Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Heat Lightning (1934) at the Noir City Film Festival

The four-film "Proto-Noir" marathon on closing night of the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival started off with THE NINTH GUEST (1934), followed by LET US LIVE (1939).

The third film, HEAT LIGHTNING (1934), was the shortest movie of the evening, running a mere 63 minutes. It was also my favorite, a title which I've wanted to see for some time, and it didn't disappoint.

Ann Dvorak biographer Christina Rice joined Alan Rode to introduce the movie. They provided some interesting background, including the information that the movie was shot in the High Desert area of Victorville, California. Incidentally, I was glad to finally have the chance to meet Christina after the movie!

In HEAT LIGHTNING Dvorak and Aline MacMahon play Myra and Olga, sisters running a gas station and lunchroom at a lonely desert outpost. Olga (MacMahon) is content to work hard and live a quiet life, but the younger Myra (Dvorak) dreams of bright lights and the big city, or at least sneaking off to a dance with a disreputable boy.

A variety of interesting travelers arrive at the station in the course of a single day, including a couple of divorcees (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly) on their way home from Reno with a chauffeur (Frank McHugh)...and a pair of men (Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot) on the lam after a robbery and ensuing killing.

This being a movie, it just so happens that George (Foster) was Olga's old flame back in Oklahoma...but she's older and wiser now. Maybe.

The Brown Holmes-Warren Duff screenplay was based on a play by George Abbott and Leon Abrams, yet thanks in part to the very effective location shooting, the movie feels much less stagebound than the later but very similar THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936).

THE PETRIFIED FOREST, which was also based on a play, has much in common with HEAT LIGHTNING in terms of both location and story, but I thought that HEAT LIGHTNING had the more authentic feel of the two films. This was a terrific little movie.

In THE PETRIFIED FOREST one never really forgets that Bette Davis and Leslie Howard are actors in a soundstage, whereas HEAT LIGHTNING actually filmed in the desert. I also found MacMahon and Dvorak's performances very "real" contrasted with THE PETRIFIED FOREST, even with familiar favorites like Farrell and Donnelly stopping in to offer comic relief.

I was particularly moved by the scene where Myra comes home from a dance "worse for the wear," with it implied between the lines what had happened to her at some point during the evening. MacMahon as Olga, a capable mechanic, is likewise outstanding as a woman who is briefly reminded what it's like to be treated as a woman, for both good and ill.

Foster and Talbot are appropriately slimy as the crooks on the run; Foster has a casual line about the man he'd killed having been fated to die that day which caused me to gasp. A similar gasp was elicited by the way he was dealt his own ultimate fate.

The supporting cast also includes Jane Darwell, Edgar Kennedy, Theodore Newton, Willard Robertson, and Cris-Pin Martin.

HEAT LIGHTNING was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and filmed by Sid Hickox.

It's available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Next up: The last film of the festival, William Wellman's bizarre pre-Code SAFE IN HELL (1931).


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