RKO’s Dangerous Mission could be regarded as a ‘colour’ film noir – certainly its plot borrows from standard noir thrillers – but it’s also a precursor to the kind of natural disaster dramas that producer Irwin Allen would exploit in greater detail and scope in blockbusters like The Towering Inferno (1974), and TV movies such as Fire! (1977).
Further goosing the film’s appeal is gorgeous location cinematography at Glacier National Park, and the use of 3D to plunge the audience into elaborate sequences such as a forest fire (really well handled in a tight montage), and a chase up the mountain and onto a glacier.
The rear projection is typically banal – attempts to create a spatially active 3D realm extends as far as two tree branches in one banal 2-shot at the edge of a valley – but the Technicolor photography is quite striking. Virtually every natural and fabricated element in each shot follows the span of fifties pastel shades while sticking to Technicolor’s standard green, blue and red palettes, and a restored print of the film would look splendid on the big screen and Blu-ray.
The story of a murder witness who’s taken flight and is hunted down by a killer and NYC detective is riddled with bonehead flaws – the police can’t find her even though her employer would’ve had her real name on file; and the hired assassin is caught because he uses his real name while on a contract mission – but the film’s piece the resistance has former hunk Victor Mature wrestling loose electrical cables (!) before reaching the main jumper on a hydro pole.
Dangerous Mission is still great fun, and part of that may be due to Allen’s tightening of dialogue scenes for the effective action montages, and the lunacy of seeing older men weaseling their way into dating girls half their age at hoedowns (just before the mountain rockslide that severs those power lines), and Indian rain dance, and other travelogue contrivances.
Mature plays detective Matt Hallett sent to hound and later protect hot redhead Louise Graham (Piper Laurie, midway in her slow transition from playing pouty ingénues), while amateur shutterbug Paul Adams (Vincent Price) is caught lusting for Louise while Indian hottie Mary Tiller (Betta St. John) keeps vying for his attention in Indian wig + brown makeup combo #12.
When Price finally reveals himself to be the hired gun, it’s a wonderful moment that highlights the actor’s versatility in drama and horror films. As Adams is chatting to Louise and the warning of ‘NYC gunman Paul Adams’ blurts on the radio, Price suddenly loose this warm, amiable glow, and we’re treated to that deliciously malevolent visage that graced the mad wax sculptor of House of Wax (1953). It’s a simple, beautiful moment that’s worth an admission price because prior to the unmasking, he’s such a breezy airhead. (Whether it was Price’s own decision, the director’s, or it was written in the script, Price also enacts small gestures that make it clear he was falling for Mary, and wished he didn’t have to return to his usual brutal ways.)
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Character actor William Bendix has fun ordering the two leading men around (including deputizing the two in their fine linen suits as firemen), and Steve Darrell isn’t bad in Indian wig + makeup combo #42 as Mary’s father, wanted by the police for murder.
Four writers had a hand fiddling with the script, including Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps), and W.R. Burnett (High Sierra, The Great Escape) who also scribbled bits of Vendetta (1950) for RKO under Howard Hughes’ stewardship and creative mismanagement.
Roy Webb’s score balances original themes and dance band source cues, and maintains solid gravitas when things get really silly (especially Matt’s electro-wrestling shenanigans that are meant to impress Louise.)
B-movie director Louis King (brother of prolific Fox director Henry King) was quite competent in directing the actors in the elements, and after the low-budget western Massacre (1956) for Fox, he disappeared into TV.
Cinematographer William E. Snyder’s experience with 3D seemed sufficiently assured to Universal’s in-house producers that he also photographed Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. He also filmed the goofy Son of Sinbad (1955) and the dreadful The Conqueror (1956) for Hughes during the studios final years.
Irwin Allen’s next film was The Animal World, featuring animation by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan