Tag Archives: Lizabeth Scott

Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury: Third Film, Fifth Wheel

desert fury lobby cardDesertfury (1)

 

Burt Lancaster got his contract with Hal B. Wallis at Paramount on the basis of a test directed by Byron Haskin with Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott for Desert Fury. Lucky for him, the film was not ready to shoot for another six months and he was able to fit in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers(1946)  for producer Mark Hallinger at Universal beforehand. Desert Fury started shooting two weeks before the release of The Killers but there were already whisperings of Lancaster as a big new star, and the whisperings were so loud that Hallinger gave him first billing and a big publicity build-up rather than the little ‘and introducing….’ title at the end of the credits that was then typical, and is indeed the billing offered Wendell Corey in Desert Fury as you can see in the poster above. Before Desert Fury started shooting, Hal Wallis knew he had a big fat star on his hands and that his part had to be beefed up so as to capitalise on it.

By the time the film was released on September 24th, 1947,, Burt Lancaster was the biggest star in the film. The Killers hit screens on the 29th of August 1946. As Kate Buford writes, Ít was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise ¨faster than Gable´s, Garbo´s or Lana Turner,¨as Cosmopolitan said years later (Buford, loc 1260). In New York the movie, ‘played twenty-four hours a day at the Winter Garden theatre, ‘where over 120,000 picture-goers filled the 1,300 seat theatre in the first two weeks, figures Variety called “unbelievably sensational.”‘ Brute Force was the fourth film Lancaster made, after I Walk Alone, but it was the second to be released, on June 30th 1947. According to Kate Buford, it too ‘set set first-week records at movie houses across the country’ (loc 1412).

 

Lancaster’s status as a star is reflected in the lobby card and poster above, where in spite of being billed third, what´s being sold is what Burt Lancaster already represented, the publicity materials giving a false impression that he is much more central to the narrative than is in fact the case. His image dominates in both, and even the tag lines are attributed to him: ‘I got a memory for faces…killer´s faces…Get away from my girl…and get going’, is the tagline in the lobby card. The text on the poster reads, ´Two men wanted her love…the third wanted her life.

 

In the ad below, he´s billed second, as ´the sensation of The Killers, Dynamite with the fuse lit’

o_1a8umt5ej1ba411vi30l53d1618g

When trying to recapture a past moment in relation to cinema, it´s often useful to look at trailers and other paratextual publicity materials. Trailers hold and try to disseminate the film´s promise to viewers. Of course, its purpose is to sell, to dramatise its attractions so that viewers will go see it. And of course, they often lie, dramatising not what is but what they hope will sell. That said, those promises, lies and hopes are often very revealing.

 

As you can see above, the trailer is selling melodrama — violent passions — in a magnificent natural setting filmed in Technicolor. Burt Lancaster’s name is only mentioned 39 second into the 1.41 trailer, after Lizabeth Scott with her strangeness and her defiance of convention and after John Hodiak with his secrets and coiled snakeyness. And Lancaster’s introduced as ‘hammer fisted’ Tom Hanson, erroneously giving the impression that this will be an action film. But note too that by the end of the trailer, Lancaster is given top billing.

According to Kate Buford, in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Lancaster thought ‘Desert Fury would not have lunched anybody’, later ‘dismissing it as having ‘starred a station wagon’ (loc 1157). The film is really a series of triangles: Eddie (John Hodiak) and Tom (Burt Lancaster) are both in love with Paula (Lizabeth Scott), Fritzy (Mary Astor) has already had an affair with Tom who is currently pursuing an affair with her daughter Paula, Paula and Johnny (Wendell Corey) are both in love with Eddie etc. I have made a not-quite-video essay that nonetheless well illustrates the Johnny-Eddie-Paula triangle, surely one of the queerest of the classic period, which can be seen here:

Tom is really a fifth wheel in the narrative. But by the time the film started shooting, Burt Lancaster was already the biggest star in it.  His part was beefed up to take his new status into account, scenes were added, According to Gary Fishgall, the film was based on a 1945 novel, Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, and ‘ Lancaster’s role was an amalgam of two of the novel’s characters: the embittered, sadistic deputy sheriff, Tom Hansen, and a likeable highway patrolman named Luke Sheridan. Neither character was romantically linked to Paula (p.55). But in the film, he ends up with Lizabeth Scott at the end. All these additions probably contributed to the film seeming so structurally disjointed.

In Desert Fury Tom, a former rodeo rider, just hangs around waiting for Paula to get wise to Eddie, leaving her enough rope to act freely, as he does with colts when taming them, but not enough so that she hangs herself, or so he thinks. Really, he’s extraneous. He gets to walk into the sunset with Paula at the end of the film but the film really ends once Paula and Fritzy kiss, on the lips. He certainly doesn’t get much to do during it, except for a couple of great scenes where Fritzy tries to buy him into marrying her daughter (above) and another bit of banter when she thinks he’s come to accept her offer (below). Mary Astor steals both scenes. In fact she steals everything. Every time she appears, her wit, weariness, intelligence, the intensity of her love for her daughter — she lifts the film to a level it probably doesn’t deserve to be in. But Lancaster is good. These are the only scenes in the film where he looks like he’s enjoying himself.

Tom is the closest the film has to a ´normal character’. Indeed, aside from the character he plays in All My Sons (1948) this is the closest Lancaster had come to such a type during the whole of his period in film noir in the late 40s and which includes all of his films up to The Flame and the Arrow in 1950. Even in Variety Girl, which is an all-star comedy where he and Lizabeth Scott spoof  the hardboiled characters they’re associated with, the surprise is that they’ve already created personas to spoof in such a short time (see below).

 

 

According to Fishgall, ‘Lancaster –billed third before the film’s title — acquitted himself well in the essentially thankless other man’ role. Still, if Desert Fury had marked his screen debut as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have achieved stardom quite so quickly. Not only did the film lack the stylish impact of The Killers, but so did the actor. Without the smouldering intensity of the Swede and his first pictures’ moody black and white photography, he appeared to be more of a regular fellow, and guy-next-door types rarely become overnight sensations’ (p. 67).

In Desert Fury we’re told that unlike the drugstore cowboys who are now criticising him, Tom used to be the best rodeo rider there was but a while back, whilst wrestling a steer, he got thrown off and is now all busted up inside. Being ‘busted up inside’ is what all the characters Burt Lancaster plays in the late ’40s have in common. He thinks of returning to the rodeo all the time but knows he can never be as good. He used to be a champ, now all he can hope for is to be second best. He knows he ‘ain’t got what it takes anymore’. He’s in love with Paula and she knows it. But she doesn’t know what she wants. He think he does: ‘you’re looking for what I used to get when I rode in the rodeo.  The kick of having people say “that’s a mighty special person” I’d like to get that kick again. Maybe I can get it with just one person saying it’. He will, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the movie.

burt-short-desert-fury

But even in this,  Lancaster doesn´t play entirely nicey-poo, true-blue, throughout, and his Tom is given moments of wanton bullying and cruelty where he gets to abuse Eddie just because he’s a cop and wants to. And it´s interesting that it´s that moment, which jives so well with the ´brute force´Lancaster was already known for, and which would attach itself to his persona for many a year, that is the one chosen for the trailer.

According to Robyn Karney, in Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man, ‘As the straightforward moral law officer in a small Arizona town who rescues the object of his affections from the dangerous clutches of a murderous professional gambler, Burt had little to do other than look strong, handsome and reliable. Despite Wallis’ much vaunted rewrites, the role of the Sheriff Tom Hanson remained stubbornly secondary and uninteresting, with the limelight focused on John Hodiak as the villain, fellow contract players Elizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey’ (p.31).

 

I mainly agree with Robyn Karney except for four points, two textual and stated above: the first is that even in this Lancaster is playing a failure, someone once a somebody that people talked about but now all busted up inside; the second is that that element of being ´busted up inside´leads to a longing that gets displaced onto Paula. If the rodeo is what made feel alive and gave him a reason to live before his accident, now it´s Paula, and the idea that she might also be an unobtainable goal  leads to his outbursts of unprovoked violence towards the rival for his affections, Eddie (John Hodiak).

The other two points of interest are extra textual. Desert Fury is gloriously filmed by Charles Lang. A few years later, in Rope of Fury, Lang would film Lancaster as a beauty queen: eyelashes, shadows and smoke, lips and hair (see below):

Screenshot 2020-05-29 at 16.41.08

 

Here, even with his pre-stardom teeth and his bird´s nest of a hairdo, Lancaster sets the prototype for the Malboro Man:

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 14.00.09

He looks good in technicolour, and Lang brings out the blue of his eyes:

 

More importantly, the film visualises him, for the first time, as Western Hero, a genre that would become a mainstay of his career from Vengeance Valley (1951) right through Ulzana´s Raid (1972) and even onto Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981):

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 10.58.41

 

Desert Fury was not well reviewed. According to the Daily Herald ‘The acting is first-class. But except for Mr. Lancaster as a speed cop, the characters in the Arizona town with their lavish clothes and luxury roadsters, are contemptible to the point of being more than slightly nauseating’ (cited in Hunter p. 27),

The Monthly Film Bulletin labelled the film a western melodrama, claiming, surprisingly, that ‘The vivid technicolor and grand stretches of burning Arizona desert give a certain air of reality to the film’. Hard for us to see this thrillingly melodramatic film, lurid, in every aspect, evaluated in the light of realism. The MFB continued with, ´This reality is however counteracted by the way in which the sharply defined, but extremely unnatural characters act. Everything is over dramatised, and the title is a mystery in that the desert is comparatively peaceful compared with the way the human beings behaved…Lizabeth Scott is suitably beautiful as Paula and Burt Lancaster suitably tough as Tom. (Jan 1, 1947, p. 139)

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 14.13.02
How to read the smokestacks between them?

Thus, we can see that on the evidence above, the film was badly reviewed, Time magazine going so far as to call it, ‘impossible to take with a straight face’ (Buford, loc1293). But Burt Lancaster´s performance was either exempted from the criticism or its faults where attributed to the film rather than to himself. More importantly still, the film was a hit, Burt Lancaster´s third in a row. Finally, as I´ve discussed elsewhere, the film is now considered by many a kind of camp classic,  a leading example of noir in technicolor as well as arguably the gayest film ever produced in the classic period. 

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 14.13.12

José Arroyo

 

Desert Fury: Making Things Perfectly Queer

When Desert Fury was released in the UK , the Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1st 1947 labelled it a Western Drama, praised the colour for adding a ´certain air of  reality to the film´(!) but remarked on the sharply defined but extremely unnatural characters. The film was badly reviewed, made money, and then was largely forgotten for many years. David Ehrenstein, in ‘Desert Fury, Mon Amour’, an important piece for Film Quarterly in 1988, significantly dedicated to Vito Russo and Richard Dyer, wrote: ´You aren´t likely to find Desert Fury listed on a revival or repertory house schedule. It isn´t avaiable on home video. at best you might be able to catch it in some 3.am slot on local television, or unspooled some afternoon when rain cancels a baseball game. And why not? It´s ´just a movie´– produced, consumed, forgotten. Not good. Not bad. Medicore. In fact, one might even go so far as to call it quintessentially mediocre’.  And yet, Ehrenstein argues, the film ´speaks to cinematic desires barely formed and only half-uttered´.

 

What once couldn´t be uttered now seems obvious to all. By 1998 Eddie Muller in Dark City, The Lost World of Film Noir, would write, ‘Desert Fury is the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood’s golden era. The film is saturated – with incredibly lush color, fast and furious dialogue dripping with innuendo, double entendres, dark secrets, outraged face-slappings, overwrought Miklos Rosza violins. How has this film escaped revival or cult status? It’s Hollywood at its most gloriously berserk’ (p.183)´By 2008, Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of The Screen: Film Noir, was writing ´In a truly subversive move the film jettisons the characters’ criminal activities to concentrate on two homosexual couples: the mannish mother who treats her daughter like a lover, and the gangster and his devoted possessive sidekick'(p.224). By 2014, Ronald Bergan in Film Comment, would argue that´Since Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, we have grown accustomed to reading cryptic messages of homosexuality in pre-Sixties Hollywood movies. But the Eddie-Johnny relationship is too overt to be intentionally gay in the Hollywood of the Forties’. The film offers an interesting critical trajectory: What was unnatural if invisible or unutterable, merely ‘bad’, in 1947, now seems too excessively obvious.

I’ve been trying to practice my video skills, playing with dissolves and titles, still terrible at both, but I have put together clips from the film, edited down but in chronological order, that create such a vivid queer triangle that it does make one wonder what was going on in people’s minds and make one wish someone had interviewed all involved on this issue.  I think you’ll find that the power of this vividly queer narrative will override the evidence of my relative lack of editing skills. There´s another, similar exercise, to be made on lesbianism in the same film.

 

José Arroyo

Coding Lesbianism in Desert Fury

In Desert Fury, Mary Astor is Fritzy, the Vice Queen of Chuckawalla, who runs the Purple Sage gambling joint in town and perhaps a bordello or two. She’s got a housekeeper who can’t stop looking at the mirror, wears slacks and a short do, is the most powerful person in town, with the judges and the cops in her back pocket, and loves *everything* about her daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott), sometimes seeming on the point of incest:

 

 

José Arroyo

I’m on base, you’re doing the pitching

Burt get propositioned again, this time in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). Night-club singer Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott), Dink Turner’s (Kirk Douglas) main squeeze, has been ordered to be sweet to Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster. But Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller), the woman Dink plans to marry, catches Frankie from the corner of her eye and makes a move: ‘I’m on base,’ he tells her ‘you’re doing the pitching’.

José Arroyo

Burt and Lizabeth Scott kid their personas

Variety Girl is one of those all-star productions, usually featuring unknowns, that showcased a particular studio’s stars whilst raising money for a cause. Most of the famous ones — Stage Door CanteenThank Your Lucky Stars — were made during the war and in aid of the war effort. Variety Girl was made post-war, in 1947, in aid of the Variety Clubs of America, which itself had a history worthy of a movie. The Variety Club was initially set up as a show-business social club. However, on Christmas Eve 1928, a baby was left at the Sheridan Square Film Theatre with a note:

‘Please take care of my baby. Her name is Catherine. I can no longer take care of her. I have eight others. My husband is out of work. She was born on Thanksgiving Day. I have always heard of the goodness of show-business people and pray to God that you will look after her. Signed, a heartbroken mother’.

This could have been the basis of a great melodrama but is instead turned into the premise of a musical. In the film Catherine grows up, goes to Hollywood, visits the sights and ends up at Paramount, where we get to see all the stars there at the time: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Alan Ladd, William Holden etc.

The film is not good but it does have many treasurable bits. I wanted to share the clip above, where you can already see Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott kidding their personas, because it’s surprising to think that this is only a year after Burt Lancaster became a star with his very first film, The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). He’d also had a success with Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1946). Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947), with Lizabeth Scott had already been released, and the two had teamed up again for I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). The bit above fulfills the function of giving audiences what they’d liked but also providing publicity for  one attraction that was still playing in parts of the country (Desert Fury) and the forthcoming I Walk Alone, another hit.

Burt Lancaster waited a long time to get into the movies. He was already 32 in The Killers. But his success was extraordinary and immediate. As Cosmpolitan said, “a star with a meteroic rise “faster than Gable’s, Garbo’s or Lana Turner.’ Thomas Pryor in The New York Times wrote that “even in a place where spectacular ascents are now more or less commonplace, the rise of Burt Lancaster is regarded as something extraordinary”. His name ona theatre marquee was now said to be good for at least 1 million in ticket sales (Kate Burford, loc 1625, Kindle).

In Variety Girl, he’s ‘Buffalo Burt Lancaster’ who puts a cigarette on the side of Lizabeth Scott’s mouth and will light it with just one bullet. Of course, he misses: it’s a spoof. One year into his movie career and Lancaster already has a persona to kid, a powerful one, aspects of which would cling to his stardom throughout the rest of his life.

 

José Arroyo

Bibliography: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, London: Aurum, 2013)

Dark City (William Dieterle, USA, 1950)

Dark City

Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) is a vet suffering the after-effects of his wartime experiences. But it wasn’t the fighting that got to him. He had a good war. What caused his fall was a woman, a woman whom he married and whom he caught in bed with a fellow soldier from his own squadron, his best friend. He killed the friend, was court-marshalled for it, and let off lightly due to his wartime record. His life is like a ride on the Styx, on his way to the underworld, and he’s never been able to trust a woman since. He’s going out with Fran (Lizabeth Scott) and she’s crazy about him but he can’t commit. The past is a darkness he carries throughout the film.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 08.58.29

 

Danny has fallen low. His father was a West Point man. He graduated from Cornell. As the film begins he’s lucky to escape a police raid on a gambling joint he’s got a share in. Danny and his friends hustle  Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) out of a 5000 check and Arthur commits suicide as a result. But it turns out the mark has a psycho brother, recently in from Montreal, who’s discovered the cause of his brother’s death and is out to kill each of the people involved in the hustle, one by one.

The story is rather hackneyed and the device of showing the murderer only by a ringed hand  (see above) until the end is worse than that. But this is a film that vibrates with longing and disappointment. It’s Charlton Heston’s first Hollywood film. He gets an ‘Introducing’ credit. But his is the leading part and he comes off as a star from the first: the handsome face, the deep voice, the huge height softened by an endearing duck waddle of a walk. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther declared him a new star: ‘tall, tweedy, rough-hewn sort of chap who looks like a triple-threat halfback on a midwestern college football team…He has a quiet but assertive magnetism, a youthful dignity and a plainly potential sense of timing that is the good actor’s sine qua non. (p.47).

Screenshot 2020-03-12 at 11.26.28

Heston is very good, an indication of the actor he could have been had he not seen himself as an exceptional person destined to tower over ‘great’ roles, by which he usually meant merely historical personages. He’s down and out here, anguished and troubled. Young still with a potential future ahead of him; and though he’s burdened by the past, he´s not yet been done in by it. Heston is all brooding intensity here, always present in relation to other actors, and capable of exciting bursts of action.

In his biography of Charlton Marc Eliot writes that Heston himself didn’t really like the film: ´Dieterle was a good director and I gave him a good performance, if no more than that…’ With the passage of time, however, Heston grew less kind about his first film outing: ‘I don’t think Dark City is a good film…It’s like The Movie of the Week, strictly a television movie….after you’ve done six or seven films, you can survive a mediocre one. But when a mediocre one is your first film, it’s a little dicey (p.48).’

To call this a television movie is indeed to disparage just how much Dieterle does for the film. The opening sequence (see stills above) is rendered dynamic by the moving camera, the canted angles, the close-ups of things like microphones when the police barge in. Look at how beautifully Dieterle deploys film form in the clip below: the close-up on the mark, the camera moving backward to encompass everyone around the table; the choice of dissolve to edit with to convey the passage of time; the interesting choice of angles, often keeping the cards within the frame, and so on.

I resent Heston´s statement because he´s incapable of noticing or appreciating just how much the filmmakers are doing for him personally, that he comes across as a star in his first Hollywood outing is not entirely due to him. See in the clip above how the light favours Heston in almost every instance. Even when it´s sidelight it´s to show him to advantage (see how the light hits his lips below and not his friend on the left)

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 12.15.08

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 12.36.34

Even the narrative is designed to favour him. Lizabeth Scott is given some great songs to sing: ‘I Don´t Want to Walk Without You’, ‘A Letter From a Lady in Love’, ‘That Old Black Magic’. ‘I Wish I Didn´t Love You So’, ‘If I Didn´t Have You’.  Whilst she constantly demeans her own skill in singing, she´s actually not bad. She sings her feelings for him in the nightclubs, and it´s all unrequited. He doesn´t want her to crowd him, fence him in: for him, it´s a casual affair. But note that in their conversations, she´s given the job of recounting plot that usually befalls supporting or even bit players whilst he´s given the star´s job of reacting, feeling. The narrative favours him in lighting and even in the shadowiest of composition.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 12.57.42

I´m sure the filmmakers didn´t intend to do in Scott but her June Allyson haircut is definitely not to her advantage. Also, for all her fame, Edith Head isn´t doing her any favours here. That ridiculous thing glued to her chest in the third picture below, the way the top falls over the skirt in the second, the bunched up stuff on her right shoulder in the first. Mind you Scott is playing a simpering masochist of a part, and the songs are great. But she´s not filmed with half the attention Heston is.

The movie has many pleasures, including a brilliant bit with a cat (see below):

 

cat-dark-city-2

 

Dark City has a great supporting cast, including Viveca Lindors playing the part of the mark’s ex-wife, and a metaphor for what might have been for Danny. It also has a great noir look executed by cinematographer Victor Millner (see below):

Dark City is not a great film but it’s a very enjoyable noir with an intense performance from Heston made more brilliant by its setting: achieved by creating an underworld he can travel through, positioning him amongst two pulls (Scott and Linfors), enveloping him in a cloud of torch songs sung to and for him, and shining a light on him throughout. Ingrate.

José Arroyo

Further image/notes:

 

Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

 

Too Late for Tears.jpg

A film noir I hadn´t seen before. Cheap, pulpy, lurid, hard-boiled, and rotten to its core. Just the way I like ’em. A bag of cash is thrown into the wrong car and the rest of the film is about everyone it doesn´t belong to trying to get their hands on it. Lizabeth Scott makes a bid to be the most fatal of femmes in the whole of film noir. She lies, and lies and lies. She cons and schemes and scams and is also able to come up with a new story every time she´s cornered. She´s so cool and collected she drives even Dan Duryea to drink. ´Don´t ever change,’ he tells her, ‘I wouldn´t like to see what you´re like with a heart’. Good thing because her heart is nowhere evident. Men fall like flies. Scott is totally inexpressive and completely great. She only livens up when her eyes focus on cash, diamonds or furs. Her heart beats only to the good life and she positively glistens to a kill. As to the saps…I mean the men… Oy, vey! The film is nothing special visually. Except for Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, the cast is second-rate. But it´s got real narrative propulsion and completely basks in the seamy underside of life like great pulp is meant to. I loved it.

 

The Arrow Academy transfer is a pleasure to watch with very fine extras by Alex K Rode and a documentary on the film´s restoration. A must have for noir aficionados.

tooo latre for tears

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott’s intro in Dead Reckoning

I found it interesting that Dead Reckoning affords Lizabeth Scott a magnificent star entrance that begins with her voice. That gravelly huskyness is what rendered her unique amongst forties femme fatales. Here we hear her before we see her, and before we hear her, she’s already framed for us by Bogart’s troubled thoughts, by his dislike of the big lug calling him a friend. Then we hear her referred to as Mrs. Chandler by the barman, implicitly casting questions about why a married woman is a regular at the bar. We then see her through Bogart’s point-of-view: first the shapely gams, then a close-up on the cigarette, the jewelled evening gown, the neckline plunging into the dark fabric of the dress, then that beautiful face in profile, with cigarette as Bogart lights her up and she gives him that looks that seems a challenge born of a hurt. ‘Cinderella with a husky voice’ is how Bogart describes her to us. ‘Where have we met?’ ‘In another guy’s dreams’. A great star entrance, a great mise-en-scene of noir: darkness, desire and the unconscious beautifully twisted together to set the scene for the drama that will come.

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott on Film Noir

Lizabeth Scott, the beautiful blonde with the gravelly voice that graced so many forties noirs, gives her take on film noir. 

From a series of great interviews conducted by Carole Langer in Janet Leigh’s home in 1996. They can be seen in their entirety on you tube here.

José Arroyo