Big Man in a 3D Wilderness
To put a jolt into declining movie attendance, Twentieth Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck was focused on championing Cinemascope, a widescreen process that would engulf audiences with the expanse of its image, and kicking the format off with his studio’s massive, eye-filling Biblical epic The Robe in September 1953. However, he also wouldn’t be left out of another headline-grabbing filmmaking/exhibition opportunity invading theaters the preceding spring and summer: 3D. His choice of material for Fox’s first plunge would be a desert survival thriller called The Waterhole, to be directed by Englishman Roy Ward Baker, who had helmed two pictures for the studio, a Technicolor fantasy remake of Berkeley Square called I’ll Never Forget You (1951) and the sinister Richard Widmark/Marilyn Monroe noir Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). J.R. Jones’s 2015 profile The Lives of Robert Ryan notes that Baker “was fascinated by the long stretches of action in Francis Cockrell’s short story…about a spoiled millionaire stranded in the Mojave desert by his scheming wife and her lover. ‘I had always had an ambition to make a picture in which the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says,’ Baker wrote [in his 2000 The Director’s Cut: A Memoir of 60 Years in Film and Television]. To handle the complicated process of shooting in 3D, Baker recruited cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who had worked with him on Don’t Bother to Knock.” To the mix of Technicolor and hard-bitten noir in a sun-baked setting, the next crucial ingredient was the ideal actor: Robert Ryan, who had already played a controlling tycoon in Max Ophuls’ chilling Caught (1949). “Ryan always rose to a creative challenge, and he loved Baker’s idea of shooting a modern silent picture,” Jones wrote of the adventure, retitled Inferno (1953), co-starring Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan, which arrived in theaters a month before The Robe. “Ryan’s scenes…, shot in the Mojave near Apple Valley, California, were almost entirely wordless,” though they would be enhanced by internal monologues dubbed in later to complete the portrait of a self-indulgent, alcoholic playboy transformed by a wilderness ordeal. Ryan’s weaselly character of Don Carson, who feels helpless stripped of his wealthy trappings, discovers uncanny strength to survive. “Stranded on a mountainside with a broken leg, he manages the straighten the leg, bind himself with splints, lower himself down the rocks to the ground, find a water hole under the surface of the sand, and kill a deer for food,” Jones recounted. “The rock-climbing sequences rival those in The Naked Spur [an earlier Ryan gem from February of that year], particularly the tense moment when Carson lowers himself past a rattler coiling on a rock ledge.” Ryan gave his all to the role’s tense physicality. “The details of self-preservation and gutsiness shown by Ryan in overcoming the hazards of nature are gripping,” Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross observed in The Motion Picture Guide. Though he was later than other studios to the 3D table, Zanuck still wanted to maximize the project’s impact and earn the promise of its title. Jones recapped: “The picture ended with Carson being rescued, his wife returning guiltily to his side, and her lover, Duncan, fleeing for Mexico. But when Zanuck saw this cut, he decided the picture need a slam-bang ending that would deliver on the promise of 3D action. Assisted by fight choreographer Dick Talmadge, Baker staged a scene in which Duncan trails Carson to a little shack where he’s being sheltered by a local desert rat (Henry Hull); the antagonists go after each other, a flung oil lamp ignites the shack, and Carson is pulled to safety while the flaming roof caves in on Duncan (in a hair-raising point-of-view shot, to make Zanuck happy).” It was not a stellar box-office performer in its day – the 3D craze was already ebbing as Cinemascope loomed larger and wider as an easier proposition to screen and experience – but later generations have discovered the film’s skillful use of depth and visual grandeur along with the remarkable work by Baker and Ryan. “The picture’s failure was disappointing” to Ryan, Jones assessed, noting a 1971 Films and Filming interview with the actor (just two years before his death) in which “Ryan would list his best screen work as Crossfire, The Set-Up, God’s Little Acre and ‘a little picture nobody ever heard of called Inferno which I made for Fox.’” Twilight Time has not only heard of Inferno [as well as another marvelous Ryan/Fox effort named House of Bamboo for director Samuel Fuller, already out from TT], but the label’s hi-def Blu-ray will present it in a splendid restoration transfer viewable in either 3D or 2D as your home entertainment system provides, featuring an Audio Commentary with film noir authority Alan K. Rode and Robert’s daughter Lisa Ryan plus documentarian Steven C. Smith’s illuminating documentary A New Dimension of Noir: Filming Inferno in 3D. Inferno erupts in 1080p May 16. Preorders open May 3.