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By Steve May 5, 2017
The 1953 3D survival adventure film Inferno is probably not the first movie you think of when you hear the term "film noir." It's a brightly-lit color film about a man trying to survive in the desert after being left for dead by his young va-va-voom wife and double-crossing business partner.
Donald Whitley Carson III sits behind a rock. The desert sun continues to burn his skin. But that's not what he's thinking about now. He's got his six-shooter propped against a stick. A small, scraggly rabbit is in his sights. Carson forgets about his revenge plans. Now it's about securing his first meal. He hasn't eaten for a very long time. He carefully pulls the trigger. The rabbit darts off but clearly it's been hit. Carson staggers to his feet. His one leg in a homemade splint slow him down but hunger drives him forward. Around the bend he finds his prey. In the mouth of a coyote who rips at his kill as it runs off. Robert Ryan is Carson. It's one of his most unique performances and he aces it.
But is it noir? If you take a close look at the story you'll see why it is a film noir. As Eddie Muller recently put it, "It's The Postman Always Rings Twice in reverse." Leave it to Eddie, the Czar of Noir and host of Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies, to describe the film in under ten words. Inferno is about a young, attractive pair that decide, during a lustful and short relationship, to kill the woman's older husband.
And Eddie Muller is right. It's a noir tale told from the perspective of the victim, instead of the killers like Lana Turner and John Garfield in Postman. In this story the victim Robert Ryan proves to be a guy you probably shouldn't mess with. Ryan is one of the kings of noir thanks to The Set-Up, Crossfire and Odds Against Tomorrow. Ryan plays a rich, allegedly helpless guy that must survive the desert after being left there by his wife and her lover, whom only started the affair three days before the crime. Along the way, this unlikeable jerk finds himself and becomes a better person. Sounds corny, but Ryan impressively gains the audience's respect when his slowly stops thinking about revenge and just thinks about surviving.
Rhonda Fleming plays his wife and she's a feast for the eyes. I remember first seeing this film at The Film Forum in New York. I had spent the previous few years just immersed in black and white crime films. To see the Queen of Technicolor -- in 3D no less -- was stunning. Her red hair an amazing color. And they deck her out in the most flattering, colorful outfits they could find. She steals every scene she's in.
Future Hammer horror director Roy Ward Baker cleverly cuts the film so that no longer that every 5 minutes the story switches from the scraggly bearded, broken-legged Ryan baking in the sand and the comely couple drinking and eating in their lavish homes. If you don't walk out of this film hungry and thirsty you weren't paying attention.
The 3D effects are mostly to show how alone and helpless Ryan is in the desert. It does do some of that shooting-stuff-right-at-the-camera gimmicks 3D films from the classic era tended to do but mercifully it's saved until near the end when burning embers of an old coot's home are dropped into audience's laps. Henry Hull -- the Werewolf of London himself -- plays the old timer.
Inferno is finally getting a quality release on DVD and it's got plenty of extras. May sure, if you do buy it, you get the new release from Twilight Time. It's in 3D -- but this film uses the effect to enhance an already strong, compelling story. Film historian Alan Rode does a commentary track and his work is always entertaining.
Inferno is bright and colorful. But it's film noir.
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