Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker
Produced by William Bloom
Written by Francis M. Cockrell
Director Of Photography: Lucian Ballard
Music by Paul Sawtell
Cast:Robert Ryan (Donald Whitley Carson III), Rhonda Fleming (Geraldine Carson), William Lundigan (Joseph Duncan), Henry Hull (Sam Elby), Larry Keating (Dave Emory), Carl Betz (Lt. Mike Platt), Robert Burton (Sheriff), Barbara Pepper
Inferno (1953) isn’t a Western. But it’s got enough of our usual stuff in it — cast, crew, locations, etc. — to seem like a pretty good fit. Truthfully, I just wanted to write about it, celebrate director Roy Ward Baker and lift up Panamint Cinema’s fine work in bringing it to DVD and Blu-ray.
3-D never saved a crappy movie, and how much it enhances a film comes down to personal taste (to me, if it’s not perfectly presented, it’s a huge distraction). None of that is an issue with Inferno, because it’s a terrific “desert noir” picture — and director Roy Baker and cinematographer Lucian Ballard use the 3-D very, very well. (Have you noticed that watching a 3-D movie flat tends to show off how gimmick-y it is? Fort Ti, for instance.)
Robert Ryan is a tough, drunken business tycoon no one seems all that fond of. When he breaks his leg horseback riding in the Mojave, his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her new lover (William Lundigan) decide to leave him there to die — they’re not killing him, they’re just not saving him. Sounds like a perfect plan. Only they didn’t figure Ryan would sober up, patch up his leg and start making his way back to civilization.
The picture goes back and forth between Ryan’s trek through the desert and Fleming and Lundigan’s attempts to fake their way through the rescue efforts. Ryan plays his part largely without dialogue — we hear his thoughts as narration — and he’s very, very good. (As if I had to tell you that.)
Roy Baker: “I had always had an ambition to make a picture in which the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says.”*
Fleming and Lundigan are good, too. As the movie progresses, their paranoia and stress levels escalate. You just know it’s going to fall apart. It’s to the credit of everyone involved that our sympathy shifts from scene to scene — and in how satisfying it is when Fate takes over in the last reel.
Director Roy (Ward) Baker was a master, and today, nobody seems to know who he is. He enjoyed a widely-varied career, bouncing from features to TV, from genre to genre, and from the US to the UK with ease. He got a great performance out of Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother To Knock (1952), directed some great episodes of The Avengers, made one of the best Hammer films, Five Million Miles To Earth (1968, known in the UK as Quatermass And The Pit), and gave us one of the most impossibly-great, damned-near perfect movies I’ve ever seen, A Night To Remember (1958).
His use of depth in Inferno is subtle but very effective, and he was proud of his work on the picture. A falling rock or two, a chair thrown toward the camera — that’s about it as far as the showy stuff goes. The rocks and cactus provide plenty of opportunities to play around with depth in a more natural way. He and Lucian Ballard work wonders with light and color to create the intensity of the desert. The movie looks really hot — though it was shot in the winter. (Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah also lured Ballard and his cameras into the desert for pictures like Buchanan Rides Alone and The Wild Bunch.)
The supporting cast is a good one. Henry Hull is great as the old prospector who comes to Ryan’s aid. Larry Keating, who’s wonderful on The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show, is Ryan’s business associate, and he doesn’t seem all that upset, or surprised, that his partner’s gone missing. And Barbarba Pepper, Mrs. Ziffel on Green Acres, turns up as a waitress.
They say that back in the 90s, a British retrospective on Baker was reduced to running a 16mm TV print of Inferno. Luckily, Bob Furmanek of The 3-D Film Archive tracked down 35mm Technicolor prints of both the left and right sides — which this incredible region-free Blu-ray comes from (transferred by Dan Symmes). The picture is stunning at times, sharp as a tack with vivid color and just the right amount of grain. It looks exactly like what it is — a nice 35mm dye-transfer Technicolor print. This was an early stereo picture, but there’s only mono here. Bet the stereo masters are long gone. I wasn’t able to watch the 3-D version, which would have to be impressive since it comes from the same material. There’s a healthy batch of extras, from trailers to an interview with the great Rhonda Fleming.
Inferno comes highly, highly recommended — both the movie and this beautiful Blu-ray. And I’d like to thank Bob Furmanek of The 3-D Film Archive and Russell Cowe of Panamint Cinema for getting it out there.
Sources: *Director’s Cut: A Memoir of 60 Years in Film by Roy Ward Baker; Blu-ray liner notes