Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Thunder Bay (1953)

THUNDER BAY (1953) is one of eight films directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart.

When I first saw THUNDER BAY seven years ago, I wasn't particularly impressed with it, finding it rather listless. However, having thoroughly enjoyed 16 of Mann's films at UCLA earlier this year, and having also now seen all of Stewart and Mann's other films together, I thought it would be interesting to circle back to take a fresh look at THUNDER BAY.

I still see this movie about conflict between offshore drillers and fishermen as a lesser Mann-Stewart film, and I particularly stand by my previous thoughts that Stewart and Joanne Dru's relationship is poorly developed. I didn't think they had chemistry, and they didn't have enough scenes together to otherwise explain what they see in one another.

That said, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit more this time around and was glad I gave it another chance. I didn't feel the same sense of impatience with it that I had last time and got more out of the film.

It's a very attractive movie, shot in widescreen by William H. Daniels. I saw it in a better print this time -- DVD instead of VHS -- and I'm sure that helped my appreciation of the film's visual look. I also felt more of a sense of "place" on this viewing than I had the first time around. And, as I commented last time, the oil rig is an interesting setting.

Last time I didn't find Dan Duryea's character interesting, but having become a major Duryea fan in the intervening years, I watched his work in this more carefully and picked up nuances I'd missed the first time. Context probably helped my appreciation, as so often I've seen him play a villain or a troubled hero, and it was nice here to see him playing someone who's kind of loud (which was probably what bothered me last time) but turns out to be a decent guy.

It was also more meaningful to watch this film in light of Duryea's other work with Stewart, playing a villain in WINCHESTER '73 (1950) and NIGHT PASSAGE (1957). Here he plays a less flashy character, but it was nice to have the chance to see him as a supportive pal.

Similarly, since 2007 I've seen Marcia Henderson, who plays the girl Duryea falls for, in films such as ALL I DESIRE (1953) and CANYON RIVER (1956). I'd completely forgotten she was in this and enjoyed seeing her playing opposite Duryea as a couple instantly smitten with one another. There's concern at first that he's a love 'em and leave 'em type and she'll be hurt, but I found the resolution to their story quite satisfactory. Their romance was surprisingly sweet, and I don't think it had even really registered with me last time.

I think Stewart's obsessed oilman got on my nerves a little previously, but this time I was looking at his performance in light of his intense work in all the Mann Westerns I've seen in the years since. Mentally making those comparisons when his character gets a bit wild-eyed was one of the things which made the film more enjoyable for me.

All of this serves to illustrate why sometimes I like to revisit films which don't impress me, as the passage of time can cause a movie to look quite different for various reasons! It's fascinating how fresh contexts can change one's perspective.

The supporting cast of THUNDER BAY includes Jay C. Flippen, Gilbert Roland, Harry Morgan, Antonio Moreno, Robert Monet, and Fortunio Bonanova.

THUNDER BAY runs 103 minutes. It's available on DVD or VHS, and it's shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

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