Now in Region A — One of the best releases from the early- ’50s 3-D boom. Millionaire Robert Ryan is abandoned to die in the desert by his wife Rhonda Fleming and her lover; the ‘useless’ executive earns self-respect by focusing on the problem of survival. Ryan’s terrific, and the depth effects in the attractive desert locations are great, thanks to cinematographer Lucien Ballard.
3-D + 2-D Blu-ray
1953 / Color / 1:33 flat / 83 min. / Street Date May 16, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming, William Lundigan, Henry Hull, Carl Betz, Larry Keating, Robert Burton.
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editor: Robert L. Simpson
Original Music: Paul Sawtell
Written by Francis M. Cockrell from his story The Waterhole
Produced by William Bloom
Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker
I just reviewed an Inferno 3-D disc not four months ago, but U.S. viewers will want the facts (all the facts!) about Twilight Time’s authorized domestic release, which can boast more and better extras. We impatient buyers of Region B Blu-rays always run the risk that the expensive English or French discs we order and wait weeks to be delivered may not be exactly what we want — or worse, that a U.S. distributor will put out a cheaper and maybe even better disc at any moment. That’s what happened to a friend in this case. Getting tired of waiting, he bought the 2014 English release of Inferno and we screened it one day in February. I don’t think a week passed before this one was announced!
A fine 20th Fox entry for the 3-D craze of 1953, the adventure thriller Inferno is often labeled a film noir in the desert. Despite the presence of a scheming, murderous wife, the noir quotient here is minimal — it’s a straight survival tale with a homicidal twist. For a classic era 3-D picture it’s a real winner. The ‘organic’ depth effect was captured on location, and the lighting cameraman Lucien Ballard delivers a ‘wow’ image every few seconds. It makes me feel like packing up the car and heading out to Joshua Tree right now . . . or maybe I’ll wait until the temperatures drop.
Writer Francis M. Cockrell’s name appears on a number of well-remembered episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was well as the interesting pre-Code drama The Age of Consent (1932) and Dark Waters (1944); he also provided the story for the excellent Civil War ‘terrorism’ story The Raid (1954). Cockrell’s scenario for Inferno is a little shaky but serviceable. It presents a fairly uncompromising ordeal for its leading man Robert Ryan. He doesn’t have to saw his own arm off with a plastic picnic knife, but fine acting makes this a fine survival story. The leading lady Rhonda Fleming looks great in Technicolor and 3-D. They didn’t come any prettier; Fleming’s second of three 3-D features Those Redheads from Seattle is also a recent arrival to 3-D Blu-ray.
Fed up with her troublesome businessman husband Donald Whitley Carson III (Robert Ryan), greedy wife Geraldine Carson (Rhonda Fleming) connives with her lover and Donald’s employee Joseph Duncan (William Lundigan) to pull off a slick murder. While on a trip investigating a manganese claim in the desert, Carson manages to break his leg near the ankle. Geraldine and Joseph tell Donald that they’re going on horseback for help, but instead ditch his car and inform the sheriff (Robert Burton) that he disappeared on his own, in a different part of the desert. Geraldine’s notion of responsibility is that they aren’t killing him, exactly, just letting him die. The two manage to convince Carson’s business manager Dave Emory (Larry Keating) and a police Lt. (Carl Betz) that they haven’t a clue as to what happened. Rather than succumb to exposure and starvation, Donald finds the courage to straighten his own leg and apply a splint; he then proceeds to scoot and lower himself down a rocky cliff face. He also finds ways of locating both food and water in the unforgiving desert. The trouble is, even after Donald has made a crutch for himself, he’s a long way from nowhere. The search ended days ago with the authorities convinced he’s somewhere else. And Geraldine and Joseph will soon be on the way back, to bury Donald’s remains and cover all traces.
Roy Baker didn’t add the ‘Ward’ to his credits until ten years later. Working at Fox, his most prominent assignment before this was the Marilyn Monroe drama Don’t Bother to Knock, but it didn’t help his career very much. Inferno is fine directing job that gives the under-utilized Robert Ryan a meaty role. Donald Carson is a temperamental executive, a former rich kid. We learn from his business manager, drinks to excess, offends people and has been known to disappear for days at a time without telling anybody. He may have fallen off his horse because he was drunk. Geraldine and Joseph’s claim that Donald just took off is credible, especially after they’ve already prepared an elaborate false trail in the desert, using Donald’s shoes.
Baker’s camera stays close on Donald as the disabled man deals with his predicament in a fairly realistic manner. His risky descent from the mountaintop is done well, although we wonder why Donald doesn’t just take whatever route the horses used to ascend. The business of securing liquid from cactus is convincing, as is digging in a dry arroyo to see if any water is trapped below. The most successful aspect of the story is seeing the bitter and defeatist Donald apply himself to the problem of survival. He initially motivates himself with thoughts of revenge, but the ordeal makes him a new man, satisfied with himself and no longer angry at the world. The Carson character isn’t as striking as Ryan’s soul-sick Jim Wilson in On Dangerous Ground or his bitter Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch, but he’s an improvement on the one-dimensional soldiers and villains Ryan would often find himself playing.
