Monday, October 31, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Thunder in the Sun (1959)

I started out this evening watching a spooky pre-Code film, in keeping with the holiday. By the time I got a few minutes into the movie, I knew it was too creepy for me to keep watching, and so it was back to my movie comfort zone and another Western! Westerns and monster movies seem to be the theme of the past week.

THUNDER IN THE SUN is something of a curiosity: strong lead actors in an intriguing story which provides an unusual twist on the traditional wagon train Western -- but told with strikingly poor production values. The end result is entertaining, but this viewer couldn't help feeling that with some effort, the film could have been even better.

Jeff Chandler plays Lon Bennett, a cranky wagon train guide who agrees to lead a small group of Basque settlers west to California. Lon is baffled by some Basque traditions, but eventually he comes to enjoy their company, and he's strongly attracted to fiery Gabrielle (Susan Hayward). Gabrielle is married to a much older man (Carl Esmond), a marriage arranged when she was a child, and Lon feels no compunction about trying to persuade -- or pressure -- Gabrielle into an affair.

When Gabrielle's husband dies suddenly, Basque tradition dictates that she will wed her husband's unmarried brother Pepe (Jacques Bergerac). Their engagement leads to considerable conflict between Lon and Pepe. Meanwhile the wagon train keeps moving toward California, coping with a lack of water and hostile Indians. While one Basque tradition leads to an unfortunate prairie fire, the Basques are able to put their familiarity with mountain terrain to good use in battling the Indians.

THUNDER IN THE SUN has an appealing and unique premise, but the visual execution is decidedly clunky, awkwardly combining soundstage shots with second unit location footage and process shots; all three types of footage are frequently edited together in a single scene, resulting in the film having a very odd look at times. There is better use of location shooting towards the end of the film, including a Death Valley sequence, but overall this film looks quite mixed up; apparently it didn't have much of a budget.

Another quality issue is that Susan Hayward's voice sometimes seems to be looped. I suspect there may have been issues as far as getting her French accent correct which necessitated dubbing her dialogue in later for some scenes. In fact, in one scene her vocal track was noticeably out of sync, but I don't know if the issue was with the original film or Netflix streaming.

On the plus side, there's some impressive stunt work in a scene where two characters ride away from a fire and fall into a river. Future director Hal Needham was among the stunt crew.

This isn't one of Jeff Chandler's more heroic roles, and indeed, his behavior toward Susan Hayward's character in the first half of the movie would be called sexual harrassment in this day and age! If Gabrielle were played by a weaker actress these scenes might be downright disturbing, but the problem is mitigated insofar as the audience knows Susan Hayward is a tough cookie who is more than a match for Chandler's aggression. Ultimately their strong characters are well matched, but it's an odd courtship, to say the least.

The bottom line: If you like Jeff Chandler, Susan Hayward, and/or Westerns, you may well find this somewhat cheesy but enjoyable, as I did. Despite the film's flaws, I was glad I watched it. Other viewers may want to steer clear.

The supporting cast includes Blanche Yurka and Fortunio Bonanova.

This film was directed by Russell Rouse. It was shot in Technicolor by Stanley Cortez. The movie runs 81 minutes.

THUNDER IN THE SUN is a Paramount film which can be seen via Netflix Watch Instantly. It does not appear to have had a DVD or VHS release.

The trailer is on YouTube.


Blogger Unknown said...

The opening paragraph of course begs the question - what was the creepy pre-Code film? :)

10:44 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

LOL! It was SUPERNATURAL (1933) with Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott. I love both actors and would like to see all their films, but it was very, very dark, with a vivid depiction of evil.

It's interesting Scott made at least two ultra-creepy movies in 1933 -- my daughters have recommended that I skip watching MURDERS IN THE ZOO, even though it stars favorites Scott and Gail Patrick. (grin)

Thanks for visiting!

Best wishes,

10:50 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, I have seen that one! At some point when I was on a particular Lombard kick, plus I've heard people compare it to Hitchcock. I don't quite see the Hitchcock thing, but yeah, it's pretty creepy. It's surprising how creepy some of those early films can be. Murders in the Zoo, though, I haven't even heard of - definitely a good cast, though.

4:15 PM  

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