Can a technicolor movie be considered a film noir? I think so. Sure, the form lends itself better to the harshness of black and white photography where the light and shadows can be more skilfully manipulated. Having said that, film noir is more than just a photographic style – it’s a style of film making. To me, noir is a combination of many elements (theme, character, time, location, photography etc.) and the more boxes we can check, the closer we come to defining it. Photography is, undoubtedly, one of the major elements that needs to be present – I just feel that photographic style rather than color vs B&W is the clincher. As such, I feel Desert Fury (1947) is most definitely noir. Although the movie is shot in blinding technicolor, the themes and characterization place it firmly in the realm of dark cinema.
Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) returns to Chuckawalla, the small desert town where she was raised by her widowed mother Fritzi (Mary Astor). Paula is shown to be an outsider right from the off, snubbed by the locals due to her mother’s ownership of the town’s gambling joint. The only friend she has is Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a former cowboy now working as town deputy after an accident put an end to his former career. Paula’s arrival back home coincides with the reappearance of a shady character called Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), whose wife died years earlier in a mysterious road accident. When Paula falls for Bendix a whole hornet’s nest of passion is stirred up as Fritzi, Hanson, and Bendix’s partner Johnny (Wendell Corey) all, for their own reasons, try to keep them apart. What tilts this into noir, rather than straight melodrama, is the twisted nature of the relationships involved. Paula is said to bear a strong resemblance to Bendix’s late wife; Fritzi and Bendix were formerly lovers; there’s more than a hint of jealous competition between the two female leads; and there are strong suggestions that the relationship of Bendix and Johnny might be the kind to frighten the horses – heady stuff indeed for 1947. There’s also a nice cyclical form to the movie, which both opens and closes with characters staring over the rails of a bridge at the site of a fatal crash.
This is a picture that’s dominated by the performances of the women. Mary Astor is near perfect casting as the worldly and tough dame who rules the roost in a man’s world, yet struggles to tame the impulses of her headstrong daughter. Lizabeth Scott was born to star in films noir, and she does the business here as the troubled heroine with the whiskey voice who has to learn a few hard lessons. Burt Lancaster’s role is a bit of a thankless one; he seems to do little more than cruise up and down the desert highway, hoping to run into Scott on her return from Hodiak’s rented pad. Hodiak himself gives an interesting performance as man who’s clearly not all he seems. His initial detachment and suppressed aggression hint at some dark secret, and he gradually descends further into a kind of manic vindictiveness until his flaws and weakness are finally exposed by the sly and knowing Corey. Director Lewis Allen makes sure everything moves along smoothly and makes excellent use of the harshly beautiful locations. A word also for cinematographer Charles Lang, who makes those same desolate landscapes positively pop off the screen.
Desert Fury is available on DVD in R4 from a company called DV1. Their disc looks fantastic with strong color and detail, although there are some speckles and damage marks here and there. It is, however, totally barebones with not even subs offered. On the plus side there are some interesting liner notes printed on the reverse of the cover – and it should be available cheaply. For me, this was pretty much a blind buy and I ended up enjoying it a lot. Recommended.