Certain movies just seem to stick in the mind for one reason or another, sometimes not the whole film but a scene or two or maybe even only part of a scene. That was the case with Secret of the Incas (1954), which I recall seeing on television as a kid. It was the climax, or parts of it anyway, that remained with me and I hoped for a long time to get the chance to catch it again. Over time I’d heard it said that the film had a big influence on the development of the Indiana Jones character, and it’s easy enough to see where that idea comes from, but that didn’t interest me so much – my early viewing had preceded Raiders of the Lost Ark by a few years. Returning to half-remembered movies can, of course, prove to be enormously disappointing – all the elements which appeared thrilling and memorable to a youngster can fall completely flat when viewed through adult eyes – but not always. I’ve been able to see Secret of the Incas a few times now and I think it still holds up as an entertaining adventure yarn.
Harry Steele (Charlton Heston) is a classic pulp creation, scratching out a living in and around the Peruvian city of Cuzco. Trading on his looks and rugged demeanor, he latches onto newly arrived American tourists and offers his services as guide and, it’s strongly hinted, as a source of entertainment for the bored wives of the tired middle-aged businessmen who retain his services. Essentially, he’s a disreputable character, willing to do most anything to turn a buck and ever on the lookout for an opportunity to hit it big. In this case hitting it big would be the recovery of a fabled Inca artifact, a fabulous jewel-encrusted sunburst which has been lost for centuries and is of huge spiritual value to the indigenous people. While Steele runs his own schemes and scams he also makes use of, and is used in turn, by a fellow expatriate scoundrel, Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell). Both men long to get their hands on the Inca treasure, Steele actually having come into possession of a vital clue to its whereabouts, and the chance to do so presents itself in a somewhat roundabout fashion. The arrival in Cuzco of a Romanian defector, Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey), desperate to reach the US by any means looks at first to be an unwelcome distraction. However, the fact that the lady in question is being pursued by an official who just happens to have his own light airplane rouses Steele’s interest. He now has a way to get in and out of the lost city of Machu Picchu, where he believes the sunburst is hidden. Still, with Morgan on his trail, a team of archeologists excavating the site, and an ever-increasing stream of native pilgrims arriving daily, things may not be quite so simple.
Director Jerry Hopper had a pretty solid run of pictures in the early and mid-50s, he’d already worked with Heston on Pony Express and went on make the entertaining Smoke Signal with Dana Andrews afterwards. One of the most attractive aspects of the film is the beautiful location work in Peru, with Lionel Lindon’s camera lapping up the local color and spectacle. Hopper keeps things moving along nicely, blending footage of Peruvian customs to add a sheen of authenticity without allowing the narrative to flag. The script comes courtesy of Sydney Boehm and Ranald MacDougall, the former having written some fine films noir and there’s a brusque, hard-boiled quality to much of the dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in a crime film. Although this is a fairly unpretentious adventure, there’s also enough character development to ensure it doesn’t become overly formulaic. Steele grows and changes as events proceed and he undergoes the kind of redemptive arc I always appreciate seeing.
Charlton Heston almost inevitably ended up dominating any movie he appeared in, the sheer physical presence of the man demanding your attention. That trademark swagger is on display of course, but he has plenty of opportunities to show off his acting chops too. The early scenes highlight his complacent amorality, cuckolding clients to their faces and pocketing the money women give him with relish. If that were all it consisted of, it would be a one-dimensional performance though. What adds interest is the gradual awakening of some ethical sense, the realization that his current path will surely lead to his transformation into all he holds in contempt. Perhaps it’s the stinging rebuke of a woman or maybe the contact with those whose spirituality overrides base greed that pricks at his conscience; whatever the trigger actually is, the character of Steele comes to see himself as he really is, and what he may become. Heston carries that off well, but the presence of Thomas Mitchell is vital in making it work. Mitchell always gave great value as far as I’m concerned, conveying a feeling of pathos better than any character actor I’ve seen. His playing of Ed Morgan is a spot on portrayal of a man gone to seed physically and emotionally. The stubbly face, the stained sweater, the fevered and darting eyes all point to decay and decline, and it’s all perfectly believable. Nicole Maurey is fine too as the political fugitive, a woman whose shady past is alluded to but never wholly explained. This leaves her with an air of mystery and we don’t really need to know what led her to flee to South America anyway. Less satisfactory is Robert Young’s staid archeologist – his performance isn’t a bad one yet the writing leaves his character’s storyline hanging and unresolved at the end. There are supporting roles for Peruvian singer Yma Sumac (her extraordinary and haunting vocal talents provide the basis for much of the soundtrack), Michael Pate, and a knowingly humorous Glenda Farrell.
Secret of the Incas appeared to be out of circulation for a long time but there are DVDs available in both Spain and Italy now. Olive Films had announced their intention to release the movie in the US at one point and then backed out of it citing the poor condition of the available elements. I have the Spanish DVD and it’s easy to see what probably discouraged the US company. The print has the kind of overall softness and instances of damage which mean it’s crying out for restoration. Having said that, the colors are quite strong and it’s by no means a struggle to watch. While I certainly found myself thinking about how much better the film could look I can’t honestly say the presentation reduced my enjoyment to any significant degree. If hunting for lost treasure, remote and exotic locations, and old-fashioned adventure are your thing, then Secret of the Incas should satisfy.