Inferno

Posted on October 27th, 2009 in 1950s, Film Noir, Roy Ward Baker, Robert Ryan by Colin

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A little suffering is good for the soul - that would appear to be the message of Inferno (1953). It’s a classic tale of man against nature with a liberal sprinkling of deceit, infidelity and murder thrown in for good measure. The movie is generally regarded as a film noir and I suppose that’s fair enough given its themes, although the visuals (technicolor and wide open spaces) suggest it should be the antithesis of that style.

The opening pitches you right into the middle of the plot with no time wasted on backstory or build-up. Within a few minutes the viewer knows exactly what’s going on and what led up to it. A man has broken his leg out in the desert and his wife and her lover have decided to abandon him and let nature take its course. The unfortunate victim is one Don Carson (Robert Ryan), a hard drinking businessman with plenty of money but few friends. Carson has gone out to a remote part of the desert in the company of his faithless wife Gerry (Rhonda Fleming) and a mining engineer, Duncan (William Lundigan), to scout for manganese deposits. When an accident presents Gerry and Duncan with a heaven sent opportunity to rid themselves of Carson they grab it with both hands. All they need do is manipulate the evidence and cook up a story about Carson going off on an alcoholic bender to be home free. However, the scheming  lovers underestimate their victim and his resourcefulness - Carson may have led a pampered life of privilege but he has a powerful will to live and an instinct for survival. The film twists and turns its way to the conclusion and, as it does so, the character of Carson moves smoothly from being initially an unsympathetic boor to a man the viewer can both admire and root for. The best scenes in the movie have Carson battling against the merciless desert, with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. There’s also some clever cutting to point up the contrasting fortunes of the protagonists: while the hero grows desperate for water there’s a sudden jump to a shot of Duncan diving into a crystal clear pool; and when Carson finds himself on the verge of starvation the next scene has his wife delicately carving a roast back at the LA mansion.

Robert Ryan near the end of his tether in Inferno.

Inferno saw Robert Ryan near the top of his game in a career that had more than its fair share of highs. He spends the bulk of his screen time alone in the vast wilderness, crawling and dragging his broken body over the unforgiving terrain. There’s no one else present to play off and that fact makes it even more remarkable that he managed to develop his character into a fully rounded human being that we actually care about. He starts out as a spoiled, sullen drunk petulantly taking pot shots at a discarded whisky bottle, but by the end of the picture his trials and torments have transformed him into a man of character and humility. Rhonda Fleming was well cast as the devious Gerry, brimming with a kind of loathsome sexiness. She is the typically heartless femme fatale with a perverse sense of morality, who doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of leaving a man to a slow, aching death but baulks at the idea of shooting him. William Lundigan was a fairly bland actor but a capable enough one for all that. Although Inferno would be one of his last major roles before moving into television he does a reasonable job with a basically one dimensional character. Director Roy Ward Baker made a handful of movies in Hollywood in the early 50s before moving back to Britain. Inferno was the last of them and it wasn’t a bad one to finish on. He makes wonderful use of the desert locations to emphasise the harshness of the environment and the lonely struggle of the hero. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a cameraman of the calibre of Lucien Ballard on hand, and the two of them managed to turn out a film that’s tense, uplifting and visually arresting. This movie was originally shot in 3D, a process that sometimes led to gimmicky effects shots, but it never really intrudes too much here - though a lantern is fired directly at the camera during the climax.

A while back, when Fox was still in the business of issuing DVDs, it was rumoured that Inferno was due a release in the US, possibly as part of the noir line but nothing ever came of it. However, it has been given a release in R2 in Spain by a company called Impulso. They have licensed a number of titles and market them as Fox Cinema Classics. The transfer for Inferno is a generally pleasing one. Viewed on a 37 inch screen I thought it looked fine for the most part - the image is mostly smooth and sharp but there are instances of heavy grain (especially during the titles). The colour is quite strong but it can take on a slight pinkish hue at times. The disc itself is pretty basic with the only extra of note being a gallery. All told, I was satisfied with this one and it is the only way to get your hands on this title at the time of writing. Inferno is a tight, pacy little movie that clocks in at 80 minutes and rarely stops to take a breath. I’d rate it highly as a noirish thriller in an unusual setting, boasting classy performances and excellent visuals.  

Escape from Fort Bravo

Posted on October 17th, 2009 in 1950s, William Holden, Westerns, John Sturges by Colin

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Often a film will stick in one’s mind because of a certain scene or sequence. That’s certainly the case with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), a movie I first saw many moons ago but whose climax lingered on as a fond memory down through the years. Under such circumstances revisits are a delicate matter, best approached with caution as disappointment is always ready to pounce. When I eventually got the chance to see this western again last year I was pleased to find that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me - I enjoyed it immensely. Digging it out and giving it a spin the other day, for the purposes of this piece, allowed me to recognise some of its weaknesses more clearly but still didn’t dilute any of the punch of the ending.

The action takes place in Arizona during the Civil War, where a group of Confederate prisoners are cooped up in the dusty Fort Bravo. Among the jailers is Captain Roper (William Holden), a hard-bitten man who thinks nothing of marching a recaptured prisoner back through the blazing desert heat as an example to the others. While such actions naturally stir resentment among the southerners, his own commander and peers don’t shirk away from expressing their disapproval either. The tensions within the stockade are only one aspect of the problem though, as the fort is right smack in the middle of hostile Mescalero territory. The threat posed by the Apache is an ever present one and is highlighted early on when a detachment is sent out to locate a delayed supply convoy, finding only burned wagons and dead drivers. On the return leg the troop encounter a stage and escort it back to the safety of the fort. This stage contains one Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who’s using the cover of a wedding invitation to facilitate the escape of the Confederate OC, Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). This leads into an unconvincing and undeveloped love triangle which, in combination with the less than riveting escape plan, could well have sunk the picture. Fortunately, the addition of some ripe dialogue and good support playing (William Demarest in particular) just about keep things afloat. The resulting escape and pursuit get things back on course again, and by the time Roper, Marsh et al find themselves surrounded by some of the most cunning Apaches ever seen on film the tension has been wound tight. Those scenes in the latter half of the film are worth the price of admission alone. Watching the small, isolated group, huddled in a desert crater, move from defiance to fearful realization and back again is quite powerful stuff. Adversity is said to bring out the best and the worst in men, and the sight of Roper striding out at dawn, a revolver in both fists, to meet fate head on is a marvellous image.

William Holden takes a lonely walk.

William Holden was arguably in his prime when Escape from Fort Bravo was made (the same year as Stalag 17) and he gave a very strong performance as the practical and ruthless Roper. He was ideally suited to playing tough cynics with a deep set yet true sense of personal honour. Watching Holden’s honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Roper really shows up the inadequacies of his co-star. John Forsythe is a likable enough actor but there’s a lightweight quality about him (it worked well enough in a movie like The Trouble with Harry, and Hitchcock obviously thought enough of him to cast him again in Topaz and in his TV show) that’s not quite right for the part of a tough veteran. I’ve always enjoyed watching Eleanor Parker, she had a sassiness that suggested she could hold her own in any company and give as good as she got. However, she’s poorly served by her role here and the aforementioned “love triangle that really isn’t” is largely responsible for that. It seems odd to refer to a director’s twentieth picture as his breakthrough, but in this case I believe that’s actually the case. John Sturges would go on to make a string of ever more successful films after this and showed that he was highly capable when it came to action. His best work is in the early and latter stages, when he made effective use of the Death Valley locations and avoided the studio mock-ups. It’s also notable that he wisely chose to shoot the key scenes without any musical accompaniment and they’re all the better for it.

When Warner released Escape from Fort Bravo in their Western Classics box there was a good deal of griping about the quality of the transfer. It seemed to be the general consensus that much of the blame could be laid at the door of the poor condition of the Ansco Color elements. In truth, the transfer isn’t that bad and the colour is actually fairly strong. The real problem is that the print used is very dirty and obviously had little or no work done on it. It’s available in the R1 box (probably the best value), and individually in both R1 and continental R2. Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians. I think it’s a fine little western whose strong opening and blinding finish certainly shore up a slightly sagging middle section. Recommended.

Berlin Express

Posted on October 8th, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Ryan, Jacques Tourneur by Colin

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Post-war Europe was an excellent setting for a noir picture - the bombed out ruins and a displaced, despairing population provided a near perfect backdrop for such films. Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) is a mix of spy story, noir and propaganda piece. That latter element is the one thing that knocks it down a peg and damages its noir credentials slightly; those repeated attempts to inject a kind of brave new world optimism into what should be a fatalistic film really work against it in the end.

The movie opens in the documentary style that was popular at the time, complete with the “voice of God” narration to set the scene and introduce the main players. Normally, I’m not averse to a good voiceover but the somewhat strident, Mark Hellinger-style commentary employed here does start to grate pretty fast. Fortunately, it doesn’t dominate things for too long and, once it’s been established that we’re following a group of international travellers on the military express bound for Berlin, regular cinema storytelling techniques kick in. Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) is an American agriculturalist on his way to take up a position with the occupying forces, and the plot unfolds through his eyes. His companions are an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian - representing the four powers. Apart from military personnel, there are also a number of German nationals on board - one of whom is in mortal danger. The gentleman in question is a diplomat with a noble plan for peaceful coexistence in Europe. When a makeshift bomb kills his decoy, his identity is revealed to the audience but the danger remains. No sooner has the train deposited its passengers in the ruins of Berlin than the eminent diplomat is abducted. So, the four just men, bowing to pressure from the captive’s secretary (Merle Oberon), take on the role of amateur sleuths and the chase is on. Their hunt leads them through the rubble and backstreet dives of the fallen capital, and leads the audience into the best segment of the movie. This is a twilight world, full of people driven to the very brink - scrambling for discarded cigarette butts, scanning the ever present lists of missing persons, and hanging around stations pathetically trying to hawk their meagre possessions. As Lindley and his companions grope their way through this decaying world the speechmaking and in-your-face social comment is mercifully kept to a minimum, letting the visuals make the point much more eloquently. 

Robert Ryan & Merle Oberon arriving just too late.

Robert Ryan plays a role here that is very much that of the everyman bumbling his way into a situation that is over his head. His craggy careworn features were well utilized over the years in countless noirs and westerns, and I always regard his presence in any film as a big recommendation. Merle Oberon, on the other hand was an actress that I could take or leave. Having said that, she does well enough as the French secretary determined to track down her kidnapped boss. For me though, the real stars of the movie were director Tourneur and cameraman Lucien Ballard. Together they manage to turn a middling spy story into a visual treat. The location work helps enormously of course, but there’s no end to the interesting angles and memorable shots served up - low angles, overheads, reflections etc. Tourneur also handles the various set pieces beautifully; from the cabaret scene (reminiscent of the Mr. Memory sequence in Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps) and the confrontation in the abandoned brewery, to the tense climax aboard the train once more. Only the happy ever after coda rings false, hindsight allowing us to see that forty years of conflict and subterfuge would be the order of the day rather than the spirit of cheerful comradeship and cooperation that the film alludes to.

Berlin Express was an RKO production and a few years ago that would have meant that there was always the possibility of a shiny new transfer on the cards from Warners in R1. Unfortunately, those days are now gone and this film is on its way to the dreaded Archive. However, there is an alternative in the shape of a R2 release from French company Montparnasse. The R2 disc is typical of the company’s fare, in that it’s neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally poor. The transfer is adequate, there’s no serious print damage but, equally, there’s no evidence of any restoration and it looks to be interlaced. Still, the Archive offering is unlikely to be any improvement and the pricing, suspect media and restricted availability weigh heavily against it. Berlin Express is a film that flirts around the boundaries of noir, but I feel that there’s enough in the story, cinematography and direction to warrant its inclusion in the category. While it may not be up there with the greats of dark cinema it should be a welcome addition to anyone’s collection.