It’s a testament to the DVD/Blu-Ray format to be able to rediscover an obscurity from those late-night TV daze of yore, and realize that you love it. Faint memories of strong scenes swirled around my so-called fertile mind for decades before I connected the dots that formed the rarely seen 1955 film noir STORM FEAR, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Classics/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
The movie is a claustrophobic, bold undertaking for triple threat star/producer/director Cornel Wilde (his first directorial effort, btw), bold as it contains no adult characters worth championing. It underlines von Stroheim’s belief that “life is a sewer,” which is also a grand name for a musical.
During a treacherous December winter, in the rural wilderness of Idaho, the bleak Blake family ekes out their existence as fairly unsuccessful farmers. As handyman/childish gun nut Dennis Weaver goofs off with his employer’s son (aka, teaching him how to shoot to kill) in a rising snow bank, the sprout’s mom (Jean Wallace) spurs his hired-help ass toward town for supplies before an upcoming storm does its worst.
Wallace and the child (David Stollery) endure the most minimal definition of the human condition, due to husband Dan Duryea’s near-terminal tubercular condition (until effectively cured, he must reside in a high-altitude, clear-air environ). Duryea is also a struggling author, who, aside from t.b., is battling a fatal case of writer’s block. Duryea’s moodiness is concurrently repellent and justifiable – a remarkable achievement for an equally remarkable actor. Despite his acrimony, he truly loves his family. It’s the world he hates, and curses the fact that his young wife is becoming dowdy before her time (well, as dowdy as Hollywood allows beauties of the Jean Wallace caliber to depreciate, which is somewhere between 1970s Lois Nettleton and Lola Albright). Damn, things just couldn’t get any worse!
And then they do.
From out of the snowy Currier and Ives landscape bursts an ungainly trio of urban dwellers: Wilde, Lee Grant and Steven Hill (in his screen debut). Wilde is Duryea’s estranged kid brother, Charley; he’s also the leader of a band of killers who have just stolen eighty-five thousand dollars after murdering anyone who had the temerity to get in their way.
This is an indeed complex congregation of losers. Wilde is a charming, lying sociopath (so good that the stories/arguments he tells to win over the gullible and vulnerable Blakes are never quite proven to be true or not). Grant is a goofy, likeable (but obviously potentially lethal) ditz who apparently shops at Victoria’s Floozie. Hill is a dyed-in-the-wool psychotic, itching to kill anything that moves, yet terrified of Wilde, who has the additional impediment of having been wounded.
So far, STORM FEAR comes off as a strange combination of The Desperate Hours meets The Country Girl meets Key Largo. Which isn’t a bad thing. But as all intimate relationships tend to be: it’s complicated.
At first Duryea’s increasingly seething hatred of his brother seems like a Bizarro World version of sibling rivalry, but there’s reason for it. Son David’s (yeah, that’s his character’s name too) beloved pet dog, a gift from Wilde, was shot dead by Duryea. This extreme reaction becomes a bit clearer when the canine reminder of his bro’s influence is further sketched out to reveal that Wilde is actually the father of the child. No love, pure lust. And it looks as if tingly Wallace is about to once again cave to nature’s call of the Wilde. Unlike Grace Kelly in her Oscar-winning role, all Wallace has to do is swath her pan with a swatch of lipstick, shake her hair loose, and VOILA!: instant goddess. Her aching loins are quickly sated as Wilde’s initial rebuff turns to rape, both halted by interruptions from one or all of the other inhabitants. Wallace is genuinely quite effective in her “WTF was I thinking?”moment. David, meanwhile, is confused by the origin of his late pet, due to Duryea’s cryptic and wicked “your father sent it” poisoned bon mots.
News of the killers’ bloody trail is revealed on the radio along with reports of a record-setting nor’easter about to descend upon the community. Sickly Duryea, who is repeatedly punched in the gut by the sadistic Hill (whenever Wilde isn’t around), doesn’t respond with as much anguish as when he gets his publisher’s latest rejection letter. This is truly one of the cruelest moments in the movie, as it’s likely the nastiest FU correspondence a writer has ever received (and I speak from experience). That said, there’s a particularly harrowing scene where Wallace removes the bullet from Wilde’s injured leg (mercifully, not with her teeth) that underlines her fading concern with a perverse, vengeful bravado.
And, yet, there are some amazing lighter moments in STORM FEAR, most prominently when Stollery attempts to have Hill commune with nature (a forced lifestyle the boy has come to cherish). He hands the thug a sprig of pine, asking him to take a whiff and appreciate its total beauty. Hill complies, retorting with a perplexed “Smells like a tree!” Of course, this is pure Wilde, a hardcore environmentalist, who further expanded on his ecological bent with his subsequent pics, No Blade of Grass and his authentic classic The Naked Prey. Another hoot is Grant’s offer to help out in the cabin as long as it doesn’t ruin her nails.
And thus, we’re prepared for the final act of this suspenseful, violent adventure – a grueling foray through the remnants of the hazardous blizzard (Wilde has duped the boy into leading himself, Grant and Hill through a short-cut escape route over a mountain to the main highway). And, trust me, anytime you expose three New York Jews to the elements without any chance of a nearby noshery, you’re asking for trouble!
Cornel Wilde is truly to be commended for his backpack overload of work on STORM FEAR. While Tony Mann, Nick Ray or Joseph H. Lewis (who the same year helmed the brilliant noir The Big Combo, also with Wilde and Wallace) might have fleshed out the nuances of the characters a bit finer, the actor-turned-filmmaker delivers a most admirable debut. Personally, I found the unabashed grittiness and noirish hopelessness of the movie kin to the directorial efforts of Ida Lupino. And that may not be an accident. Wilde and Lupino, both liberal progressives, bonded during the filming of Road House in 1948. It’s quite possible that Wilde may have discussed this project his with former costar before filming commenced (there are visual similarities to On Dangerous Ground, which Nick Ray confided to me was partially directed by Lupino when he fell ill). To Wilde’s credit, he has chosen some incredible talent on both sides of the camera to enact their craft. Both Grant and Hill are terrific (although top thesp kudos definitely go to Duryea), as is the thundering score by Elmer Bernstein (which includes a haunting harmonica suite). The stark but luxurious widescreen black-and-white location photography by the great Joseph La Shelle is aces. Ditto the tight take-no-prisoners screenplay by future To Kill a Mockingbird-scripter, Horton Foote (from Clinton Seeley’s novel). The insidious persona of Wilde’s character can never be thoroughly analyzed, as we never know if what he says can be trusted (a horrible tale of abuse by corrupt cops told to Stollery may be absolute bullshit). And you really do want to believe his sorrowful kidnapping adieu to Wallace regarding her son: “We don’t want to do this, but we can’t help it.” Likely, though, as Wallace surmises, the boy is just another example of Wilde’s panache for using people. It’s these spine-tingling traits that easily add the character to the big and little screen’s foreboding catalog of frightening Uncle Charleys, firmly sandwiched between Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and William Demarest in My 3 Sons.
One could not ask for a better edition of STORM FEAR than the one served up by Kino-Classics. The razor-clarity of the pristine 35mm transfer is one of the best I’ve ever seen from the company (and certainly the finest ever bestowed upon this title). The images are so precise that the depth is almost three-dimensional.
A quirky noir well-worth exploring, STORM FEAR lives up to its moniker. And then some.
STORM FEAR. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics. CAT # K1750. SRP: $29.95.