Nineteen forty-seven was a good year for film noir. It was the year that saw the release of Born to Kill (Robert Wise), Body and Soul (Robert Rossen), Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur), Dark Passage (Delmer Daves), Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk), and Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell), all shot in appropriately atmospheric black and white. But in the midst of these monochrome movies one oddity came along: Desert Fury, a film noir in glorious Technicolor, directed by Lewis Allen, perhaps the only other previous example being John Stahl’s equally delirious 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven.
The film’s setting is the small desert town of Chuckawalla, Nevada, to which racketeer Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his pal Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey) have returned for the first time since Eddie’s wife died in a supposed accident a few years ago when her car went over the local bridge. They get acquainted with 19-year-old Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott, a mature 25), the rebellious daughter of Fritzi (Mary Astor), a widow who owns the biggest local casino, The Purple Sage. Paula falls for Eddie, despite warnings from her possessive mother and the latter’s clean-cut sheriff boyfriend, Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster). The fraught relationships among the characters lead to nasty revelations of past deeds—some unexpected, some predictable—before the inevitable cathartic denouement.
Despite the color, we realize that we are in film noir territory immediately with the distinctive strains of Miklos Rozsa’s haunting music, similar to that which has evoked the genre ever since Double Indemnity. No matter that Rozsa had about four musical themes in his repertoire—it sets the melodramatic tone of Desert Fury, underscored by Charles Lang’s Technicolor cinematography.
Like many film noirs, the basic plot is contrived: Fritzi once had a fling with Eddie, Paula resembles Eddie’s dead wife, and the latter’s “accidental” death is almost reprised at the climax. But the mise en scène creates a stifling atmosphere—the tropical plants in Fritzi’s study, the narrow town streets, the surrounding desert forever in the background, allowing little prospect of escape. In fact, there is almost as much driving with people getting nowhere in Desert Fury as in an Abbas Kiarostami movie. In a romantic scene, Tom and Fritzi look admiringly at the view of Chuckawalla from a hill, not seeming to notice two factory chimneys belching smoke in the distance. The film begins and ends on the bridge, where the original accident took place. (Fritzi: “They never fixed it.” Tom: “They will someday.” Fritzi: “Sometimes things can’t be fixed.”)
It’s all very enjoyable on a narrative level, but it is the characters’ ambiguity that distinguishes Desert Fury from run-of-the-mill noir. Tom seems to be a morally upstanding law officer, having little to do but look hunky and reliable. Early on, he is seen preventing an old drunk from being pummeled by one of his deputies. But later, out of jealousy, he shamelessly arrests Eddie for speeding, and beats him up. There are other sequences in which the roles of hero (Tom) and villain (Eddie) could easily have been swapped.
Eddie, the hard-bitten gangster, falls genuinely in love with Paula and is wounded when Johnny uses a ruse to keep them apart. The conniving Fritzi, who has a judge in her pocket and tries to bribe Tom into marrying her daughter, acts wholly out of maternal love. In a way, her character anticipates that of Marlene Dietrich in Lang’s 1952 Rancho Notorious (Chuckawalla even sounds like Chuck-a-Luck, the name of the ranch in Lang’s film) as well as Joan Crawford’s Vienna in , who also owns a gambling joint.
Scott, stylishly dressed by Edith Head, is perfect as the good girl gone bad becoming good again. But the final mother-daughter reconciliation scene has Fritzi and Paula kissing each other full on the lips, a gesture that takes on another meaning in the light of the equivocal relationship between Eddie and Johnny.
The screenplay of Desert Fury, adapted from Ramona Stewart’s dully titled novel Desert Town, is by Robert Rossen and A.I. Bezzerides, both of whom were later to fall victim to the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Rossen was blacklisted until he named names, while Bezzerides was put on a grey list, meaning that he was constantly under threat from producers who exploited him.) Yet on the surface, there is nothing subversive about the script of Desert Fury.
Before disappearing into television, British-born Allen, whose name does not exactly increase the pulse rate, made several interesting films in the Forties and Fifties, including his first feature, The Uninvited (44), one of that rare species, a serious Hollywood ghost movie. But of all his films, Desert Fury remains the most fascinating, the one in which he made the best use of operatic material and an intriguing cast, all of whom had been or would be connected with film noir.
The rather dour Hodiak, often sporting a natty, thin moustache, was lucky to be given roles that might have been taken by Clark Gable or Robert Taylor had they not been away at war. Hodiak had gained his film noir credentials in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night, the year before Desert Fury.
Scott, strong and sultry, her dark eyebrows contrasting with her blonde hair, had already made her mark opposite Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning a few months before, as the first of her many femme fatales. She had a low and husky voice, which earned her comparisons to Lauren Bacall, although the latter rarely played duplicitous dames.
As for the 34-year-old Lancaster, Desert Fury was only his third movie, but he was already on the brink of stardom. He had made a dynamic debut in 1946 in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, and followed up with Jules Dassin’s prison drama Brute Force, which opened a couple of months before Desert Fury. And although Mary Astor’s most celebrated role was as the scheming Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, she had had few other opportunities to play wicked. But the 41-year-old actress, who had been in movies since the silent era, was delighted when, on loan to Paramount from MGM, she was cast in a vixenish role in Desert Fury, a relief from playing “Mothers for Metro” as in Meet Me in St. Louis.
Adding to the mixture was Wendell Corey, in his first feature. Lean, laconic, and cynical, he would soon become the implacable sounding board for fiery females such as Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Yet in Desert Fury Corey’s Johnny is busy preventing smoldering Paula from getting her claws into his “partner” Eddie—curious (indeed, queer) behavior that the plot attempts to explain at the climax.
Eddie and Johnny live together and are seldom apart. Johnny—who makes the meals, does the housework, and describes Eddie as “good-looking” several times—behaves exactly like a jealous wife in word and deed. “Leave him alone,” he snaps at Paula on one occasion. It is open to speculation whether the intimations of homosexuality are intended or inadvertent. Take Eddie’s description of his first meeting with Johnny: “It was in the automat off Times Square at two in the morning. I was broke. He had a couple of dollars. We got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs. I went home with him that night. We were together from then on.”
Since Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, we have grown accustomed to reading cryptic messages of homosexuality in pre-Sixties Hollywood movies. But the Eddie-Johnny relationship is too overt to be intentionally gay in the Hollywood of the Forties. If Desert Fury had been made in exactly the same way today, however, there would be nothing oblique about the liaison.