Film: Inferno (1953)

January 1, 2011 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: May 16, 2017

Genre: Film Noir / Desert Noir / 3D

Synopsis: A wealthy man is left to die in the desert by his evil wife and her filthy lover!

Special Features: Audio Commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode with Robert Ryan’s daughter Kisa Ryan / Isolated Stereo Music Track / 2009 making-of featurette: “A New Dimension of Noir – filming Inferno in 3D” (X) / Theatrical Trailer for 2D release / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 

 

Review:

Around 1952, Twentieth Century-Fox imported British director Roy Ward Baker to helm a series of taut thrillers, and alongside Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Inferno (1953), his last for the studio before his second British career phase, is among his best work, if not one of the better 3D films to have emerged during the format’s brief craze during the fifties.

Like Alan Dwan’s River’s Edge, The (1957), Inferno is both a ‘colour’ film noir and an entry in ‘desert noir,’ but Francis M. Cockrell’s script doesn’t emphasize the poisonous, illicit affair between the wife of an industrialist and one of his trusted assistants; the focus is almost exclusively on the rich man himself, left to bake alive in the desert.

Most of the narrative comes from the internal thoughts of Donald Whitley Carson III, a spoiled brat living off the benefits earned by his forefathers. Rendered stationary due to a broken leg, Carson (the great Robert Ryan) soon realizes neither his wife Geraldine (shapely Rhonda Fleming) nor assistant Joseph Duncan (William Lundigan) are coming back to transport him safely back to a hospital, so he goes into proactive mode, determined to show the scoundrels he can beat them at their own game by upping the odds and coming back home alive and mete out some payback fort their utter betrayal. Never mind that he’s never done any survival training; Carson’s up for any challenge, and a he’s realist who knows if he remains on a rocky peak any longer, he’ll become buzzard food after the heat, rattlesnakes, coyotes, or bugs have taken turns on him.

The flash cuts to the evil couple are both brief and perfunctory: although we learn they’re merely selfish, screenwriter Ward uses their short scenes to break up the extended desert sequences with Carson, as well as create a bit of cruel irony through counterpoint. While Carson thirsts for water, director Baker cuts to the couple by a swimming pool, indulging in iced drinks; and when Carson years for food, the couple chow down on prime, meaty protein with nonchalance, if not indifference.

It’s a tribute to Ryan’s stellar acting that he not only captures his character’s small victories – fixing up a splint, accomplishing a successful protein kill, using his imagination to find water – but makes the cerebral narration work, since he’s essentially reading Carson’s thoughts from a printed page.

Cockrell’s script is vintage noir, and a small work of genius in the way plot and characters are delivered with economy without taking anything away from Carson’s struggle to return to civilization. The film opens as his wife and lover are in the midst of placing evidence that’ll support their faux narrative of Carson having gone off on his own after a drinking binge and a dose of verbal abuse As his struggle becomes the central focus, the illicit lovers only appear in short vignettes, adding some pitch black humour until Carson’s willpower might guarantee a rescue, causing the lovers to trek back and finish him off.

The separate confrontation between Carson and his wife & assistant occur in two sequences, although only the Duncan-Carson cabin fight is action-oriented, showing off the 3D effects with various objects tossed and tumbling about in what’s an uncharacteristically vicious (but realistic) battle between to desperate & enraged men. When Carson is reunited with his cheating wife, it’s beautifully understated; since we’ve seen him to be a man of few words, it make sense his victory statement to Geraldine is simple and direct.

Baker’s direction is quite taut, and he applies the 3D process with restraint, an approach similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s application of 3D in Dial M for Murder (1954), in which we’re generally sitting near the characters in their living room. Besides the more visually dynamic cabin fight, the sole 3D trickery in the first half is comprised of a dangling rattle snake and falling rocks, the latter recalling a similar scene in Universal’s It Came from Outer Space (1953).

Paul Sawtell’s score is generally reserved for the desert scenes, perhaps to enhance Carson’s struggles under the heat, and adds sonic depth to the character’s narration. At times the score recalls Leith Stevens’ tonal seesaw motif in Destination Moon (1950), but it’s an effective score that captures Carson’s personal and physical struggles and important personal triumphs. Twilight Time’s managed to find stereo stems of the previously unreleased score, and when the isolated music track is pumped through even a basic 2.1 audio setup, the magical Fox studio orchestra booms with marvelous energy.

Although originally released in stereophonic sound, the mixed soundtrack on TT’s Blu-ray is straight mono, which still sounds fine, but hearing the oomph of Sawtell’s music in stereo makes one wish the original mix might have survived, or a 2.1 mix could’ve been crafted. (A prior 3D version struck for either home video or a TV airing on a local Fox channel during the 1980s reportedly had a stereo mix, but the picture elements were grainy, suffered from soft focus, and had heavy distortion from overheated audio levels. A Spanish Region 2 DVD also exists, sporting a flat version, as with Fox’s more recent MOD DVD-R.)

