Baker’s Inferno

I keep forgetting that the venerable Roy Ward Baker, director of A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, among many others, had a pretty successful innings in Hollywood. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK starred Richard Widmark and the young Marilyn Monroe, and is pretty good, even though MM’s performance has come in for a lot of criticism. It’s a rare psychodrama where the deranged threat is also treated with sympathy as a character, and allowed to survive the end credits. And I just obtained NIGHT WITHOUT SLEEP, a noirish number with Linda Darnell.

INFERNO, filmed in eye-jabbing 3D, is also somewhat in a noir vein, starring as it does Robert Ryan (who could just about single-handedly wrench any movie into noir terrain) as a misanthropic millionaire (another Howard Hughes variant, like his turn in CAUGHT — he even gets injured and stuck in the wilderness like Hughes in the much later MELVIN AND HOWARD) with a scheming wife, Rhonda Fleming. She and her lover, William Lundigan (reliable movie ballast) mislead the rescue party to search the wrong area, in hopes that the broken-legged hubby will perish under the blazing sun.

So it’s a tale of survival, with Ryan building a splint, assembling a rope to get himself off a mountain, hunting for supper and looking for water in all the wrong places. And as such it’s reasonably compelling. The increasingly grizzled Ryan monologues internally to himself, keeping himself alive by plotting his revenge, until he finally comes to something resembling peace of mind and physical safety.

The 3D disappoints somewhat, mainly because the desert isn’t such a promising location for dimensional hi-jinks: there’s no middle-ground to add depth. Ryan’s lonely stumbling takes place against an infinity of distant sky and sand, with his pop-up figure the only point of interest. His crawl down the mountain should have offered opportunities for vertiginous thrills, but these seem to slip away: a POV looking downwards has no sense of scale, and could have been taken from the top of a hillock; most of the shots of Ryan pose him against the rockface, a flat background only inches behind him.

But I shouldn’t be too hard on the movie, since the copy I was working from was pretty sub-par. For one thing, the red and blue images were slightly out of synch, probably by two frames, causing a dark blink whenever there was a cut, and causing migrainy haloing of characters in motion, as if they’d stepped out of an old four-colour comic book printed out of register. So it’s fair to say nothing looked its best.

Nevertheless, with Ryan’s towering presence and such a compelling plot engine, the film entertains, and the final brawl in a confined cabin was terrific: as the room catches fire, illustrating the title in a new way, Baker throws furniture, lanterns, broken jugs, ¬†Lundigan and blazing ceiling beams in our faces so fast we come away feeling bruised. Two-fisted anaglyph action!

14 Responses to “Baker’s Inferno”

  1. Marilyn’s performance in Don’t Bother to Knock is wildly underrated. It shows that even at this stage in her career she was a superb dramatic actress — and a great star. What gets under people’s skin is the character — a borderline neurotic bursting into the full flames of dementia right before our eyes in extremely fetching lingerie.

    Bake also directed the admirable Dr. Jeckyl and Sister Hyde — whcih we were discussing just the other day. Quatermass and the Pit (aka. Five Million Years to Earth) is my favorite of his. Haven’t seen Inferno, alas (Not to be confused with the Dario Argento freakout I’ll wager.)

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    I would like to see THE SINGER, NOT THE SONG (60) in 3-D. Think of the rich possibilities of dastardly, yet effete, bandito Dirk whipping the lens!

  3. Oh yeah, that’s another great one. Dirk Bogarde as a Mexican bandot (YIKES!) in head-to-toe black leather. Meek kindly priest John Mills (!) falls madly in love with him while Mylene Demongeot stews deliciously to one side.

  4. The movie’s poster became Dirk’s fantasy object in later life — he’d be up in his attic, gazing at the poster while sitting on a motorbike he had up on blocks, revving the engine. I guess his love-life was otherwise in a quiet state, so it was good to have himself to fall back on. (“It’s sex with someone I love!”)

    I get the impression Baker is maybe a wee bit embarrassed about that movie.

    Recently half-enjoyed his Tiger in the Smoke, which is like two movies. All the interiors are staid and ordinary, but in the foggy London exteriors the camera drifts madly in and out of Dutch tilts in a very avant-garde fashion. Get the impression Baker was told to quit it, because the movie calms right down when the action decamps to the coast. A shame.

  5. Embarrassed? Well he shouldn’t be.
    Makes for an ideal double feature with Modesty Blaise

  6. david wingrove Says:

    SINGER NOT THE SONG is a trash/camp masterpiece, marred only by the ludicrous casting of John Mills as Bandido Dirk’s forbidden object of desire. If only they’d cast John Fraser or someone else who was young and sexy – but it was a risky project and Mills, alas, was the Big Rank Star!

  7. I think this was the era when Rank had imposed an organisation called PFL, or some such (swiftly nicknamed “Piffle”) which was intended to synchronize productions so that Rank’s roster of stars were put to optimum use. It ended up imposing unsuitable actors on unsuitable productions, and made the casting process an even bigger botched compromise than it generally is. So the chances of getting more than one star into the right role had drastically declined since the days of Black Narcissus, say.

  8. THE OCTOBER MAN, Baker’s directorial debut, has nicely noirish cinematography. And here’s another of his films simply bursting with 3D potential:

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Priest Mills’ roving, lubricious eyes hungrily feasting upon the alluring leather-trousered bandit Bogarde in TSNTS is up on YouTube (excerpt #2)

  10. Christopher Says:

    I’ve seen this a few times on regular TV..Ryan’s normally entertaining even without 3D but I bet the Fire scene was pretty cool!..Had no idea Hammer’s Roy Ward Baker did the hollywood gig at first.

  11. Ryan is always interesting – I’ll watch for Inferno sometime. As for Don’t Bother to KNock, I was not impressed with Monroe. She was fine, but plenty of fine actresses would have been better. Jean Simmons for example.

  12. I guess TSNTS either didn’t hit the note Baker wanted, or else he was always uncomfortable with the note it was aimed at.

    Yes, the fire/fight is the high point, really sensationally violent and untamed!

    Baker damaged his career by dropping his middle name, a bit like Coppola with his “Ford”. Which meant that many people weren’t aware of the full extent of his achievements, since they associated the Hollywood work with somebody else.

    Something about Baker’s vampire flicks always disappointed me: like he really wasn’t interested in any aspect of the goings-on, not even the sex.

  13. That’s the thing with Monroe, maybe: one can usually imagine somebody with greater dramatic chops (exception, maybe Bus Stop), but rarely could anybody offer more of what Monroe offers. And it’s a trade-off which could go either way, according to taste. I can’t imagine anyone better in Some Like It Hot, but I’m very glad Shirley MacLaine won the part in The Apartment.

    Make that, very VERY glad.

    In DBTK, her hotness and her real vulnerability add considerably to her value in the role. Whether that balances any perceived limitations elsewhere is a matter of taste.

  14. […] of our study of the mighty Roy Ward Baker’s Hollywood period, begun with a look at INFERNO, and who knows, perhaps to be continued with NIGHT WITHOUT […]

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