Friday, September 2, 2011

Film Review: INFERNO (1953, Roy Ward Baker)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 83 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Robert Ryan (BILLY BUDD, THE WILD BUNCH, THE DIRTY DOZEN), Rhonda Fleming (OUT OF THE PAST, SPELLBOUND), William Lundigan (PINKY, THE SEA HAWK), Larry Keating (MR. ED, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE), Henry Hull (LIFEBOAT, HIGH SIERRA). Directed by Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, ASYLUM). Written by Francis M. Cockrell (RHUBARB, DARK WATERS).
Tag-line: "The wonder of 3-D STEREOPHONIC SOUND The marvel of 3-D Color by TECHNICOLOR ENHANCED A THOUSANDFOLD! The most breath-taking man hunt that ever criss-crossed out of the screen! YOU are trapped in the great Devil's Canyon of the Mojave Desert!"
Best one-liner: "Bartender, pull me a short deer!"

In a familiar alleyway, two rag-tag cineastes continue their eternal dialogue:

"Holy shit– I've just seen the damndest thing....a Robert Ryan movie in–"
–"So what, I've seen lots of Robert Ryan movies."
"Would you let me finish? A Robert Ryan movie...IN 3-D!!!"

–"3-D? What? Didn't Robert Ryan die prior to AVATAR? What, is it another 2011 Peckinpah reboot?"
"Shut that child's mouth of yours and listen to me for a minute. This is from the golden age of 3-D, and it's got class, dammit! Sure, it's occasionally got something flying straight into the lens, but above all this movie is about class. It stars Robert Ryan, for one."
–"Alright, tell me more."
"So Ryan plays a rich shitheel who's abandoned in the desert– with a broken leg and a less than intact sense of self– by his old lady and her new lover. Ryan must fight the elements to survive, and in the process, may or may not regain his inner worth as the chippy and her beau increasingly and concurrently lose theirs."
–"So it's a morality tale. I can't stand that shit."
"Ye gods! I'll speak and you'll listen! There may be ludicrous moral-dilemmas and rationalizing, backstabbin' shrews, but across the bleak desertscapes and equally barren human dwelling-places, Baker builds a characterscape of distracted modernity, a portrait of humanity whereupon we've forgotten how to humble ourselves, where none of us embrace the simple truth that it is absolutely impossible to feel important when you're stranded in the desert, up shit creek not only sans paddle, but with a broken leg, dust in your eyes, bugs in your teeth, and the infernal feeling that you're about to be created all over again by the indifferent, hazy anguish of an endless, godforsaken desert-god!

Enter Robert Ryan: laid out in the midst of the Mojave; he's outta booze and he's nearly outta bullets. So here begins his odyssey– the solitary man against impossible odds..."
–"So is it a silent movie, or is Ryan talkin' to himself?"

"Even better– Ryan delivers a genius, sardonic internal monologue throughout. His external performance possesses tremendous depth– Ryan really lets play out upon his face and body the realization that he's been abandoned to one of the most hideous deaths (dehydration and exposure followed by the carrion-eaters) in the Grim Reaper's bag-o'-tricks. His internal performance reveals a morbid sense of humor in the midst of it all, a twinkling of Robert Ryan smarminess, that kernel of jocularity that keeps him sane as he embarks on his journey."

–"Like what? Give me an example."
"Well, say, he comes across a cactus and muses 'Course that cactus is full of beer...,' begins munching on the contents, and intones 'It doesn't taste bad either! Like wet sawdust!'

Later, when going through his pockets, he withdraws a wad of currency. Flipping through the bills, he muses 'might start a fire with em.' When trying to set his broken leg between two boulders, he predicts 'This won't be jolly...' When running dangerously low on water, he takes the optimist's route: 'Fine time to be low on cigarettes...' It's all delivered with the sort of deadpan sarcasm that we're used to seeing Ryan lay down on the likes of gun-totin' punks in some film noir, but when it's turned inward, it takes on a different, even grander quality. While hunting deer he half-psychotically considers, 'Bartender– pull me a short deer!' This is just the sort of shit that's worth the price of admission alone."
–"So how does he survive? Is it like that novel HATCHET?"
"Christ, you don't get out much. Your idea of high culture is probably cruising the YA books-on-tape section at the local Goodwill."
–"Hey, I pick up some good stuff at those. BUNNICULA on two cassettes for only $1.50. But what I was asking was how Robert Ryan battles the elements."
"Well, I'm not gonna give anything major away, but two of the highlights include the following: Ryan shooting a rabbit only to have its corpse ferried off by an eager coyote, whereupon Ryan screams to the coyote (and to the heavens) 'That's my rabbit! THAT'S MY RABBIT!' Another is when Ryan chews on pebbles 'cause he seems to remember reading it in some survival guide someplace. A little research after the movie revealed that Ryan was right– apparently it tricks the mouth into thinking there's food in it, which maintains the flow of saliva, preventing the mouth from drying out too quickly, thus warding off thirst. Regardless, the entire incident only confirmed what I had long suspected: that Robert Ryan chomps rocks for breakfast."
–"Wait, though, how does the 3-D figure into this?"

"It's pretty understated, actually. The landscape is given a natural texture, and Baker allows us to sort of experience a genuine sort of vertigo at one point when foreground rock outcroppings are contrasted with the desert valley below. Often Ryan appears in 3-D against the landscape; it's an interesting visual contrast to how ill-at-ease the character is meant to feel. It remains understated, at least into the very end where some amazing late game gimmickry rears its crazed head– a lantern spirals directly into the screen, quite obviously propelled by a slow-moving invisible rope of some kind, and a fairly mind-blowing 3-D shot involving a raging inferno keeps the blood pumping till the end of the last reel.

And, like most 3-D films of the era that I've seen at the theater, there's a ridiculous intermission at the the halfway (40-minute) mark, which prompts spit- and popcorn-takes!) amongst the audience– we're just settling into the film in earnest when *BOOM*: Intermission."
–"Well, this sounds like a pretty good time."
"I knew you'd come around."
–"So how do I see it?"
"You can't."
"Well, unless you stumble upon a repertory screening or some eclectic late-nite TV programming. I saw it at Film Forum in NYC. But maybe some archive collection or other will deem it fit to release (it was 20th Century Fox property, but that doesn't mean they've retained the rights). It's a good enough film to be seen in 2-D, 3-D, or whatever the hell format it happens to be in. Good luck."

-Sean Gill


Mike B. said...

I always thought that there were only two worthwhile 3-D films ever made: Vincent Price's House of Wax and Friday the 13th pt. 3, and yet you've piqued my curiosity with this one. Sounds fun!

Ryan said...

Great review! Sounds like a very curious movie.

Incidentally what happened to the countdown of films you were doing? I was really enjoying the list.

Sean Gill said...


I certainly believe that those are some of the more worthwhile 3-D flicks (and I've reviewed em both on this site), but INFERNO really exceeded expectations. Also on the shortlist should be DIAL M FOR MURDER, which I recently had the pleasure of seeing as it was originally intended– it's pretty damn great, too.


Thank you, sir. And the countdown will be back soon; I've just been moving at a slower rate recently with work and personal artistic projects taking precedence. Expect to see it slowly unfurled with a smattering of normal reviews inbetween.