Thursday, July 11, 2019

3D Noir Watch!: Inferno (1953)

absolutely no one swings into action on top of a couple having a cuddle in the course of this movie

Watched:  07/11/2019
Format:  Alamo South Lamar
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1950's

Well, somehow Wednesday became my Robert Ryan double-bill day.  SimonUK and I headed over to the local cinema to take in this novelty 1953 film.  Ostensibly noir, this movie is both in technicolor (not a disqualifier) and in 3D (a curiosity for noir, to say the least).  It also takes place in the desert and is 65% a tale of survival in extreme conditions, and - while I get why it gets lumped in with noir, I'm a bit on the fence. 

If the movie borrows from noir, it's trying to borrow from the best - in some ways asking "yes, but what if the husband in Double Indemnity had lived?" and pairing it with a survival tale in which the husband is not on an urban railroad track but thrown from a horse in the Mojave Desert. 

Robert Ryan plays a wealthy alcoholic married to (for the purposes of this movie) eye-candy Rhonda Fleming.  Fleming has fallen hard for prospector/ miner William Lundigan, who has brought Ryan out to the desert to examine a claim in which he wants him to invest.  When we meet Lundigan and Fleming, they've abandoned Fleming's husband and are creating a misleading trail so neither trackers nor law enforcement out looking for him will find any trace of Ryan, who has a tendency to wander off when he's pickled, and fall right into the bottle for days at a time.

While Fleming and Lundigan wait out the search and put on the right faces, Ryan figures out they've abandoned him, and - having had money between himself and any real challenges his entire life (there's no mention of the war, which is odd) - has to find the steel within himself to make it out alive, broken leg and all.

As I mention - someone really liked Double Indemnity, and the similarities between the two films from scheming couples to cranky husbands with broken legs, are hard to miss.  But someone missed what a great character Stanwyck had in Double Indemnity and her role in the crosses and double-crosses, and Fleming is stuck playing a character whose primary role is panicking, dropping exposition and looking like Rhonda Fleming in a wide array of flattering outfits, including a goofy cowboy hat.

Walking out of the film I made a crack about Fleming's performance, but I need to reconsider.  She's really good in other movies, I just don't think the script or director gave her enough to do.  And, shot for 3D, the movie is constantly framing shots like slides from a viewmaster, wide with the whole cast popping out against the distant backgrounds, leaving her standing there while the men talk. 

I would not be at all surprised to learn that Lundigan and Ryan were offered one another's roles.  Ryan is a weird, weird choice for a pampered gentleman.  The guy looks like an archetypal movie tough guy, and while his performance is great, looking at him doesn't match lazy rich-boy - but Lundigan and his perfect blonde hair and boyish face sure matches the description.  Ah, well.  Books.  Covers.  Whatever. 

The decision to put Ryan in the role of the wealthy heir would make sense to the studio and and everyone else as Ryan was an established star by 1953, and a huge amount of the movie is just Ryan and his inner-monologue sorting out his situation and his next steps.  Oddly, and perhaps a sign of the times, there's little in the way of actual introspection that gets voiced - Ryan may be alone with his thoughts, which we hear, but he's mostly raging at his situation - the personal growth is slipped in through actions defying what others expect.  It's pretty well done, honestly.

It's unfortunate I'd just watched On Dangerous Ground, which I feel was better filmmaking and a better performance by Ryan - but maybe just a role I liked better.  But it's still a watchable movie that does keep you going with its tale or betrayal and survival. 

All that said - this is a movie about a guy finding his inner better person, and that does not feel very noir at all.  Our villains are noir protagonists, but here they're antagonists (although, how you stay mad at Rhonda Fleming, I don't know.  I guess when she tries to leave you to die badly in the desert.).  So it's not quite noir to me, but everyone else says its noir, so... you know.

The 3D and technicolor...

The 1950's saw TV's coming into homes and Hollywood scrambled for how to get people back to theaters.  They still made cheaper movies, but they also tried to go back to epics and find other tricks that TV wasn't going to take on or couldn't do - like 3D.  And, in 1953, color.

Honestly, the movie looked great.  The technicolor pops like crazy with the bright desert sun and bold costuming choices on Fleming who is a technicolor marvel herself with red hair and 1950's cherry lipstick and her array of outfits.  I lived in the desert for four years in Arizona, and the feel of distances, of the flatness contrasted with the craggy, dangerous rocks and valleys really came to life in color and with depth as a tool of storytelling. 

Of course there are gimmick shots, including a snake popping off the screen, chairs thrown the direction of the camera, etc... Hollywood wanted audiences to get their money's worth for a 3D film.  I don't agree with some of the camerawork, but I understand it was done to maximize the 3D, but other times, man, they spend way too much time in close-up on Ryan when wider shots could have helped illustrate his hopeless state. 

This certainly isn't the first movie I'd reach for to watch again, but it is a curious novelty and worth a view if you can see it in its ended format.

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