Thursday, October 11, 2018

Desert Fury (1947) Bizarre Noir Soap Opera

"Desert Fury is the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood's golden era. The film is saturated - with incredibly lush color, fast and furious dialogue dripping with innuendo, double entendres, dark secrets, outraged face-slappings, overwrought Miklos Rosza violins. How has this film escaped revival or cult status? It's Hollywood at its most gloriously berserk." Eddie Muller

You can forget all of Eddie's quote above and watch this film and within minutes you'll know yourself that something feels screwy. It's just all the wild dialog coming from all the characters. Now Ramona Stewart's book is just as strange as the film and probably more so since it wouldn't have been hampered by the Code. It's been called "an early sleaze novel about a trampy, rebellious daughter and her domineering mother" but goes on to say "Desert Town is a very strange exploration of love in all its forms and the pursuit of one’s desires. But not specifically sexual desire. " J F Norris (Pretty Sinister Books).

Anyway, Color Classic Noir's for me, most resemble the lurid pulp fiction paperback and magazine covers. They are like covers come to life. Those covers graced news stands and dime store paperback display racks. Films with the titles Leave Her To Heaven, Rope, Niagara, Hell's Island, I Died A Thousand Times, A Kiss Before Dying, Vertigo, Bad Day At Black Rock, Rear WindowSlightly Scarlet, Inferno, and this one Desert Fury.

Desert Fury was directed by Lewis Allen (Chicago Deadline (1949), Appointment with Danger (1950), Suddenly (1954), and Illegal (1955)). Screenplay by Robert Rossen and  A.I. Bezzerides based on a novel by Ramona Stewart. Cinematography by Edward Cronjager and Charles Lang. Music was by Miklós Rózsa.

The film Stars Lizabeth Scott as Paula Haller, John Hodiak as Eddie Bendix, Burt Lancaster as Tom Hanson, Mary Astor as Fritzi Haller, Wendell Corey as Johnny Ryan, Kristine Miller as Claire Lindquist, William Harrigan as Judge Berle Lindquist, James Flavin as Sheriff Pat Johnson, Jane Novak as Mrs. Lindquist, Anna Camargo as Rosa.

Here is a film with a story line that feels like it could have been inspired by Tennessee Williams. There seems to be all kinds of weird subtext flying around a Nevada town called Chuckawalla in the Mojave Desert, as Eddie Muller noted quite descriptively above. Chuckawalla is a typical self sustaining western mining town with a prominent smelter whose twin stacks dominate the valley.

Chuckawalla politically is dominated by "town boss" Fritzi Haller (Mary Astor). She runs a bar & casino in the film, and has bought off the sheriff and town judge. In the book the film is based on she is also the vice queen who besides the bar and casino also runs all the towns brothels.

Eddie (Hodiack) and  Johnny, (Corey)
One day three of the towns former residents return. Eddie Bendix, and his good buddy/bodyguard/partner in crime Johnny Ryan return to Chuckawalla from Vegas. Eddie is a big time gambler and racketeer.  The third returnee is Paula Haller, daughter of Fritzi.

Paula (Scott)
Paula has just quit school and wants to work for her mother. She wants to, as she tells her mother "Do what you do." What exactly is it Fritzi does, you may ask, it's left up for discussion. You'd have to read the novel to actually get a clue. You can personally take the innuendos anywhere. Anyway, even though pretty well off in life, Paula gets no respect being the daughter of the notorious town Madam.

Fritzi (Astor )
It get better.....

Eddie who falls for Paula at first sight and vice versa, was once involved with Fritzi, but he had to skip town when he was suspected of murdering his wife. His wife, who by the way looked
a lot like Paula.

Paula and Tom (Lancaster)

Paula watching Tom break a horse, notice the Joshua trees a Mojave Desert indicator species
Paula's old beau is Deputy Sheriff Tom Hanson. Tom doesn't like seeing Eddie back in Chuckawalla.
Tom wants to be 'Back in the saddle again" with Paula.....

When Tom and Johnny see the relationship blossoming between Eddie and Paula they both try to break it up. When mother finds out about Eddie and Paula, she flips her wig. First trying to get the Sheriff to arrest Eddie and run him out of town, then latter she tries to bribe Tom Hanson with a ranch to get him to marry Paula.

Fritzi at one point also temps Paula with a shopping trip to Los Angeles, and she tells her that they can both chase men as long as Paula tells everyone that she is her older sister. OK you got all that? Well, now be informed that in the book Paula is still in high school and only seventeen.

At times the film hits you over the head with quite obvious innuendos. There is a sequence after Tom's bronc busting where he asks if Paula wants to go for a "fast ride," like they used to do. At the end of their ride Tom's got to have a smoke.

Fast Ride Sequence

Galloping across the Mojave

into the high country

Climaxing with the view of Chuckawalla and it's smelter

the after climax smoke
Ratcheting up the volume on all these triangles sends the film in a death spiral to Noirsville.


The Purple Sage Bar and Casino

Night Spot Cafe

Bye Bye Johnny

How sweet it is....The two  young lovers can look forward to a happy future of lead poisoned kids living under the Chuckawalla Stacks
Were we as a culture all that naive back in the 1940s? Its hard to believe that the studio suits, the director, and none of the actors thought the dialog and the situations depicted a bit weird. It's either that or believe they were all in on it and knew that it would go over the heads of all the squares and censors. I think maybe part of the surreal-ness has to do with the source material. Could it be that Ramona Stuart wrote the male characters, situations, and dialog from a woman's perspective which when performed sounds quite effeminate?, or did Robert Rossen not have a clue keeping everything as in the novel, or did he have an agenda. Obviously we'd have to read the novel and do a bit more research.

John Hodiack has got a fast, clipped, staccato delivery reminding me of Richard Conte in The Big Combo. Liz Scott is doing her usual husky voiced siren. Lancaster's vibe is the same as the ones he exuded in The Killers and Criss Cross that bushy-eyed innocent good guy one. Corey was intense enough to get himself noticed in this his first film. My favorite role of his is his Tiki bar night club owner in Hell's Half Acre.

The cinematography is good. The outdoor locations (mostly shot around Sedona, Arizona), though only occasionally lend themselves to some noir stylistics.. The indoor sets are either awash in almost garish color or shrouded in shadows.

One thing I do know is that I'm curious enough now to want to read the novel Desert Town.

Desert Fury is definitely a curiosity, worth at least a watch, it could fit on a double bill with Inferno. The print I saw from an online streaming service had very crisp look. 6/10


  1. This is one loopy movie. Nice review with great screenshots that bring out the fantastic Technicolor. I'd like to read the book too now.

    I think the director, the actors etc were all in on it. They couldn't not have been. The relationship between Hodiak and Corey is really obvious and I'm sure most people would have caught on back then.