Archive for August 6, 2017

The Sunday Intertitle: Lust in the Dust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by dcairns

One of Bologna’s discoveries this year was Mary Nolan, who loped limply through two rather stiff early talkies, Tod “the plod” Browning’s OUTSIDE THE LAW and YOUNG DESIRE. While everybody in those films apart from snarling Eddie Robinson essays the sluggish performance style of the period, all tipsy enunciation and medicated pauses, Nolan MAKES THIS WORK. I had to see more.

I’d seen more already — Nolan is excellent in WEST OF ZANZIBAR, in which Tod does not plod, but that film is so crowded with eye-popping incident and performance that she can’t emerge pre-eminent. DESERT NIGHTS, on the other hand, is just an hour of Nolan, John Gilbert and Ernest Torrence looking at each other, surrounded by miles of nothingness. Fortunately for us, all three performers are at the top of their game, and the chemistry between them is sulphurous and sizzling.

It’s a tale of suspense and survival: diamond thieves Torrence and Nolan abduct Gilbert along with a flask of gems, and then get stranded in the Kalahari. From that point on, talented journeyman director William Nigh lets intense close-ups dominate, until you can practically feel the stubble sprouting from the men’s chins. Nolan is excused stubble, but boldly allows herself to become shiny, bedraggled and desperate. Her usual louche and limpid demeanor alternates with bursts of rather shocking savagery, and the romance with Gilbert blossoms while he’s languishing in fly-blown bondage.

The plot really isn’t much — to let romance bloom, Nolan’s bad girl is allowed an unearned redemption. Masquerading as “Lady Diana Stonehill” when we first meet her, she’s never even supplied with a true name, just “Baby.” The team of writers employed to cobble this together were being kind of lazy. But the film blazes, thanks to Gilbert’s crisp toughness (“You know me, anything in a pith helmet,” ~ THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO), Nolan’s sultry, hopeless beauty (read her bio if you want to have a cry) and the unusual sight of Torrence underplaying (he’s still massive).

Film researcher/detective Lenny does an excellent Torrence impersonation. It’ll startle you!

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