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.  

The October Man - BritNoir

Posted on December 2nd, 2007 in 1940s, Film Noir, Roy Ward Baker, John Mills by Colin

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British attempts at producing film noir have traditionally been regarded as a notch down from their Hollywood counterparts. There is, sometimes, that sense of the genteel that the harder-edged Hollywood movies don’t suffer from. However, when BritNoir is at its best it’s more than capable of competing with productions from across the pond. The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, It Always Rains on Sunday, Brighton Rock, for example, are all films that belong in the front rank of noir. The October Man (1947) may not be quite in the same league as those other titles but it’s not far off.

When you see a film boasting a script by Eric Ambler, you know you’re on fairly safe ground. Ambler was, first and foremost, a novelist and gave us some of the best espionage/mystery fiction of the last century. I would strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with his writing to seek it out, although I believe a good deal of it has shamefully fallen out of print. His script here contains those staples of any good noir, namely murder, guilt and psychological imbalance.

The story concerns Jim Ackalnd (John Mills) who we see in the opening scenes riding a bus and knotting his handkerchief into the shape of a rabbit for the amusement of the small girl seated next to him. The child - played by Mills’ own daughter Juliet - is the daughter of some friends, and Jim is accompanying her back home. As the bus makes its way along a  country road in torrential rain, a brake failure causes a fatal accident at a level crossing. This results in the death of the child and Mills spends a year in hospital with a fractured skull and brain damage. As Jim is released from hospital we learn that he remains racked with guilt and has already attempted suicide. He moves into a rundown boarding house peopled by an assortment of fine British character actors including a poisonous Joyce Carey, Catherine Lacey as the put upon manageress, and Edward Chapman (who should be recognizable as Mr Grimsdale from numerous Norman Wisdom movies). He also makes the acquaintance of model Kay Walsh, of which more later.

Jim’s life seems to be getting back on track and a romance with Joan Greenwood helps give him some renewed hope for the future. However, things are about to go pear-shaped - this is the world of noir after all. The model turns up dead in a park and a cheque from Jim is found close to the body; worse still he was out walking alone when the crime took place. This, combined with some malicious gossip from the other residents, leads the police to suspect Jim - and Jim to query his own sanity. With the psychological pressure mounting and distrust surrounding him, it falls to Jim to try to find the real killer before the net closes around him.

John Mills

Roy Ward Baker provides his usual solid, unfussy direction but the real star is the cinematography. Erwin Hillier lays the noir atmosphere on thick, with lots of smoke, fog, deep shadows and harsh white lighting to pin the focus on the hapless Jim. John Mills plays the role perfectly as the quiet and essentially decent man driven to the very limit. Mills was ideal casting for this kind of part and would reprise it a few years later in the similarily themed The Long Memory. In fact, the acting is uniformly strong throughout and the scenes in the boarding house are memorable.

So, where does the weakness lie? Perhaps surprisingly, the fault is with Amblers script. I always feel that this kind of movie benefits enormously from creating suspicions in the viewers mind about the hero. In this case, we are never really in any doubt that Mills is innocent, moreover, the identity of the real killer is fairly obvious right from the off. Personally, I also found the repeated use of the knotted handkerchief motif - used to point up the mental strain of Jim - a little tiresome towards the end.

Generally though, this is one of the better examples of BritNoir and I would certainly recommend it to any fan of suspense/noir. The film is currently unavailable on DVD anywhere, save grey market copies, as far as I know. I believe the rights may currently reside with Optimum/Network/ITV in R2, all of whom have released some little known gems in the past. I very much hope they get around to this one soon.