Around 1952, Twentieth Century-Fox imported British director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember) to helm a series of taut thrillers, and Inferno, his last for the studio, is among his best work, if not one of the better 3D films to have emerged during the format’s brief craze during the fifties.
Not unlike Alan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957) or Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Inferno is a ‘colour’ noir film, but Francis M. Cockrell’s script doesn’t emphasize the poisonous, illicit affair between the wife of an industrialist and one of his trusted assistants, but the rich man himself, left to bake alive in the desert.
Most of the narrative comes from the internal thoughts of Donald Whitley Carson III, a spoiled brat living off the benefits earned by his forefathers. When Carson (the great Robert Ryan) realizes neither his wife Geraldine (shapely Rhonda Fleming) nor assistant Joseph Duncan (William Lundigan) are coming back to transport him safely back to a hospital to deal with a broken leg, he goes into proactive mode, and is determined to show the scoundrels he can beat them at their own game by wrecking the odds and coming back home alive.
The flash cuts to the evil couple are both brief and perfunctory: we learn they’re merely selfish, but screenwriter Ward returns to short scenes to break up the extended desert scenes with Carson, as well as create a bit of cruel irony through counterpoint. While Carson thirsts for water, director Baker cuts to the couple by a swimming pool, indulging in iced drinks; and when Carson years for food, the couple chow down on prime, meaty protein with nonchalance, if not indifference.
It’s a tribute to Ryan’s stellar acting that he not only captures his character’s small victories – fixing up a splint, a successful hunt, the search for water – but makes the cerebral narration work, since he’s reading Carson’s thoughts from a printed page.
The film’s first third shows Carson the spoiled man earning the family trust by trial and error under the molten desert sun, whereas the midsection reformulates him as an equal to the illicit lovers. It’s only in the final act that the film drifts back to its noir storyline and has Geraldine and Duncan returning to the desert to finish the job when it’s clear Carson will make it back to civilization.
The final confrontation is divided into two sequences, although only the Duncan-Carson cabin fight is action-oriented, showing off the 3D effects with various objects tossed and tumbling about. When Carson must deal with his wife, it’s beautifully understated; since we’ve seen him to be a man of few words, it make sense his victory words to Geraldine are simple and direct.
Baker’s direction is quite taut, and his use of 3D is generally solid. With the exception of the final battle, Baker uses the process to place the audience at the edge of the drama, much in the way Alfred Hitchcock used 3D in Dial M for Murder (1954) to allow us to sit with the characters in their living room. The final battle between Carson and Duncan, though, is nicely choreographed to bring out the latent hatred between the two men, and their hand-to-hand combat is pretty brutal, even for 1953.
Paul Sawtell’s score is generally reserved for the desert scenes, perhaps to enhance Carson’s struggles under the heat, and add sonic depth to the character’s narration. At times the score recalls Leith Stevens’ spacey pulsing motif in Destination Moon (1950), but it’s an effective score that captures Carson’s personal and physical struggles, and an important ingredient to the film’s success.
Inferno is available ‘flat’ on DVD in Spain, but it’s yet to receive any DVD release in North America, which is a crime. This review was based on an anaglyph 3D version made years ago for either home video or the brief craze of airing 3D films on TV. This particular print, aired on a local Fox channel, is grainy, soft focus, and has heavy distortion from overheated audio levels.
If a vintage 3D print still exists, the studio should consider restoring it for 3D-HD broadcasts and Blu-ray, but the studio’s virtual abandonment of classic catalogue titles on home video means fans will have to rely on the Spanish DVD for a watchable ‘flat’ version.
Robert Ryan’s related noir-styled thrillers include Bad Day at Black Rock and House of Bamboo (both 1955). Roy Ward Baker’s Fox films include The House on the Square (1951), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Night Without Sleep (1952), and Inferno (1953).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan