The Heat Is On – Rediscovering ‘Desert Fury’ (US 1947 – 96 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - October 24, 2014
The Heat Is On – Rediscovering ‘Desert Fury’ (US 1947 – 96 mins)

Beautifully shot in Technicolor and unfairly slated by critics at the time, the rather forgotten ‘Desert Fury’ has gained a cult following over the years, as well as a well deserved critical re-appraisal. A torrid melodrama featuring strong female roles and high fashions of the time, it deserves to be far better known than it is.

Chuckawalla, Nevada, is a small mining town practically run by Fritzi Haller (Mary Astor), the tough owner of a local bordello and casino. Fritzi’s obstinate daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott), has been expelled from high-school and so returns home where she soon falls for small-time gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak). Bendix was once involved with Fritzi but left town when he was suspected of murdering his wife. Along with Paula’s old boyfriend, lawman Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), Fritzi attempts to put an end to this doomed relationship, with tragic results.

Dismissed upon release, ‘Desert Fury’ has since gone on to achieve quite a following, due in no small part to the obvious undertones of homosexuality which were largely lost on people at the time. Both Hodiak and his sidekick live together and the relationship between Fritzi and Paula is also open to interpretation. The script is also laced with various double meanings and innuendo.

The classic Forties cast is terrific in this one-of-a-kind flick. Sensual looking with her distinctive dark eyebrows; Lizabeth Scott has one of her best roles as Mary Astor’s 19 year old daughter Paula. Scott had greater success the year before with Lewis Milestone’s excellent noir ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’, playing ex-con Antonia “Toni” Marachek. Always watchable, the husky-voiced Lizabeth Scott was often unfairly compared to Lauren Bacall, but I’ve always found Scott the more interesting of the two. To see Lizabeth at her best, watch her in the excellent 1949 mystery ‘Too Late for Tears’, as a scheming femme-fatale with greed and murder on her mind.

As Fritzi Haller, the great Mary Astor is excellent as Paula’s domineering and perverse mother. Astor had earlier won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award as the self-absorbed concert pianist Sandra Kovak in the 1941 drama ‘The Great Lie’, which starred Bette Davis and George Brent. A heavy drinker for years, Astor was by this point despondent at playing motherly types, and her last notable role came in 1949 playing Marmee in the Elizabeth Taylor version of ‘Little Women’. John Hodiak never quite made the major league and perhaps had his biggest success in Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ (’44), as the survivor who wants the German thrown overboard. As Hodiak’s gangster partner Johnny Ryan, Wendell Corey made his film debut here. Although not one of his classic films, Burt Lancaster is pretty good in his movie debut, although he has little to do here as the film’s sole decent character.

Director Lewis Allen had earlier made the superb ghost story ‘The Uninvited’ (’44), and here uses that films cinematographer Charles Lang, who provided the outstanding colour photography, and you can almost feel the sweltering heat of the desert town. The screenplay was by Robert Rossen who was adept at writing strong female characters, which he displayed to great effect much later when he wrote and directed the moody sleeper ‘Lilith’, with Jean Seberg. Rossen’s biggest successes were probably the political drama ‘All the King’s Men’ (’49), and the Paul Newman classic ‘The Hustler’ (’61).

A western-tinged camp classic and part film noir, ‘Desert Fury’ is immensely entertaining and looks terrific in Technicolor. The fast moving pace and delicious script only add to the enjoyment of this sometimes bizarre melodrama. The ending is very satisfying too, making this melodrama a must see. A wonderful rediscovery.

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