Classic Movies · Where's That Been?

Where’s That Been? – Inferno (1953)

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The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?”  Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here.  Enjoy!

poster2At the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco this past February 2013, a 3-D film noir double feature was presented in the scheduling of Man in the Dark (1953) and Inferno (1953). The latter of these two noirs was 20th Century Fox’s first foray into the 3-D craze; a taut suspense thriller starring Robert Ryan as a crippled millionaire left for dead in the desert by his unfaithful wife Rhonda Fleming and her new boy toy, William Lundigan. There’s a notification at the Noir City website that Inferno is not on DVD—though it’s possible that was put up there before Fox decided to release the film to MOD disc in December of 2012.

In the 1950’s, the movie studios were starting to get panicky about the inroads being made by that brash young upstart television—which was providing entertainment in the homes of otherwise would-be theatergoers free of charge. So the motion picture industry began to grab at any straw available to them…and though 3-D films had been around for a good many years, a 1952 picture entitled Bwana Devil (written and directed by radio playwright Arch Oboler) ushered in a craze that lasted about three years, when the studios then figured out that they didn’t have to go to all that expense to make 3-D pictures—they could just make them in widescreen. (Since that time, 3-D films have had several “comebacks”…and beginning in 2005, the fad seems to have taken hold again with the introduction of IMAX and 3-D televisions.)

A lot of the 3-D films of the fifties don’t hold up too well, mostly because they were a tad gimmicky—having objects leap out at the audience, among many other tricks. House of Wax (1953) is probably the best example of the type of 3-D feature that remains entertaining even on a flat screen, not to mention movies like Hondo (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Dial M for Murder (1954). I don’t want to give the impression that Inferno can’t be watched without the 3-D experience…but to borrow a phrase from a character from Dazed and Confused (1993): “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”

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Rhonda Fleming and Robert Ryan, out for a little ride in Inferno (1953)

Inferno wastes no time in getting started. Geraldine Carson (Fleming) and her lover, Joseph Duncan (Lundigan), are busy covering their tracks because the two have them have left his business partner (and her husband), Donald Whitley Carson III (Ryan), behind in the desert to die. They’ve told him they’re going after medical help (fibbers)…and tell his lawyer (Larry Keating) and the authorities “Carson? Donald Carson? Doesn’t ring a bell.” No one thinks it’s unusual that Carson has run off without leaving word: his reputation as an erratic and unsympathetic chap precedes him, and they just chalk up his disappearance to his ornery behavior.

In the meantime, Carson must brave the elements in order to make his way back to civilization…and his situation to struggle for survival provides some tensely terrifying moments. (One of them involves an encounter with a rattlesnake, where the moment when it strikes out at the audience must have proved unsettling for some folks in the theatre.) Carson eventually gets a lift from a desert rat named Sam Elby (Henry Hull), who takes him to his desert cabin at the same time Geraldine and Joe have ironically become trapped in the desert when the two of them return to see if Carson has perished. There’s a tussle between Carson and Joe at Elby’s cabin that results in Joe’s not-at-all sad demise, and as Carson and Elby drive back toward town they come across Geraldine, who is told things will be much easier if she goes along to answer to the law.

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Henry Hull as the desert rat who comes to Ryan’s rescue.

Written by Francis M. Cockrell (Dark Waters, Rhubarb) and directed by Roy Ward Baker—who would later make a name for himself helming cult favorites like A Night to Remember (1958) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Inferno is a dandy film noir despite its Technicolor presentation. The only real weakness of the film is that it decides to eliminate some of the back-story in order to keep things moving along: we never really learn why Geraldine is no longer in love with Donald, particularly since Joe seems to be a rather bland, nondescript guy.

The film’s strengths lie in the star performance of Robert Ryan, who could charismatically play villains that you couldn’t completely dislike. Ryan’s not the bad guy in this picture, but he’s not exactly a hero either; he just seems to become one by default because the other people around him are such stinkers. Where Inferno errs is having Lundigan instigate the idea of leaving Ryan’s character behind to rot—Rhonda Fleming can be quite an effective femme fatale, but here she seems to be just going along for the ride save for a quick moment towards the end where she’s out to save her own skin. I won’t rag on Lundigan anymore than I already have—but I will laud Hull for what is a nice character turn. 

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William Lundigan and Fleming

Larry Keating is a familiar face to couch potatoes, displaying his comic powers on both Burns & Allen and Mister Ed, and you’ll also see Carl Betz in one of his earliest gigs—Betz, of course, played hubby to Donna Reed on her sitcom and later nabbed an Emmy for his work on the short-lived Judd, For the Defense. But ultimately—Inferno probably plays better in 3-D, with the chairs thrown and lighted torches lobbed throughout the picture. The cinematography, courtesy of veteran lenser Lucien Ballard, also loses a little something in a home video presentation.

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