I met a guy at a party one night who told me he didn’t like classic films. Without telling him anything about myself, I asked him why he didn’t care for the old stuff.
“It’s campy,” he said. “It’s just so fake and over the top. The actors always act like they’re trying to broadcast their emotions to the back row. It’s unrealistic.”
Of course, the thing about most old movies is that they’re not trying for “realism” in the way we think of it today—in fact, that unreal quality is one of the best things about them—so I disagreed with him on the general principle. Having said that, I did know the kind of skyrocket-over-the-top film he might have meant. Without knowing it, he was talking about Desert Fury.
Of all the variations on noir one could attempt, the least interesting to me might well be the Camp Noir. I suppose I feel this way because I love noir so fervently. I don’t get much of a kick out of bad ones. I want them to be good. Hell, I want them to be great. But then I keep coming back to Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury, a Technicolor film noir so bad it achieves a kind of glory.
The plot of this flick is, to put it delicately, a jumble: John Hodiak stars as a gangster who arrives in the town of Chuckawalla accompanied by his overly-attentive buddy Wendell Corey. They run into Lizabeth Scott. She’s the spoiled daughter of Mary Astor, the shady owner of a gambling joint called The Purple Sage. Burt Lancaster is a deputy sheriff who has the hots for Liz, but he’s jealous because she has the hots for Hodiak. Hodiak has the hots for Liz, but this makes his buddy Wendell Corey jealous because Corey seems to want to keep Hodiak all for himself. And Mary Astor is jealous of just about everyone.
Frankly, I forget what exactly happens next.
In my defense, the “story” here is simply a series of scenes wherein these five people enter rooms, swear allegiances, throw off allegiances, and then slap each other across the face (in the course of this film I counted four people popped across the kisser, which works out to about one slapdown every twenty minutes or so). Liz Scott eventually storms out of every room she enters. She’s hardly alone. There’s so much offense taken in the course of this movie, it might have been better titled Desert Umbrage.
Does this make the film good? Bad? Both?
Well, I vote for both. On one level, it is screamingly awful. Scott, Astor, and Lancaster all put the over in overacting. Scott is miscast as a flighty, innocent teenager—completely wrong for an actress who by the age of twenty-five already exuded an exasperation with the world’s foolishness. Meanwhile, Hodiak spends most of the movie as charming as a somnambulist, only to turn batshit crazy in the last scenes. Corey sulks, Lancaster bares his teeth, and Scott changes her allegiance as often as she changes costumes. All in all, the movie is about as subtle as a drag queen revue.
Of course, on the other hand, drag queen revues are pretty entertaining, and a screamingly awful movie can be a hell of a lot of fun if it’s done right. Believe me, there are many bad film noirs, but this one is special.
Hodiak and Corey have a relationship that exists in Leopold and Loeb territory, yet it’s so awkwardly repressed it turns hilarious. The scene of these guys arguing about the meaning of their relationship while sunbathing could only be more homoerotic if it involved hot wax. And that’s before Hodiak slaps Corey with a lady’s glove. Later, there’s a chase scene wherein two cars race past Burt Lancaster. He’s sitting in his police cruiser, smoking what appears to these innocent eyes to be a joint, with an expression on his face like he’s stoned stupid. He joins the chase, but he never loses that stoned look on his face.
Clearly, this movie is not for everyone, but if you’re a connoisseur of the it’s-so-bad-it’s-glorious genre then you will want to make haste to a copy of Desert Fury. Grab a bottle of wine on the way. It’s even better when you’re drunk.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor