had available vacancies. That little bit removed from the script tempers the establishment of the partnership of Eddie and Johnny. More to the point is simply the unnatural possessiveness that Fritzi feels about Paula, and that Johnny expresses about Eddie. The characters is Desert Fury fail out controlling the lives of others because they are are unable to control their own, most literally in the film's climax. The sometimes unexpressed sexual aspect of possessiveness is central to screenwriter Robert Rossen's last film, Lilith (1964), made when the Production Code was on its last legs. But as long as some observers are going to argue about innuendos within Desert Fury, an overlooked signifier would be the suits Eddie and Johnny wear in the film's opening. Johnny is wearing a single-breasted jacket, while Eddie's is double-breasted - read into that what you will.

My other problem with Desert Fury is that Lizabeth Scott looks too old to convincingly play a nineteen year old young woman. She was 26 at the time, with 41 year old Mary Astor appearing a shade young to be her mother. Otherwise, this is the one time Scott is not the femme fatale. With his pencil thin mustache, John Hodiak reminds me of one of Tex Avery's cartoon wolves, ready to howl at the sight of the next rotoscoped babe. Burt Lancaster, still relatively new to film, is best when he bares his famous choppers before giving Hodiak a much deserved beating. Taken on its own terms, Desert Fury is quite fun to watch, even if one can't understand how Scott and Lancaster can romantically view a small town dominated by two giant smokestacks.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 26, 2019 08:48 AM