The credits roll over a vast desert, much like the type you’d see in an old Western starring John Wayne. Except here a long highway stretches across the screen letting us know that this isn’t an old western but a contemporary film. To highlight this, a modern automobile (well, modern for 1947 when the film was made) comes rolling in across the highway. Inside are two strangers coming into town, again like they do in those old westerns, except these aren’t black-cladded cowboys but rather two gangsters in matching suits.
They stop at a bridge and speak of it in a mysterious, cryptic way like something dangerous happened there once before. Another car comes in behind the first and honks its horn. Inside is Paula (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful young woman whose golden locks shine bright in the setting sun. The men let her pass then travel on themselves. She pulls into town and greets Deputy Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster). The gangsters, Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his submissive partner Johnny (Wendell Corey), pull in beside and Tom are immediately berated by him. Tom then warns Paula away from associating with such people.
She then goes to see her mother Fritzi (Mary Astor), who runs a casino called the Desert Fox. She runs the whole town, really, as we see when she start ordering the sheriff around. Mother and daughter have a strange, troubled relationship and Fritzi berates her daughter for getting kicked out of another school. Just then, Eddie walks in, and Fritzi greets him like she’s known him a long time. Later, she warns Paula not to get involved with him. But Paula is a strong-willed young lady with a rebellious streak so she finds a way to spend more time with Eddie. Even when nearly everyone in town warns her against him, or perhaps because they do, she pursues him. Even when she learns more of his gangster ways and that it was his wife who died on that bridge she sticks with him.
She’s a strange girl, that Paula, and this is a strange movie. She’s beautiful, seductive, and manipulative, but not sinister or conniving enough to be a femme fatale. She’s young and somewhat naive but too clever to be an ingenue. She fits somewhere between those archetypes, looking for danger but clever enough to get hurt.
The film, too, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It has many of the trappings of a noir but it's set far outside the dark alleyways of the city, taking place in the wide open desert, in glorious Technicolor. That setting and its black and white/good and evil dichotomy give it the feeling of a western. Does that make it the first Western Noir? It also has some of the most overt sexual undertones of any movie I’ve ever seen made under the Hayes Code. Eddie and Johnny have a very close relationship with Eddie as master and Johnny being subservient. Describing how he met Johnny, Eddie says this:
"It was in the automat off Times Square at two in the morning. I was broke. He had a couple of dollars. We got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs. I went home with him that night. We were together from then on.”
Johnny gets very upset when Eddie and Paula start to fall for each other. He speaks of him as one does a lover. The relationship between Fritzi and Paula is queer too. She fauns over her, tells her that she looks good, and calls her baby all the time. Their last scene together ends with a full on smack on the lips. It's so strange to see such things in a Hollywood film from the 1940s, and yet there it all is in glorious Technicolor. Even with all this strangeness it never quite transcends into something great. It's a mish-mash of genres and styles that never quite comes together into something memorable.
Kino Lorber has given it a nice transfer. It looks and sounds quite wonderful. Those wide desert vistas come in beautifully. As far as I can tell, this is the first time it has come to a digital format in the United States. I couldn’t find any information that it ever was transferred to a Region 1 DVD and this is the first Blu-ray copy in existence. That it looks and sounds terrific is just icing to that Western Noir cake. Extras include several trailers for other Kino releases and a very informative, if a little too formal, audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.
Desert Fury isn’t a great film despite its great cast. It's an odd blending of genres with some fascinating sexual undertones that never quite figures out what it's trying to do. It is well worth watching for noir fans and those interested in genre benders. This new transfer is a real treat.