Sunday, July 21, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Thunder Bay (1953) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

James Stewart stars in director Anthony Mann's THUNDER BAY (1953), released on Blu-ray this month by Kino Lorber.

I first saw THUNDER BAY in 2007 and wasn't particularly impressed, but when I went back to it in 2014 I was much more enthused. Revisiting it then in the context of having seen many additional Mann/Stewart films, as well as becoming more familiar with the work of Dan Duryea, found me feeling quite differently about the film.

Now, five years beyond that, I really love it. The movie does have some plot deficiencies, but there's so much that I like about it I'm willing to let those issues go.

In some ways, I feel like THUNDER BAY is the DONOVAN'S REEF (1963) of the Mann/Stewart films. To be sure, THUNDER BAY has more substance than John Ford and John Wayne's DONOVAN'S REEF, but in the end what feels similar to me about the films is the raucous, good-natured atmosphere and that I simply like "hanging out" with the cast at their remote "island" locations, if you want to think of an oil rig as a man-made island! I find THUNDER BAY a very enjoyable 103 minutes.

Stewart plays Steve, who in 1946 dreams of hitting oil off the shores of Louisiana. He and his partner Gambi (Duryea) run up against some local opposition from fishermen but with funding from Kermit MacDonald (Jay C. Flippen), the project is a go, and the only question is whether they'll hit oil before the money runs out.

Steve falls in love with a fisherman's daughter named Stella (Joanne Dru), which continues to be the most poorly developed aspect of the film. Dru is lovely, though, and by this point I know the movie falls short in this area and just let it go. Individually Stewart and Dru are good as always, the script just doesn't give them much to work with as far as their romance.

As I noted last time I saw the film, seeing this movie in the context of the Mann Westerns was something of a revelation, as I realized that Stewart's occasionally wild-eyed oilman was a variation on his intense Western characters. Stewart's Steve can be more than a little scary when crossed!

In contrast to the Stewart-Dru romance, the relationship which develops between Gambi and Stella's younger sister Francesca (Marcia Henderson) is charming. It's refreshing to see Duryea play a genuine good guy instead of a villain, whose sincere love for Francesca has him thinking of wedding bells -- and loving it.

Having seen Gilbert Roland yesterday in OUR BETTERS (1933), it was fun to jump ahead two decades and see him in this. I especially enjoy the older, more rugged Roland in films such as this one.

Flippen is particularly outstanding as the one-time wildcatter who backs Stewart and Duryea. Harry Morgan, who like Flippen was a regular in the Mann-Stewart films, is also in this one. The cast also includes Antonio Moreno, Fortunio Bonanova, Robert Monet, and Mario Siletti.

In addition to the previously mentioned DONOVAN'S REEF, THUNDER BAY also makes me think, curiously enough, of Howard Hawks' THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951). I think it's the aspect of a team of men working on a tough project in a remote, difficult environment. Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch, but I enjoy how various past film experiences criss-cross my brain when I watch movies, and I suspect that's familiar to many of my readers as well.

THUNDER BAY was shot by in Technicolor by William H. Daniels, with location filming in Louisiana.

It should be noted that like some other films of its era, THUNDER BAY was shot in 1.37 "Academy ratio," then masked for "widescreen" theatrical screening in 1.85. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is framed in widescreen as it was exhibited upon its initial release.

Every time I've seen this film the format has improved; my first viewing a dozen years ago was VHS, then five years ago I saw a much better DVD print. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray is the best of them all, a lovely, crisp print I really enjoyed watching.

Extras include the trailer, a gallery of five addition trailers of James Stewart films available from Kino Lorber, and a strong commentary track by Toby Roan. In addition to going into the backgrounds and credits of just about every face on the screen, Toby provides information on everything from the history of offshore oil drilling as well as the earliest depiction of offshore drilling on film; the industry transition to widescreen film; the movie's stuntmen; and censorship (the censors thought Joanne Dru's jeans were too tight!).

Full disclosure, as I've periodically reminded viewers, Toby is a longtime good friend of this blog, but I am always excited to see his name listed in disc extras as I know I can expect a high-quality job.

THUNDER BAY is a recommended release.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger ross said...

I originally taped Thunder Bay on VHS (on AMC?) and I liked the way it was framed (full screen). Then I got the DVD as part of Universal's James Stewart collection and I was disappointed in the way it was cropped for wide screen. For example, when Stewart demonstrated the model oil well to Flippen, it was a nice scene because of the way the model worked and it was all there at the bottom of the screen. However in the cropped version the model almost disappeared and the action happened under the bottom screen line.
There was also a nice scene (in the full-screen version) of the boat going out of the bay and there was a lighthouse or a lighthouse-type building in the shot. I thought it was a beautiful shot, but in the cropped-for-widescreen version, the top of the building was cut off and the shot lost its beauty.
I'm curious if the new widescreen version does anything to improve these problems.

8:49 PM  

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