Perhaps what’s missing is a glimpse of Robert Ryan’s millionaire before he breaks his leg, when he’s in full S.O.B. mode. Carson’s voiceover during the desert trek gives us essential information a little too easily, but it works well enough and is certainly better than having Donald talk out loud to himself constantly, or using a narration by some third party. We know that Geraldine hates Donald and wants him out of the way, and it’s interesting to hear a close associate say such mundane negative things about him. Yet we never experience Donald drunk and obnoxious or being abusive. We don’t get to see these same people discover the supposedly ‘new’ Donald reborn out of the desert. What should be a main story conflict between husband and wife barely happens, as they share only one brief moment together on screen.
The drama works, but our understanding of Donald would be a lot stronger if we saw more of his unpleasant ‘before.’ When he makes contact with desert rat Henry Hull (pleasingly subdued) we forget that he was ever supposed to be ‘difficult to get along with.’
The supporting roles are just stock, with Rhonda Fleming a selfish cheat and William Lundigan suitably cold-blooded. Fleming’s acting isn’t good enough to express the sense of denial that such a shallow person might use to avoid distress over such a terrible crime. Geraldine just seems a little too relaxed. Also, if I were a detective I’d be more curious about the cozy relationship between the sexy wife and the handsome geology assistant. The two of them just happen to lose track of a guy, whose permanent disappearance will make both of them filthy rich: “And how long have you and Joe been so close, Mrs. Carson?” In terms of plot loopholes, I hope for Geraldine’s sake that she has check-writing privileges for all of hubby’s accounts. State law might want her to wait for years before he’s declared legally dead.
Perhaps the best thing about Inferno is that it makes us feel like we’re in a real desert — it’s rocky, dry and distances are difficult to gauge. It can’t be the hottest part of the summer, or Donald wouldn’t last two days in his condition — being unprotected in the sun would be intolerable. Robert Ryan makes the guy look suitably sun-baked and miserable.
Inferno came early in the 3-D craze; Fox didn’t scrimp on the production, and promoted the original release with all its might: “The wonder of 3-D Stereophonic Sound! The marvel of 3-D Color by Technicolor enhanced a Thousandfold!” Twilight Time’s 3-D disc is an excellent demo choice to show off the special qualities of classic-era 3-D.
The Twilight Time 3-D + 2- D Blu-ray of Inferno is a terrific experience for the home 3-D enthusiast. As with all 3-D Blu-rays I’ve seen, a flat 2-D encoding is present as well. Choosing between them is not an issue; I watched it flat while listening to the commentary and the show was just as entertaining.
The transfer itself seems identical to the excellent 3-D encode on the U.K. Panamint disc. Colors are excellent and stable, with just a hint of blue sneaking into some of the blacks. The picture is crisp and the 3-D effects exciting. The rocky Mojave Desert locations lend themselves well to the depth illusion. Rhonda Fleming’s red hair and blue eyes really pop in 3-D; objects look round and textured, not merely layered in space. The audio seems the same as well — the track is nigh perfect, with only the first couple of dialogue lines sounding a little low. The packaging, design and formatting are much better on this TT disc, and it has an additional feature that will make a difference to many buyers — removable English subtitles.
TT’s extra goodies far outclass the patchy extras on the UK disc. The main item is a commentary by Alan K. Rode, which has been sitting waiting for this release for years. Rode’s relaxed discussion of Inferno digs deep into the production story. The show was produced just as Fox was embarking on its do-or-die CinemaScope experiment. With The Robe already in production, Darryl F. Zanuck hedged his bet by making a 3-D picture as well, just in case fate favored one format over the other. Rode gives us a fine rundown on the star Robert Ryan, and is joined for additional audio remarks by the actor’s daughter. The other actors are covered with good career synopses. The film’s violent ending was a quick rewrite concocted by Fox chief Zanuck. As in the original story, the hero advances philosophically beyond the need for vengeance . . . but we still get a life-or-death action finale. Everybody wins.
A New Dimension of Noir is a multi-interview featurette made at least eight years ago, featuring Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller, Rhonda Fleming, Foster Hirsch and the late Robert Osborne. The same points in the commentary come out, illustrated directly with clips. An original trailer is the final video extra, and the show carries an Isolated Music Track. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes spend several paragraphs extolling the film’s graces and Ryan’s excellent performance before bringing up the subject of 3-D . . . it’s a great movie even without the gimmick.
I was once certain that a key shot of burning rafters falling directly onto the camera lens is the same stock shot that’s repeated in three or four of the 1960s Roger Corman – Edgar Allan Poe movies. But then I saw similar angles, with much bigger ceilings, in Fox’s Forever Amber — it’s more likely that Corman’s conflagration stock shots come from that movie.
Savant advisor Gary Teetzel made a good observation at the film’s end, when (spoiler) the old codger Sam Elby (Henry Hull) drives Donald Carson back to civilization. There ought to be a dialog line saying that Carson will rebuild Elby’s old broken-down shack, to repay him for his kindness. A dissolve, and workmen are putting the finishing touches on a brand-new shack, just as ragged and broken-down as the first one!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Inferno 3-D + 2-D Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Isolated Music Track / Audio Commentary with Film Historian Alan K. Rode and Robert Ryan’s Daughter Lisa Ryan / A New Dimension of Noir: Filming Inferno in 3D / Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 24, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson