Desert Fury (1947)

Racy, gaudy and melodramatic, Desert Fury (1947) commences as a somewhat typical if confused film noir.

In full and blazing colour, ripping back and fore across the wilds of the fictional Chuckawalla, and ultimately settles on the fraught mother and daughter relationship between two Golden Age favourites ― Lizbeth Scott and Mary Astor.

The cast is strong ― John Hodiak and Wendell Corey play two barely sublimated homosexual gangsters, while Burt Lancaster has little to do as the local police deputy. 

The crux of the capering belongs to the aforementioned Lizbeth Scott and Mary Astor, two women in search of more than just each others' love.

The setup, despite the bright colours is as regular as can be. There is mystery ― why are these two men returning to the rubbishy mining town of Chuckawulla? There is threat ― they pose a threat to law and order, clearly, but more than that a threat to the pretty young female lead. 

There is the resurfacing of the past, which bubbles away throughout, and takes an age to fully surface. And there is a night-club, the gambling den known as The Purple Sage ― the interior of which we see very little.

Lizabeth Scott - daughter in danger

Mary Astor - father figure, long-lost lover or domineering mom?

There are so few colour film noirs from this era, that Desert Fury should be perhaps more celebrated. And one wonders why they pulled out all the stops here, when the final product is fairly pedestrian. 

Nowadays, eighty years after its release, Desert Fury is more celebrated for its camp aspects, and it is probably camp because everyone was trying ultra-hard, as best as they could, to act to their utmost, with a rather normal kind of story.

That cast in full: Wendell Corey, John Hodiak, Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor

Standardised love interest with Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott

A nod to the 'woman's picture'  - Lizabeth Scott taunted by a night storm.

Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak and Mary Astor - fury lurking in the desert.

Mostly in fact, on balance, Desert Fury appears to be cars racing along the scrubland highway, to and from various ranches.

Lizbeth Scott and Mary Astor play a mother and daughter at war, and it’s really their film. You couldn’t win as a woman in Hollywood, at least in the Technicolor fat-rolls of the mid Twentieth Century. It’s a question of judgement.

This judgement isn’t just by the men, but women judge other women to a higher standard too. So you can’t win.

Mary Astor is the owner of The Purple Sage a successful business woman, which is not a good thing to be at any time. Her energy as a businesswoman is signalled in one scene in which we find her considering a roll of receipts.

Mary Astor’s business chops are also signalled however in the fact that she’s tough ― as tough as a man in fact. That is how it works.

John Hodiak and Wendell Corey - just two gangsters, relaxing together.

And about a third of the way along its melodramatic and rather un-suspenseful course, Desert Fury seems to morph into a woman’s picture. As far as the action goes for the 1940s, these are women’s choices that are under the microscope. Mary Astor’s character Fritzi Haller is no Mildred Pierce, but the perils of being a woman in business are certainly touched upon.

The truth of the story of Desert Fury however concerns the choices of her daughter. Choice of suitor, choice of career ― she toys with the idea of following her hard nosed mother into running the local den of iniquity, although housewife seems to be her ultimate settlement ― and that other perennial ― whether to go for the bad boy, against her mother’s wishes ― or the good boy ― here modelled by Burt Lancaster.

Burt Lancaster plays a former bronco buster washed out of the rodeo and now working as a sheriff's deputy in Chuckawalla. 

This was Lancaster’s third film role, and it is not a good one. He has little to do in fact, other than a little joking about, a bit of rough stuff, and a modicum of square-jawed smiling.

After the subtleties and demands of The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (also 1947) ― two of the top film noir titles of the 1940s, of the entire canon in fact ― this is a slight dip, maybe even a comedown.

John Hodiak turns in a reasonable performance, although as with the others, he hasn’t a lot to work with. Hodiak's role requires that he looks shifty, act somewhat mean, and emphasis his past. And his own lover-boy and accomplice, Wendell Corey, carries the rest.

Dramatically, Desert Fury offers an unsatisfying waiting game for the end, and for Wendell Corey to spill the whole plot over a burger, coffee and handgun in a roadhouse. Once the truth is out there is a simple chase, and a predictable collision to round everything off. After which everyone can go home.

Denouement, care of Wendell Corey

There isn’t a lot of intensity, other than the many, many costume changes Lizabeth Scott manages. This is dizzying in fact, moreso than the face-slapping and other camp measures that make up Desert Fury.

Here is Eddie Muller’s expert opinion, well worth quoting in full:

"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."

And he's not wrong!

Despite being called "an incredibly bad picture" by The New York Times, Desert Fury still managed to make it to No. 37 in the top-grossing films of 1947 however:

Dark Passage, and Body and Soul seem to have done better though.

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