Desert Fury (1947)

Directed by Lewis Allen; Written by Robert Rossen and A.I. Bezzerides

Being part of a community can be a tricky endeavor. Connecting with family or the person you desire can be even tougher. That’s a lesson every character learns in Desert Fury, Lewis Allen’s thriller set in the dusty southwest where a young impetuous daughter returns home and immediately falls into both a complicated love triangle and a fraught relationship with her mother.

Lisabeth Scott is Paula, a fresh-faced, hard-nosed 19-year old who rolls into town keen to get into the family business. The business in question is the Purple Sage, a gambling hall right on the main drag alongside tired little convenience stores and dress shops. It’s a bit of a social pariah, understandably perhaps, and while mother Fritzie has learned that lesson and cares little for the small minds of supposed “good folk”, Paula hasn’t, and feels the sting of rejection. 

What’s worse, Fritizi’s not keen on putting her daughter on payroll – what kind of anti-nepotism is this?  

So what does Paula do to get stuck in the craw of both her mom and the town? Start a flirtation with two bad guys who drove into town right behind her. John Hodiak and Wendell Corey star as Eddie Bendix and Johnny Ryan, two operators with a track record all across the country, most of all in this small town where Bendix’ wife died under suspicious circumstances. They’re bad news, and the whole town wants them out the same way they came. Yet, they say they’re to stay at least for a while, renting a farmhouse outside city limits. 

And so the lines are drawn up, with storm clouds accumulating on the edge of town and fierce little Paula running right towards them. As Bendix takes an eye to her, it’s upsetting to not only Fritzie, who has history with Bendix, but also Bendix’ partner Johnny, who shoots more than meaningful looks at him and insinuates there’s a little more than just professional camaraderie between them. 

Stuck in the middle of this mess of blood relatives and best buds is local sheriff Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster, a burly boy scout), who tries to steer Paula straight, get rid of Bendix, and stop Fritzie from starting a civil war. 

Ideas both salacious and somber run thick and fast through Desert Fury. An independent woman wanting a better life for her daughter who can’t see past good intentions. Unrequited romance turned into near serfdom, handled with such subtlety as was likely necessary at the time. Yet, however rich the ink Desert Fury is written with, it’s put down on rice paper. The film is flimsy stuff, and there’s little to invest oneself in when the performances are as hollow as they are here. 

For what’s supposed to be a taboo romance, the romantic chemistry between Hodiak and Scott is closer to that of siblings, so inexplicable does their mutual interest feel. Whenever Paula decides on getting in Bendix’ car I wonder who’s getting pranked – Paula’s mother or the audience. 

Similarly hard to get into is the otherwise compelling storyline of mother-daughter standoff, but Mary Astor’s Fritzi can only deliver two emotions: either she’s greeting her only child with the tenderness of an steel mill foreman, or overacting her frustration and despair, as if she’s auditioning for soap operas that won’t air on television for another couple of years.

The trappings do hold some allure for people with an interest in the peculiarities of cinematic aesthetics of the time. Shot in technicolor, this supposed noir is lit like a christmas tree, with colors popping at every opportunity. Call it garish, call it festive, but for a film with more than a little western heritage in its blood, the decision to opt for vivacity over somber earthy palettes is a treat. 

Edith Head’s costume design for Paula should be an attraction for fashionistas as well. A lavish wardrobe that’s urban chic in Small Town, USA, is one thing, but the masculine lines of Paula’s outfits, be it blazers with wide shoulders or pants, adds another dimension to Allen’s film that is more subversive than what a casual glance might impart. 

There’s plenty of compelling elements in Allen’s thriller, but it’s let down by many of the moving parts on-screen, so while Desert Fury has enough visual craftsmanship to catch your eye, it’s ultimately doomed to leave a meager impression, like spray-painted tumbleweed rolling on by. 

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