For me, Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury is currently running neck and neck with Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride for the honor of “wackiest movie of 1947.”
But maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges. While The Devil Thumbs a Ride was a zany thrill ride with oddball characters and a lot of unexpected humor, Desert Fury is a ridiculously campy melodrama in which most of the humor seems unintentional.
Also, it has gay undertones that are strong enough to power a small city for a year.
The poster on the right implies that Burt Lancaster and John Hodiak spend the movie fighting for Lizabeth Scott’s love, but that’s not the case. More accurate is the tagline: “Two men wanted her love … The third wanted her life!”
Scott plays a beautiful 19-year-old girl who lives in a “cactus graveyard” in the middle of nowhere — Chuckawalla, Nevada. She lives with her mother, Fritzi, who’s played by Mary Astor (an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who was just 16 years older than Lizabeth Scott). Fritzi always calls Paula “baby.” Not in a sweet, maternal way, but the way a barfly might say, “Hey, baby! C’mere!”
Fritzi wants Paula to go back to school, but Paula wants to help her mother run the Purple Sage Casino. (Paula’s father was a bootlegger who was killed when Paula was very young.)
Burt Lancaster plays Tom Hanson, a former bronco buster who barnstormed around the country, but washed out of the rodeo and now works as a sheriff’s deputy in Chuckawalla. Fritzi wants Tom to marry Paula and make an honest woman out of her. He’d like nothing more than to marry Paula, but he doesn’t push, because he knows that her love for him is strictly platonic.
Into their lives comes runty, mustachioed gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his gunsel Johnny (Wendell Corey), and Paula — quite inexplicably — falls head over heels in love with Eddie.
The love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Tom is weak sauce compared with the love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Johnny.
Johnny is more than just Eddie’s “muscle.” He’s his longtime companion, his best friend, and — just possibly — his lover.
Is he or isn’t he? Let’s look at the evidence. Eddie and Johnny form a tight unit, and seem to both know what really happened to Eddie’s first wife, who died in a car accident. Johnny hates Paula, and seems insanely jealous of her relationship with Eddie.
And how does Eddie explain to Paula how he first hooked up with Johnny?
“I was your age, maybe a year older. I was in the automat off Times Square about two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. I was broke, he had a couple of dollars, we got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs,” he says, a note of shameful resignation creeping into his voice.
“And then?” Paula asks.
“I went home with him that night. I was locked out. Didn’t have a place to stay. His old lady ran a boarding house in the Bronx. There were a couple of vacant rooms. We were together from then on.”
The relationship between Eddie and Johnny isn’t the only hint of a gay union. Paula and Fritzi are so close in age, and Fritzi’s attitude toward her daughter lacking so much maternal warmth, that they seem more like a lesbian couple than anything else. Fritzi seems like the older, more dominant one, and Paula seems like the younger, more restive one, who might also be interested in men. (In further defense of this reading, Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster might walk off into the sunset at the end of the picture, but their lips never meet. The final — and most passionate — kiss of the film is the one Fritzi plants on Paula’s lips.)
There’s a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, but that only counts for so much. For instance, compare Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score for Brute Force (1947) with his score for Desert Fury. His score for Desert Fury is powerful, but without the dramatic underpinning of a great film, it just writhes and flails all over the place, seemingly in search of a better movie, or at least a more lively one.
The script by Robert Rossen (with uncredited assistance from A.I. Bezzerides), which is based on Ramona Stewart’s novel Desert Town, has a lot of snappy dialogue, but the story just doesn’t move with much intensity. Also, the Technicolor cinematography really undercuts some of the noir elements of the story and the situation.
Desert Fury is campy, and worth seeing if you’re into camp, but that’s about it. Also, if you’re a connoisseur of face-slapping, there’s plenty of that going around, too.