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Inferno (1953)
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by Jay Seaver

"Technicolor noir - not necessarily a contradiction in terms."
4 stars

"3D", "Technicolor", and "film noir" are not three things that traditionally go together, and that's a large part of what makes "Inferno" such a nifty discovery: It really is all three, and not just that, it's good at all three. It takes an intriguingly gritty crime story, transplants it from the city to the desert and strips it to the bone, and gets a heck of a lot of impact from its visuals.

When it opens, Geraldine Carson (Rhonda Fleming) and her new paramour Joseph Duncan (William Lundigan) have already abandoned Gerry's husband Donald (Robert Ryan) in the desert and are covering their tracks. It's a crime of opportunity; Donald has a reputation for wandering off on his own, and if he falls and breaks his leg while Joe is showing him a mine to invest in, well, Gerry at least is able to convince herself that not rescuing him is different from actual murder. The trouble with that plan is that while they go through the motions of telling Carson's business manager Dave Emory (Larry Keating) that the boss is missing and misdirecting the search party, Carson is demonstrating more will to live and ingenuity for survival than most would credit the soft heir with.

That the audience never really sees Carson as the unimpressive, abrasive gadabout that the other characters describe leaves a bit of an empty spot in the film, but the nifty performance by Robert Ryan as the inconvenient husband is nevertheless a strong enough base to hold up the rest of the film. There's a sneering hatred and self-pity to him that gives way to the makings of a less grudging admiration as the tenor of his voice-over changes and his physical performance shows more assurance; the audience may not witness the entirety of Carson's arc, but we get enough to extrapolate the rest, and Ryan does a nice job with it. He's a little theatrical when on his own for much of the film, but he slides into a more natural mode when playing against co-stars later, and it feels like both what the movie needs to be entertaining and growth.

The scenes of Ryan on his own are complemented by those with Rhonda Fleming as a woman too nervous to be a true femme fatale and William Lundigan as a much more eager accomplice. As with Carson, we learn about what brought Gerry and Joe to this point through some casually dropped exposition (she probably doesn't just want Carson's money, but probably wouldn't be with him without it). Fleming isn't given a particularly hard-bitten seductress to play, but she hits the alternating agitation and serenity in the script near-perfectly; she does a fear of being caught that lets a viewer read it as guilt until he or she sees just how placid Gerry can be when she doesn't sense someone looking over her shoulder, and how well Fleming makes them fit together. Lundigan has a more standard-issue smoothness as Duncan, the sort that one can buy as just being charismatic to other characters even if it sounds a little too practiced to the audience, and peels it back just far enough to show the underlying viciousness when necessary

Maybe they wouldn't be able to do it on their own, but that's what makes the movie director Roy Ward Baker and writer Francis Cockrell made interesting - there's a sort of amoral gravity pulling them together that makes the action feel inevitable until Carson's sheer capability proves a wild card. While the way the filmmakers contrast Gerry and Joe settling back into more comfortable lives with the fight for survival is often a little on the nose - food or water eluding Carson will often mean a quick cut to the others enjoying the good life - but it is generally effective. The last act gets wonderfully hard-boiled as the trio gets pulled closer together; the bitterness in the narration gets more pointed and Joe starts to lose his cool. The choreography of the final action scene is awfully good for the period, with each blow looking credible and having a ton of emotion behind it.

It also looks great, and not just the finale, although that does become impressively hellish. The desert photography is beautiful (cinematographer Lucien Ballard would later work with Sam Peckinpah regularly), all yellows and browns that highlight the heat and inhospitality, a marked contrast to the bright, rich colors of Fleming's costumes. It's a striking, well-composed movie in 2D, but the use of depth is fantastic, making the desert feel endless and highlighting the treachery of drops that can often seem less dangerous for not being completely vertical. Even when characters start throwing things at the screen, it's only really gimmicky once. Not many people got to see it in 3D on initial release (and Twilight Time's 3D Blu-ray is a limited edition for a format falling out of what little favor it had on home video), and it doesn't need that to work, but it certainly makes the movie into something special.

Film noir is usually associated with tight studio sets shot in black and white, but every once in a while one works when brought out into searing sunlight, and this one is impressive for cutting away anything it doesn't really need (right down to not bothering with the sorts of flashbacks and flash-forwards something that opens right in the middle of the plan usually goes in for). It's fine pulp that makes good use of what may seem like gimmicks.

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originally posted: 01/20/18 02:53:06
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  DVD: 11-Dec-2012

  N/A (PG)


Directed by
  Roy Ward Baker

Written by
  Francis M. Cockrell

  Robert Ryan
  Rhonda Fleming
  William Lundigan

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