Sunday, January 31, 2010

Slattery’s Hurricane (1949)

Noir … or Not?

Although it was made at the height Richard Widmark’s run of noir classics, Slattery’s Hurricane, produced in 1949 at his home studio, 20th Century-Fox, is never discussed as noir. In fact, it’s rarely discussed at all; it is perhaps the most unjustly neglected film in the oeuvre of Hollywood’s most unjustly neglected director, André de Toth.

Maybe it’s the elemental title; catastrophic weather conditions rarely figure in film noir. Maybe it’s the blindingly bright Miami and Caribbean locations. Maybe it’s the involvement of author Herman Wouk, so closely associated with military dramas such as The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Winds of War (1983) (though he was also associated with such “civilian” works as Marjorie Morningstar [1958] and Youngblood Hawke [1964]), that makes people assume this will be yet another tale of men in uniform.

In fact, Slattery’s Hurricane fits snugly into the spate of postwar films, many of them noir, that focused on disillusioned veterans unable to adjust to civilian life. It may be the most provocative and challenging of the bunch. Like virtually all of de Toth’s films, it refuses to follow genre tropes. There are crimes and betrayals throughout, but no murderous conspiracies; the only death is from natural causes. But the characters, especially Widmark’s Will Slattery, are fully dimensional—tortured, tempted, ambitious, ambiguous, cowardly, and courageous. As de Toth might say, human.

Wouk’s 1947 novel Aurora Dawn, his first, earned immediate attention from 20th Century-Fox, who entertained the 32-year-old writer’s idea for a movie called Slattery’s Hurricane. He was asked to turn it into a treatment. Wouk came back with a complete novel (eventually published in 1956). Richard Murphy and an uncredited Buzz Bezzerides translated it to screenplay form.

Will Slattery is a hotshot fighter pilot reduced to inactive duty for defying orders in a crucial battle and recklessly engaging in a solo aerial dogfight. The stunt did help secure victory, and the brass has delayed a decision on whether he deserves the Medal of Honor . . . or a court-martial. In the meantime he’s taken a job piloting cargo flights in the Caribbean for a Miami-based “candy manufacturer,” a job arranged by his loyal girlfriend, Dolores (Veronica Lake).

It’s a mundane existence for the hot-blooded Slattery until the reappearance of old flame Aggie (Linda Darnell), who’s married to his war pal Hobbie (John Russell), who’s now assigned to the Navy weather squadron. When Slattery pursues Aggie, he sets off a chain reaction that ruins the lives of everyone, most tragically Dolores. Slattery seeks atonement—or suicide—by forcibly taking Hobbie’s place on a dangerous tracking flight into the eye of a hurricane bearing down on the Florida coast.

One suspects de Toth, a pilot himself, campaigned for this assignment. His flying sequences are superior to any other similar scenes from the era. The claustrophobic confines of the cockpit, its eggshell fragility in a storm, sudden shifts of light through the windshield—de Toth captures it all with stunning verisimilitude. His intercutting of stock flying footage with freshly shot sequences is seamless.

In true noir fashion, the story is recounted in flashback, with Slattery narrating his own bitter tale in a vituperative voice-over as his plane is battered by the fast-moving storm. It’s not exactly Double Indemnity (1944), but the device gives the narrative vital urgency. By opening with Slattery’s unexplained beating of his drunken friend and the theft of his plane, the story is given a suspenseful spine it wouldn’t otherwise have, despite subplots involving adultery and drug smuggling, two noir staples.

The writers and director had running battles with the Production Code office over these elements of the story. The war was fresh enough in the public’s mind for the censors to fear sullying the reputation of the armed forces with the suggestion that a navy officer would sleep with a colleague’s wife. De Toth manages to avoid any explicitness while maintaining all the steaminess and sordidness of an affair enacted under the noses of the betrayed spouses.

The drug smuggling is dealt with just as obliquely, until it becomes essential to the plot. De Toth, thumbing his nose at “the Code,” makes the drug runners a pair of homosexuals, which slipped right under the censors’ radar. The most intriguing—and frustrating—aspect of the drug subplot concerns the strangely vague fate of Dolores. De Toth was married to Veronica Lake at the time and her casting has deep implications. For one, Lake was eager to break out of her established femme fatale persona. De Toth obliged by shearing off her patented peekaboo hairstyle and casting her against type in a role typically played by Barbara Bel Geddes: the mousy, left-behind girlfriend.

Second, it comes out that Dolores is a covert drug addict, and her response to Slattery’s infidelity is a dangerous abuse of her bosses’ product. Even though this is the crux of the story, the censors demanded that it be soft-pedaled. The only clue to Dolores’s problem is a hospital report Slattery peruses at her bedside, long enough for viewers to glimpse the words “Diagnosis: Pharmacopsychosis.”

De Toth was actually engaging in a form of shock therapy: Lake actually was a drug addict and alcoholic at the time. Slattery’s Hurricane would be the last Hollywood film she made. Her husband elicits a performance remarkably close to her true character, but it is a melancholy climax to her meteoric stardom.

Perhaps Slattery’s Hurricane would be better known—and considered more “noir”—if it had kept its original ending, in which Slattery relays the coordinates essential to saving Miami, but dies a martyr when he crashes into the sea. Dolores accepts his posthumous medal of honor, and only she and Aggie know that the “hero” was actually a selfish, drug-running rat bastard. Preview audiences hated the downer ending and Darryl Zanuck persuaded de Toth shoot a new one. (Imagine my excitement when earlier this year colleagues at the UCLA Film & Television Archive reported that they’d found “one extra reel” of Slattery’s Hurricane. Alas, it wasn’t the original ending, which sources at 20th Century-Fox say was probably not preserved.)

Although not as satisfyingly self-contained (nor as melodramatic) as the original, de Toth’s revised conclusion is wonderfully elliptical and open-ended, sharing the sad spirit of In a Lonely Place, made the following year.


written by Eddie Muller

1 comment:

  1. When will this be put on dvd??? I want to buy this movie! It's great!!!


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