As recounted in the Blu-ray’s making-of featurette, Fox may have spend considerable money on a 3D film shot on location in the desert with their own custom-designed camera rig, but with the studio’s eye on CinemaScope, their interest in 3D was fleeting, resulting in just a trio of productions. Inferno was anything but derivative, and as the interviewed film historians seem to agree, when the process was applied to genres outside of gimmicky horror and sci-fi, the results were sometimes quite memorable. Nevertheless, in spite of Inferno‘s creative and technical charms, the film was released in 3D in just four cities; even the included trailer sells the film as a western Technicolor shocker, completely de-emphasizing its noir content and contemporary setting, and utterly ignoring its roots in 3D.

 

Inferno! In Stereo! Technicolor! 3D!

 

Inferno! In 3D… but no stereo… but still Technicolor!

 

Inferno! In Technicolor! … and that’s it….

 

It’s a clear indication Inferno‘s release history was pretty perfunctory, because even when it was restored for Blu-ray by the 3-D Film Archive around 2008, the transfer appeared on British label Panamint‘s Region B Blu-ray in 2014, but it took another 3 years before the film get a release in North America. Still unique to the now region-free Panamint BR is a 16 page illustrated booklet with info on the restoration, a teaser trailer flaunting the film’s 3D element (“Rhonda Fleming on the Wonders of the 3rd Dimension”), and a 15 min. 2009 interview featurette as interviewed by Pat Boone (!) on a Christian-themed Praise the Lord show.

For their 2017 disc, TT managed to unearth an extra that was wholly mothballed for what was reportedly crafted for an aborted Fox release. (Now, Fox did release a gorgeous BR of The Robe, but a similar packaged special edition of The Egyptian plus more 2009 extras were mothballed before they too debuted in North America via TT.)

I’m not sure if the commentary also stems from 2009, but Alan K. Rode’s analysis is fairly steady – the recurring gaps are negligible – and Robert Ryan’s daughter Lisa Ryan is heard in an edited chunk of recollections rather that in tandem with Rode. Both fixate on the actor’s stellar reputation as a shy man who opened up on camera and played complex characters during his lengthy career. The lovefest for Ryan isn’t undeserved: his long visage, so-called small eyes, and striking lines added depth to troubled characters. His specialty was villains, reluctant heroes, flawed antiheroes, and psychos, but he was never dull and often transcended generic archetypes.

Rode offers many great anecdotes – the John Wayne segment during The Longest Day (1962) shoot is one of the best – plus bio sketches of Ryan’s childhood, boxing in university, film debut, political activism, and founding of a school. Attention is also paid to director Baker, co-star Fleming, and Lundigan, whose marvelous voice kept him in radio as well as film.

If there’s any criticism among the extras, it’s a lack of info on the restoration, because not unlike Scent of Mystery / aka Holiday in Spain (1960 / 1962), the surviving elements required special care. Inferno has a pastel colour scheme similar to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), but there’s a sense some colours had faded somewhat over the decades, and had Inferno not been restored around 2008, the miracles of balancing the colours might have been quite a chore. Of the three primary colours, red seems to have been a bit weaker, as there’s a slight sway towards green, and in wide bright shots of the desert faint residues are palpable close to the frame edges.

The film still looks great – the image in 2D and 3D are very sharp, and the 3D process is nicely balanced – but red may have been the primary colour that proved most challenging to keep balanced shot-to-shot,  and the restoration team deserves heavy credit for rescuing what could’ve been a lost 3D film. Inferno works flat, but in 3D the depth within the desert scenes add to the story’s power, magnifying Carson’s perilous journey as he must dangle downward from a rocky cliff, trek across brutal terrain, search for water, and ultimately mete out some payback in one of the most brutal hand-to-hand fights in a 1950s film.

* * *

Robert Ryan’s related noir-styled thrillers include Bad Day at Black Rock and House of Bamboo (both 1955). Roy Ward Baker’s Fox films include The House on the Square (1951), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Night Without Sleep (1952), and Inferno (1953).

Rhonda Fleming actually starred in a trio of 3D film: Inferno (1953), and Those Redheads from Seattle (1953) and Jivaro (1954) for Paramount. Never a prolific actress, Fleming did appear in a number of TV and the odd feature film before retiring after 1990. Co-star William Lundigan similarly moved into TV after an already prolific career, including Dodge City (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Pinky (1949), and Love Nest (1951).

Francis M. Cockrill’s career was very TV-heavy (Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman), but among his handful of credits for Fox are The Raid (1954) and On the Threshold of Space (1956).

When Roy Ward Baker returned to England, he landed the plum assignment of the Titanic disaster classic A Night to Remember (1958), and several classic Hammer shockers including Five Million Years to Earth (1967), The Vampire Lovers (1970), and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971). These genre classics were somewhat augured by Hammer’s more notorious oddities – the kung fu / vampire mash-up The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), and the absolute stinker Moon Zero Two (1969).

Recommended reviews with additional info: 50s Westerns from the 50s / Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings / DVD Savant. Baker was interviewed in the October 1992 issue of Starlog Magazine (#183), and spoke of his brief time in Hollywood (see page 60 in the issue archived at Archive.org).

 

 

© 2010; revised 2017 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

Editor’s Blog IMDB —  Composer Filmography

 


 

“Inferno” (1953) Trailer from panamint.co.uk on Vimeo.

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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