directed by Lewis Allen, starring Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak, Mary Astor
Note: This is my entry in the Mary Astor Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings.
The desert town of Chuckawalla is a quiet, sleepy place on the surface but roiling with greed and sin underneath. And nobody understands it better than Fritzi Haller (Mary Astor), the tough, no-nonsense owner of the Purple Sage Bar and Casino. She may not be respectable but she's fought her way into wealth and power and nothing's going to change that. However, Fritzi's plans are derailed when the gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) rolls into town. He immediately catches the eye of Paula, Fritzi's rebellious young daughter. And it seems everyone's got a stake in keeping their rapid-fire romance from going anywhere. There's Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), the deputy, in love with Paula but too hesitant to plead his case. There's Johnny (Wendell Corey), Eddie's brooding partner, who burns with hatred at the thought of a woman coming between them. And of course, there's Fritzi, who wants her daughter to have a chance at a respectable, stable life. But nobody in this town is quite what they seem and it won't be long before Paula realizes the world is very different from what she imagined.
Desert Fury is a bizarre, colorful, and unsettling film, a pure example of Hollywood filmmaking at its most suggestive. The plot is actually pretty simple: a naive girl falls in love with a man who's no good for her. Of course, there's also a nice guy waiting on the sidelines for her and a mother who wants what's best for her daughter. But it's what's happening around the edges of those relationships that makes them interesting. Because in this movie, the girl's mother is no Stella Dallas, fighting valiantly through her tears. Instead she's a cool businesswoman with a butch haircut, cooing over her daughter's beauty like a possessive lover would. All while the daughter exults that she's finally found a man like her mother, except "bigger and better and stronger."
I mean, do you kiss your mother like this?
Or how about the dangerous gangster that the girl falls in love with? Who spends most of his time ordering around his ever-present partner while said partner tends to his every need and glares daggers at the woman who dares to intrude on their domestic bliss.
It's the weird little unspoken undercurrents that make Desert Fury such a memorable trip. I've never seen anything quite like it and I think anyone who's a fan of classic film should check it out at least once. That said, it's not really a good movie. At times, the script feels like a private bet on the part of screenwriter Robert Rossen to see if he could get away with making a movie that's essentially just one scene, repeated on an infinite loop. Said scene can be summed up in three steps:
- Paula, the daughter, confronts someone who is trying to control or reject her.
- Paula gets upset and leaves.
- She reconciles with the person so that they can have the same argument all over again
Lizabeth Scott was an actress made to order for film noir. Her deep, throaty voice suggested cigarette smoke and bar hopping and a lifetime of harsh experience. The haughty tilt to her chin and the flowing blonde hair gave her a touch of class. During her heyday, she was always compared to Lauren Bacall, but Scott was always more reserved, never as playful. Perhaps that's the reason she never became a big star; she always seemed to be holding something back.
In Desert Fury, she gets the full glam treatment, playing the woman that everyone wants and nobody understands. However, Paula isn't the femme fatale here but the protagonist. The entire movie is basically about her figuring out what she really wants, deciding whether she should tie her life to a controlling mother, a dangerous racketeer, or a friendly lawman. Her mother Fritzi is determined that she be respectable but Paula isn't having any of it."I'm like you, Fritzi, I'm getting more like you every day," she tells her. Scott's ambiguous style of acting helps in her portrayal of a character whose motivations don't really seem tethered to reality. I don't think most women would be turned on after hearing how much they resemble their lover's mysteriously dead wife. Nor do I think most women would look at Burt Lancaster, his magnificent tawny hair blowing in the wind, and then run after John Hodiak, who manages to look more uncomfortable here than he did starving to death in Lifeboat.
Out of all the main cast members, Burt Lancaster gets the least to do. Tom's just the straight arrow love interest, musing out loud over whether he should keep Paula on a short rope or a long. Actually, his methods of wooing his lady are oddly self-defeating. When Fritzi promises him money and a ranch if he'll marry Paula and make her respectable, Tom sarcastically repeats the offer in front of Paula. "Fritzi and I are cooking up a deal--how'd you like to marry me?" Sure he gets to put Fritzi in her place, but he must realize that by doing so, he's ensured that Paula won't go near him. In his review of Desert Fury, Randy Byers posits the theory that Tom might be impotent. It would certainly explain his passive-aggressive approach.
However, Burt Lancaster as the aloof, moody, mother-approved boyfriend is still more charismatic than John Hodiak as Eddie Bendix. Hodiak makes a convincing gangster, with his ink-smudge mustache and twitchy mannerisms. Everything he says sounds like an order, every time he turns around, it's like he expects a gun in his face. But he doesn't have the kind of dangerous allure that would naturally capture Paula's attention. The film even undercuts Hodiak visually, letting Lancaster and Corey loom over him in group shots. Maybe Lancaster and Hodiak should have switched roles. Still, to give the man his due, he's perfect in the film's climax, when Eddie is finally revealed to be something more pitiable and more monstrous than Paula could ever have imagined.
Unfortunately, Hodiak and Scott have zero chemistry, no matter how much the
Miklós Rózsa score thrashes and wails when they're together. This is unfortunate since we have to spend a lot of time with these two. In Gilda, the ferocious sexual attraction between Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth was the plot. In Desert Fury, the most interesting relationships are the side ones. It's Mary Astor and Wendell Corey that bring the most passion to their roles. They're the ones with the most to lose.
I've been guilty of ragging on Wendell Corey in the past. Something about his smug, square face always grated on me. Which is unfair. For all I know, in real life Corey was the kind of man who adopts orphan puppies and donates to scholarship funds. But in movies, he always came off like a serious buzz-kill.
Desert Fury was a complete revelation to me. Here, Corey is icy and threatening and even kind of sympathetic as Johnny, Eddie's sworn companion and implied lover. Lord, do they imply it. When Eddie describes their first meeting to Paula, it sounds like a pick-up ("He ended up paying for my ham and eggs...I went home with him that night...we were together from then on"). In one scene, Eddie sunbathes shirtless while Johnny offers him coffee, smiling at him with tender concern. Johnny visibly bristles whenever Paula intrudes on him and Eddie, even as Eddie forces him to serve them food and make himself scarce. When Paula tries to understand Johnny, she's thrown back by the totality of his devotion. "There must be some of you apart from Eddie...two people can't fit into one life." Johnny looks back at her unsmiling. "Why would there be some of me apart from Eddie?" It's like the gangster equivalent to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
Wendell Corey delivers the most surprising performance but Mary Astor's is the best. Bitchy mothers are a dime a dozen in 40s films, but Astor had a way of digging beneath the cliche and keep you guessing. Even when she played shallow society snobs like in Midnight, greedy prostitutes like in Act of Violence, or dizzy nymphomaniacs like in The Palm Beach Story, her characters always had a weary intelligence about them that commanded respect. In Desert Fury, her character Fritzi Haller is the smartest one in the room. She strides around in flowing pants, clenching her cigarette holder as if she wants to bite clean through it. She resorts to harsh tactics in order to control Paula, including bribery and imprisonment. But when faced with the possibility of losing her daughter forever, Fritzi is devoid of self-pity. "Nineteen years, like that," she says, snapping her fingers, and the fond, rueful expression on Astor's face tells us everything we could know about loving a person who'll never understand you. Mary Astor would have made one hell of a Mildred Pierce.
The lesbian undertones to her character are just an added bonus of weirdness. Fritzi lights up in her daughter's presence and fawns over her like a mobster admiring the generous curves of his moll. "You look good to me, baby, even when you're tired," she tells Paula. "Give me a kiss, honey." She wants Paula to call her Fritzi, not Mother, and tries to settle her with shopping and presents. She calls her "baby" all the time and Astor snaps out the word like she's playing Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Without giving away the movie's ending, I'll just say that the resolution of their relationship is one of the most suggestively what-the-hell things I've ever seen, a truly memorable example of sneaking things under the Hays Code.
It's a surprise to me that Desert Fury doesn't garner much attention for its Technicolor visuals because it's a truly stunning film. Director Lewis Allen and cinematographer Charles Lang combine vivid color with stark noir compositions and the result is something shimmering and unreal, like a heat mirage. When Lizabeth Scott strolls through the Nevada sunshine, her blonde hair reflecting a thousand rays of light, it becomes achingly clear why everyone is obsessed with this naive girl. Even the frequent day-for-night shots look beautiful. Designer Edith Head also deserves a mention here for the way her eye-popping costumes fit the visual scheme. Scott is glamorous and stands out in each shot like a bolt of lightning. Astor is shifty, changing her style from matronly to garish to masculine as easily as she changes tactics.
Is it too soon to start making a case for Lewis Allen as an underrated auteur? Desert Fury is only the third Allen film I've seen and while it's not nearly as good as The Uninvited or So Evil My Love, it shares some of the same hallmarks. Sharp, varied female characters that actively drive the plot. Lavish but oppressive set design that visually traps the actors. Suggestions of the strange or uncanny. In a way, Allen's direction is even more interesting here than his other, better films since he's stuck with a script that keeps repeating the same confrontations over and over again. Allen compensates by flooding each brilliantly-tinted shot with dense shadows. He keeps the framing tight, even claustrophobic. It all gives Desert Fury a kind of hothouse atmosphere. It burns with contained neurosis and frustrated energy.
Desert Fury never reaches the heights of the truly great film noirs. It takes dark, tormented characters, gorgeous camerawork, and some inspired bits of strangeness and then lets them stew, like a sleek, freshly-painted sports car stuck in parking gear. But for all its weaknesses, it's still an incredibly memorable and worthwhile experience, a movie that's all the more interesting for what it's not saying.
"People think they're seeing Eddie and all these years, they've really been seeing me. I'm Eddie Bendix. Why is it women never fall in love with me?"
After getting her first kiss from Eddie, Paula returns home late, coldly brushing off Fritzi's questions. That night, she tosses and turns as a thunderstorm rages outside her window. A lightning flash wakes her up and after bolting up, Paula buries her head in her pillow and cries. Her sobs catch the attention of Fritzi, who comes into the room to comfort her, voice and movements more gentle than we've ever seen from her. "Even when you were a kid, you were afraid of storms, I used to have to sleep with you," Fritzi muses. "If you want to, I'll--?" "No," Paula cuts in, blinking back tears. She's confused and vulnerable, one moment refusing Fritzi's offer to take her shopping, the next begging her mother not to go. "I don't know what I mean," Paula whimpers, as Fritzi tucks her back into bed.
A simple scene but it's ripe with strange overtones. There's the way the two women are costumed and lit. Paula has her hair tied back with a purple bow and looks like a kid. Fritzi is in a gauzy peach nightgown, the perfect vision of maternal concern, and yet the sickly green scarf around her hair turns her into something unwholesome. There's the way Fritzi's rejected offer sounds a little too much like a come-on. There's the sexual implications of the storm raging outside after Paula has just had her first kiss, a storm that's interrupted by the arrival of her mother. It's a prime example of the weirdness and beauty of Desert Fury, a film that always seems to know more than it's telling.
Final Six Words: So static yet so strangely mesmerizing