The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Inferno

Your leg is broken. You have limited supplies, some water and nothing really but your wits about you. Miles from help and with no way to contact help, you are alone and isolated in the middle of the desert. What do you do? That's 1953's Inferno, an early survival flick, one of the earliest I can even think of.

Leaving a small camp and tracks all around them, a man (William Lundigan) and a woman (Rhonda Fleming) ride out of the desert back to the family ranch miles away. The ranch belongs to the woman's husband, but where is he? The man, Donald Carson (Robert Ryan), is alive if not well, alone in the desert. While riding together out in the desert with his wife, Geraldine, and friend, Duncan, Carson sustained a broken leg and because it was too risky to move him, both Geraldine and Duncan promised to ride for help. Will they? Nope, that's not the full plan. The duo are just days into an illicit affair and took advantage of the situation when Carson hurt himself. They intend to mislead search parties and any rescue effort so that Carson -- crippled and running out of food and water -- dies in the process. They planned just about everything they could except for one thing, Carson's will to live once he figures out he's been double-crossed.

Add this 1953 survival drama to a long list of movies I so politely call 'Wait...What? I've never even heard of that. Why?' From director Roy Ward Baker, 'Inferno' has the feel if a film noir was set in the desolate desert. It's got all the fixings. An anti-hero of sorts who lives fast and hard (Ryan), the sizzling femme fatale (Fleming) and the conniving scoundrel (Lundigan), all mixed up in a sordid affair. Instead of a mob betrayal or backstabbing over money, it's about a marriage with problems and the wife's way to seemingly get out of it clean. It was filmed on location the Mojave Desert, providing quite the visual backdrop for the survival story and clocks in at just 83 minutes. Why has it generally been forgotten since the 1950s? Your guess is as good as mine.

It's a good but far from great movie. The biggest positive is pretty easy to peg, and that's Robert Ryan, leg broken, beard/stubble growing quickly, and his grasp of sanity quickly fading away. What's his motivator? It doesn't take long for him to figure out his wife and business partner have left him out in the desert to die. Ryan is one of the best actors in Hollywood history thanks in great part to his ability to bounce back and forth between good guy and bad guy roles and do it well. This is the flawed anti-hero. We're rooting for him, but as we learn more about him we start to see it's not like this is one immaculate fella. He's flawed, but whatever he's done, he's been wrong. Abandoned and left to die, he's on his own.

That's the movie at its strongest. The movie is never long, but it struggles when we're away from Ryan's Carson out in the desert. It is an incredibly physical part, a man with a broken leg and no way to get out of the desert other than to start crawling his way toward safety. On his own, he's got no one to talk to so we interact with him via his voiceover. This is a man on the brink of losing it, of giving up and dying so we hear his thoughts, his plans, his rationalizations as everything comes together about his betrayal at the hands of his wife and business partner. The camera is on Ryan and Ryan alone, and this Hollywood legend doesn't disappoint. It isn't mentioned as one of his stronger performances, but it certainly belongs in the conversation.

Unfortunately, the wheels sort of come off when Ryan isn't around. Having left him to die, Fleming and Lundigan talk about their plan, about how to make sure how it could go wrong, about how things could go wrong and do so quickly. It just ain't that interesting. Things really get out of hand late in an action-packed finale that really comes out of left field. To that point, it's been all about survival and making it through so the shift in tone didn't necessarily work for me. For the rest of the cast, look for Larry Keating as Carson's lawyer who knows all the good and bad, Henry Hull as a local rancher working to track Carson, and Carl Betz and Robert Burton as two officers involved in the search. A good survival story but some big issues.

Inferno (1953): ** 1/2 /****

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