In the introduction to his 2016 biography on one of film history’s most respected and facile journeyman directors, Howard N. Pomainville asserts: “To understand Henry Hathaway [1898-1985], one should picture him sport fishing in one of his favorite Canadian rivers. He knew where the biggest fish would swim, what lures to use, and most importantly, when to strike or cut bait. He was the kind of individual who could travel to North Africa, Germany, Spain, Mexico or India and bend the environment to his will. These same qualities as a fisherman – patience, cunning, toughness and quiet perseverance – made Hathaway one of Hollywood’s leading directors for over 40 years. When it came to making some of the best pictures ever produced by the Hollywood studio system, he had a line in every pool. The fact that many of his colleagues called him ‘Screaming Henry’ indicates that he was a charismatic individual who commanded respect from his peers. He was a paradoxical figure: he was well read but felt intimidated by anyone better educated than he. He admired both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He confessed to wearing a metaphorical blue collar underneath his tuxedo. Reluctant to drop names, he worked with actors who now rank as A-list at a minimum and legendary to boot. Thanks to his strength of character and courage, he lived a life that rivaled his best suspense and adventure films.” By way of a 120th-birthday tribute to this paradoxical, environment-bending moviemaking talent, consider his three Twilight Time titles from Twentieth Century Fox set in varying genres and locales, but all earmarked with a signature intensity and dynamism.
Hathaway was on a hot streak of solidly crafted thrillers – The House on 52nd Street (1945), The Dark Corner (1946) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) – that juxtaposed the noir style with semidocumentary realism; he was therefore in a strong position to insist his next project Kiss of Death (1947) be shot on actual New York City and metropolitan area locations (including an upstate swing to Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining) in order to recreate the urban jungle atmosphere of excitement and dread desired for this tough tale of an ex-con striving to turn his life around by infiltrating the ranks of and informing on his former criminal confederates at the request of a crusading district attorney. The result would reveal greater depths of acting potential for Victor Mature as the convict and Coleen Gray in her first lead as his supportive second wife; there’s also explosive screen debut of Richard Widmark in a starmaking role as his psychotic gangster antagonist. Both Mature and Widmark would be at odds with Hathaway at various points throughout the shoot, but the juice of internal conflict and real locations made for potent cinema.
Hathaway was in adventure mode – with Down to the Sea in Ships (1950), Rawhide (1951), White Witch Doctor (1953) and Prince Valiant (1954) as examples – when he was presented with another action saga with spectacular locations to exploit: Garden of Evil (1954), shot in the exciting widescreen Cinemascope format in entrancing sites inside Mexico, including jungle terrain near Acapulco, the mighty Parícutin volcano, the communities of Guanajuato and Tepotzotlán and Mexico City’s fabled Churubusco Studios. This time, for the brawny and brooding Western yarn of three temporarily stranded soldiers-of-fortune recruited by a determined woman to rescue her husband trapped in a gold mine inside hostile Mexican Apache tribal badlands, Hathaway would cast stars he knew well and would give back as good as they took of his driven directorial style: Gary Cooper (his seventh and final Hathaway film), Susan Hayward (her third of four Hathaway ventures) and Kiss of Death dynamo Widmark (his fourth Hathaway tour of duty, having made his peace with the director who was initially skeptical about his playing vicious Tommy Udo). Just as the Mature/Widmark battle of wills functioned as the time bomb that energized Kiss of Death, the spiky camaraderie between the laconic ex-lawman Cooper and sardonic card sharp Widmark is, in addition to the scenic expanses and florid Bernard Hermann score, a key contribution to the power of Garden of Evil.
Combining his flair for the capturing the outdoors with an excursion into yet another genre, the romantic melodrama, Hathaway and Hayward reteamed five years later on the breathtaking shooting location – Lone Pine, California, standing in for the rugged Canadian Saskatchewan wilderness – of the roiling Cinemascope-lensed dramatics of Woman Obsessed (1959). The sensationally titled story of a tragedy-stricken independent-minded widow struggling to maintain a hardscrabble farm and raise her father-deprived son (Dennis Holmes) in the face of Mother Nature’s hard knocks was based on the more quietly named novel The Snow Birch by John Mantley. In the hands of Hayward, Hathaway and the screenplay adaptation by one-time crime reporter Sidney Boehm (who penned the screenplays of the gripping Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray thrillers The Big Heat (1953) and Violent Saturday (1955)), Woman Obsessed becomes a distinctively different animal: the study of how violence – not only from external forces but also from within scarred souls – puts both familial devotion and adult desires to the test. A handsome hired man (Stephen Boyd) of few words, possessed of loving potential but also a secretive past that drives him to brutal outbursts, could be a solution to her troubles – or a threat to her sensitive boy. How this plays out – against an unforgiving environment in which forest fire, snowstorm, flood and quicksand sequences mirror the tempestuous dynamics of isolated people striving to cohere and thrive – transcends mere soap-opera to become something gripping and distinctively moving, even as its hard-won finale offers a peaceful mood of redemption that the audience knows will require vigilant renewal. For a clear-eyed perspective on Hathaway’s work, try FredrikonFilm blogger Fredrik Gustafsson’s appraisal essay here: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/08/henry-hathaway.html. Better yet, cast your fishing rod to experience the birthday honoree’s no-nonsense artistry via TT’s splendid Blu-ray discs of Garden of Evil and Kiss of Death and still-available DVD of Woman Obsessed, the last-named item located exclusively here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/15420/WOMAN-OBSESSED-1959/.