The Left Hand of God is an extremely peculiar drama, partially due to screenwriter Alfred Hayes’ decision to focus almost exclusively on character scenes in spite of the marginal Chinese Revolution setting during the late forties; and the perceptible haze of sadness surrounding its main cast: this is Humphrey Bogart’s third-last film, and Gene Tierney’s career swan song prior to a struggle with mental illness that kept her off-screen for seven years.
The story of downed U.S. mercenary pilot Jim Carmody masquerading as a missionary to avoid recapture from an oppressive Chinese warlord could’ve been fleshed out with a few backstories, plus grander presentations of the warlord’s marauding troupes worming their way through nearby villages, but director Edward Dmytryk kept the camera on Bogart, following his character as he manages to avert suspicion among the villagers, and an American doctor and his wife (E.G. Marshall and Agnes Moorehead, respectively), and copes with the mutual love that develops between Carmody and nurse / widow Anne Scott (Tierney).
Jim copes rather than struggles, and he’s almost stoic about the eventual confrontation with his one-time savior Mieh Yang (Lee J. Cobb), the smiling warlord who teases Jim with crap shoots for money and opportunities of freedom during a 3-year term as Yang’s second in command. Jim isn’t particularly bothered by Anne’s obvious turmoil in falling in love with a priest, and he seems oddly indifferent to the possibility that Dr. Sigman (Marshall, dusted with extra grey hair powder to goose his age) may suspect he’s a phony.
Less grand (production-wise) than the studio’s other Asian biggies – producer Buddy Adler’s Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), and the mush-fest Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) - most of the sets are compact, leading one to suspect the film was never meant to be more than a mid-level A film starring two aging movie icons. Left Hand could easily work as a play, but Dmytryk and cinematographer Franz Planer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) did invest care in arranging shots to maintain character intimacy in spite of the wide ‘scope ratio.
A few flashback sequences break up the largely indoor scenes, and Jim’s trek to a nearby Protestant mission also introduces a new threat – exposure and vengeance by the church – but Jim deflates the whole tension by admitting he’s a phony to Reverend Marvin (unbilled veteran character actor Robert Burton). It’s another strange turn in Hayes’ adaptation of William Barrett’s novel, but it makes sense in terms of keeping the drama focused on Jim, and keeping the plot train headed towards the eventual showdown between himself and Yang. The final battle is again reduced to a simple scene (a crap game), and while the forbidden romance never blossoms into the heated union we all want (and one that would’ve been realized in a contemporary adaptation), the ending is satisfying; with a modicum of imagination, one can believe Anne and Jim could’ve corresponded soon afterwards, causing her to return back to the U.S. where they can be free to indulge in pure passion.
The cast is generally strong in spite of the film’s emotional low key, and Lee J. Cobb as Yang is unsurprisingly theatrical, giving the rogue some charm, and assuaging the obvious political incorrectness of having a Caucasian actor with an east coast drawl play an Chinese warlord. (The script explains his colloquial-peppered tongue due to an education in America, but it’s all scriptorial bunk.)
Film historian Julie Kirgo provides a compact history of the film’s production, but it’s more of a poignant tribute to Fox producer Adler, an unsung hero of dramas involving love, war, and often exotic Asian locations. His work ranks as some of the best melodrama of the fifties, and production values were top-notch; Fox may have been able to boast its image with the Color by Deluxe and CinemaScope brands, but Adler’s roster of Oscar-nominated and winning dramas helped build the studio into the more muscular player among Hollywood’s majors.
Twilight Time’s DVD presentation offers a crisp anamorphic transfer with rich colours and one sparkling Dolby Surround mix. There’s also an isolated score track of Victor Young’s elegant music (with some pre-recording studio chatter), but the music’s fidelity is indeed better in the film’s original surround sound mix. Fox’ engineers went a little nutty with their panned dialogue tracks whenever sideline characters even leaned towards the frame’s center, but in terms of music, sound effects, and dialogue, the Fox mixes really exploited the power of directional sound. Basses boom, and the fidelity of Young’s instrumentation is stunning, making this particular title one to play loud through the home system.
Bogart, who had previously appeared in Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny (also filmed by cinematographer Planer) in 1954 would end his career with The Desperate Hours (1955) and The Harder They Fall (1956) before succumbing to cancer. Tierney’s long tenure at Fox included many of the studio’s best genre efforts, including Laura (1944), Leave Her to Heaven [M] (1945), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and The Egyptian [M] (1954).
Dmytryk’s other glossy ‘scope films include the westerns Broken Lance (1954) and Warlock (1959), the first-rate war film The Young Lions (1958), and MGM’s attempt to recreate the magic of Gone with the Wind in the troubled Raintree County (1957).
Although Adler didn’t producer Barrett’s other novel, Lilies of the Field, into a film (Adler died in 1960), notables among his 14 Fox productions are Violent Saturday [M] (1955), House of Bamboo (1955), Bust Stop (1956), Anastasia (1956), and the similarly religion vs. love potboiler Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan