It’s tough to pull off a film noir set largely outdoors and in broad daylight, especially one shot in color—noir is a genre of monochrome and shadows, of dark, rain-slicked streets and dimly-lit rooms. On the other hand, it’s not impossible either, and films like John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955) showed how it could be done. Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury (1947) is not in the same class as those films, but it’s enjoyable enough as a B movie with an A-level cast, beautiful technicolor cinematography by Charles Lang (who was nominated eighteen times for Best Cinematography Oscar and won once, for the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms), and a pair of characters who are pretty clearly coded as gay.
Robert Rossen wrote some great screenplays, including All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), but Desert Fury, adapted from a novel by Ramona Stewart, is not nearly up to that standard. Fritzie (Mary Astor) runs a casino in a small town near Reno, Nevada; she’s a widow since the mob bumped off her husband, and she’s trying to set her daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott) on the path to a different life. So far it hasn’t taken—Paula is back home with mom after being kicked out of school—and there’s more trouble brewing in the form of gangsters Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey in his film debut) who are also back in town. By way of contrast, the town’s leading eligible bachelor, Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a former rodeo rider and current lawman, is so clean he practically squeaks. Which means, of course, that Paula takes no interest in him and falls instead for Eddie, much to her mother’s displeasure.
The interesting twist is that Eddie and Johnny act like an old married couple who have lost the spark and spend most of their time getting on each other’s nerves, yet persist in their relationship, due perhaps to a lack of options and out of respect for what once was. One wonders how Eddie’s description of how he met Johnny ever made it past the censors: “It was in the automat off Times Square, about two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. 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.” There’s something a bit off in Fritzie and Paula’s relationship also, and they often feel more like partners in a May/December romance gone bad than they do a mother and daughter.
Lang captures the noir tone in many interior shots, while the exteriors tend to be postcard pretty. Of course, you can always take the contrast as an ironic comment about how dark doings may be carried on in the sunniest of surroundings, and that interpretation is echoed in the contrast between Paula’s two potential love interests. Tom exemplifies the straightforward, all-American masculinity of rural America, and is often seen outdoors, while Eddie represents a more sinister, urban, and ethnic masculinity, and is totally at home in those noirish interiors. As he says at one point: “I like sunlight in its place. Outside.” | Sarah Boslaugh
Desert Fury is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include an audio commentary by Imogen Sara Smith and the film’s theatrical trailer.