3-D Region B (+A ) Blu-ray
Panamint Cinema (UK)
1953 / Color / 1:33 flat / 83 min. / Street Date August 10, 2014 / Available from Amazon UK / £19.99
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
(Note, 1.18.17: Twilight Time will be releasing a domestic disc of
this title on May 16, licensed for U.S. distribution.)
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 just a straight survival tale with a homicidal twist. An odd UK-only release licensed by a small independent company, the Blu-ray 3-D is well encoded — the ‘organic’ two strip 3-D is excellent at all times. American collectors have been waiting for a domestic release for three years, without results. The UK copy I screened plays perfectly on Region A equipment.
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, and for its year presents a fairly uncompromising ordeal for its leading man Robert Ryan. Rhonda Fleming is the leading lady, and she comes across well in Technicolor and 3-D.
Fed up with her businessman husband Donald Whitley Carson III (Robert Ryan) after several years of marriage, 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 his manganese claims 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. The two manage to convince Carson’s business manager Dave Emory (Larry Keating) and police Lt. (Carl Betz) that they’re completely confused as to what happened to Donald. 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 was the Marilyn Monroe drama Don’t Bother to Knock, but it didn’t help his career very much. Inferno is another fine directing job that gives the under-utilized Robert Ryan a meaty role. Donald Carson is a temperamental executive, a former rich kid who, we learn from his business manager, offends people, drinks to excess 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. The 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, 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 Donald’s wife hates him 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 identification with Donald could be a lot stronger if we saw more of his unpleasant ‘before.’ When Donald 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, were I 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.
Fox pushed the original 3-D release with all its might: “The wonder of 3-D Stereophonic Sound! The marvel of 3-D Color by Technicolor enhanced a Thousandfold!” This foreign-sold disc Inferno is a fine addition to one’s 3-D corral.
Panamint Cinema’s 3-D Region B (+A ) Blu-ray of Inferno is a nifty encoding of this vintage film. A couple of years ago, we heard about a possible Region A release. Noir spokesmen Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode reported that they had produced a featurette and a commentary for it, but the disc never surfaced. That makes this an, ‘i got tired of waiting’ review. The packaging says nothing but the disc plays fine in Region A.
The gaudy package art is suitable for a bargain bin release, but it can’t mar the excellent 3-D film within (it’s viewable 2-D as well). The color is attractive at all times, even though the darkest blacks take on a bluish tinge. Little print damage is visible. The only gotta-mention-it flaw are the first two or three dialogue lines, which are low and difficult to hear. Everything else is as clear as a bell. Paul Sawtell’s soundtrack music is free of distortion. The presentation also includes the film’s original 3-D ‘half time’ changeover break intermission card.
The disc’s menu page is amateurish-looking. But never fear, for hitting the 3-D play button brings up the main feature in a professionally mastered manner. Rhonda Fleming’s red hair and blue eyes really pop in 3-D; objects look round and textured, not merely layered in space.
I was told that Bob Furmanek of the 3-D Film Archive provided some of the extras, and received this statement from him: “Hi Glenn, the Inferno restoration was done around 2008 by the late Daniel L. Symmes, aka “Mr. 3-D.” When Russell Cowe licensed Inferno for 3-D Blu-ray, he was going to release an analglyphic conversion that Dan had provided to Fox. Thankfully, we helped him get the correct version. It was originally three-channel stereophonic sound but those magnetic tracks are long gone. I used to have a pair of 35mm dye-transfer Technicolor 3-D prints from 1953 and the mono optical sound was very good. This new master has a somewhat diminished mono optical track scanned from a negative.”
The extras are… interesting. Rhonda Fleming on the Wonders of the 3rd Dimension is actually a promotional teaser trailer. Ms. Fleming touts the show in close-up and the other images are artwork graphics and text. Oddly familiar generic ‘western’ music plays. Also included is a flat theatrical trailer in good shape.
The third item is a strange ten-minute segment from the TBN Christian network’s Praise the Lord show, in which host Pat Boone interviews Rhonda Fleming. The broadcast date was October 8, 2009. The interview is in widescreen and taped on one of those awful, over-produced TBN stage settings. Pat Boone can’t direct a discussion to save his soul, and fumbles with papers (IMDB printouts?) while trying to express excitement over his guest’s career. Rhonda fills the vacuum by telling her standard, ‘gee whiz how did I get in the movies?’ story, about being plucked from high school to play in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The only problem is that it was her fourth feature appearance, and for the first one she was already twenty years old. But hey, there are no fact checkers on the Praise the Lord show, and Fleming is a gracious guest. I got a good look at her when she came to the Cannon Group to edit a charity video. At age 66 and not dressed or made up glamorously, she was still was a stunner… amazing skin. In this Pat Boone tape Ms. Fleming is 86, and better than presentable.
A sixteen-page color insert booklet offers an essay, probably written by disc producer Russell Cowe. He reminds us that Inferno was produced at the same time as Fox’s first CinemaScope feature, possibly as insurance should the rollout of the new format lay an egg. A quote from Rhonda Fleming identifies the location as the Mojave Desert, at a cold time of year. Most interestingly, Cowe tells us that the film’s violent ending was a quick rewrite concocted by Fox chief Darryl Zanuck. As in the original story, the hero advances philosophically beyond the need for vengeance… but there’s still a life-or-death action finale. Everybody wins.
The booklet also says that the pair of Technicolor prints found by Bob Furmanek transferred much more attractively than what could be extracted from Fox’s negatives. Furmanek mentions a poolside close-up of Rhonda Fleming, red hair and green swimsuit against the blue water as the best shot in the movie. It’s true — in 3-D, the glinting highlights off the water look as though we’re watching something happening now, not in 1953.
I’m pretty certain that the shot of burning rafters falling directly onto the camera lens as a ceiling collapses became the same stock shot that’s repeated in three or four of the 1960s Roger Corman – Edgar Allan Poe movies. Or do the scenes just look similar?
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 Region B (+A ) 3-D Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good (the 3-D is Excellent)
Sound: Good +/-
Supplements: Teaser trailer with Rhonda Fleming on the Wonders of the 3rd Dimension, Theatrical trailer; Pat Boone interviews Rhonda Fleming in 2009. Plus 16 page illustrated booklet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson