Friday, December 11, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Hellfire (1949)

Note: This review of HELLFIRE (1949) is my contribution to the Marie Windsor Blogathon being hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s.  The blogathon began today, on Windsor's December 11th birthday, and runs through the 14th.  Be sure to click on the blogathon link to visit Toby's site for more Marie Windsor goodness!

In an interview with Mike Fitzgerald at the Western Clippings site, Marie Windsor named her three all-time favorite roles: THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), THE KILLING (1956), and the Republic Pictures Western HELLFIRE (1949).

Marie said of HELLFIRE, "I loved it.  I was so thrilled to get that well-written part."  She beat out Karin Booth, who was under contract at Republic and wanted the role, and sent Booth a dozen roses by way of apology.

Having watched HELLFIRE, it's easy to see why Windsor was so enthused.  As she notes in the interview, she was essentially playing a male bandit, at least in the first half of the film; the part, which was both physically and emotionally demanding, gave her the opportunity to show a wide range of looks and emotions.

This week I described the film to someone as "kinda nuts, but in a good way," and what I mean by that is apparent as the film begins and a stentorian voice booms "Man, with his misdeeds, kindles his own hellfire!"  This dramatic opening is accompanied by a brief sequence depicting the evil that some men do, framed in a fiery border.

One of those bad men is Zeb Smith, played by cowboy star "Wild Bill" Elliott, here billed as William.  As the movie begins Zeb is caught cheating at cards, but his life is saved by a preacher, Brother Joseph (H.B. Warner), who takes a bullet meant for Zeb.  

Brother Joseph had been raising funds to build a church, and Zeb promises him that he'll complete that mission -- and do it "by the book," the Bible.  

The converted Zeb eventually connects with Doll Brown (Windsor), a woman dressed in man's clothes who has just gunned down her abusive ex, Lew Stoner (Harry Woods).  Both the law, in the form of Marshal Bucky McLean (Forrest Tucker),  and Stoner's brothers (Jim Davis, Paul Fix, and Louis Faust) want Doll to pay for killing Stoner.  

Zeb hits on the idea of turning Doll in for the reward money in order to build the church, but after a series of adventures with Doll and coming to understand her background, he begins to fall for her.  

Doll, whose real name is Mary Carson, is likewise attracted to Zeb, but she's a woman with an unstoppable mission: Finding her younger sister Jane, from whom was separated as a child.  She even attempts to seduce Marshal McLean when she learns he may be the key to learning her sister's whereabouts.  She has no idea just what a bad idea that is...

Everything converges at the film's climax: Doll's quest for Jane, everyone else's hunt for Doll, and the impact of Zeb's Christian witness and influence on Doll.

This was an extremely interesting film for a host of reasons, starting with the fact that it's a film with a strong religious theme, yet it's a very violent, edgy movie which includes scenes of torture and point-blank shootings.  It reminded me a bit of how Cecil B. DeMille's religious epics were simultaneously filled with Christian theology and half-dressed dancing girls and torture.  The presence of Warner, whose final film was DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), only heightens that sense of connection.

In this case I was frankly not expecting a Republic Pictures Western to be so dark; I was particularly surprised that just when the movie seemed to be lightening up, with romance developing around the halfway point, it does a 180 and gets even darker.  But just as with the DeMille films, those moments certainly provide a contrast with the scenes of religious faith.

Another fascinating aspect, which perhaps deserves a mild spoiler alert, is that Jane essentially serves as the film's "MacGuffin," to use Hitchcock's term.  In the script by Dorrell and Stuart McGowan, Jane is the impetus for all the action, motivating not only Doll/Mary but Bucky...yet we never see her.  I was a bit surprised to come to that realization at the end of the film's 90 minutes.

I was also surprised, and moved, by the film's ambiguous ending.  We see that Doll has finally embraced Zeb's faith...but the future is, shall we say, unclear as the movie fades out.  The unsettling uncertainty is offset by the beautiful Bible reading in the film's closing seconds.

Next on the list of unique angles is the movie's unusual Trucolor look, casting the film in blues and browns.  The Trucolor style, as filmed by Jack Marta, is very effective here, giving the film an otherworldly look which is a good match for the tale it tells.

The most notable thing of all about the film is Windsor's fierce performance as Doll.  When we first meet her she's dressed in men's clothes, gunning a man down in the street.  She's a tough, violent woman who should never be underestimated.  Windsor, incidentally, said in the Fitzgerald interview that she did most of her own stunts, including leaping onto horses.

Partway through the film Doll switches tactics -- and clothes, changing from pants and cowboy hat to dresses and "saloon gal" clothes.  It's quite a transformation, almost giving Windsor the chance to play another character as Doll shows her seductive side, but underneath it all she never loses the toughness that pushes her on toward her ultimate goal, which has basically been her reason for existing: Finding Jane.

As for Elliott, Gene Blottner's book WILD BILL ELLIOTT: A COMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY quotes Elliott as telling director R.G. Springsteen "It's the best picture I've ever done."  Elliott's typically stoic demeanor is right on target for the part, as his character endures both physical and emotional pain yet remains steadfast in following the "rulebook" -- though he'll certainly use his gun or fists when necessary.  The Blottner book, incidentally, also credits Elliott for insisting that Windsor be his leading lady.

Tucker is likewise strong as a man on a mission, and there are a host of familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Grant Withers, Emory Parnell, Jody Gilbert, Esther Howard, Denver Pyle, Trevor Bardette, Olin Howland, Hank Worden, Fred Kohler Jr., and Chuck Roberson.

The unexpected violence, almost spooky-looking Trucolor, and cross-dressing heroine were among the reasons I lightheartedly described the film as "kinda nuts," but it was "in a good way" due to the strength of the performances and the unexpected and bold storytelling.  It's quite a memorable film.

I saw this film a few days ago and I haven't been able to get it out of my head all week, especially Windsor's performance in the final scene.  It's that kind of movie.  It demands additional viewing...and hopefully someday a Blu-ray release.


Blogger Vienna said...

Great review, Laura! Must watch it again. Lovely to see a Marie Windsor blogathon.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous Toby Roan said...

Laura, thanks for riding along with the blogathon. I sure appreciate it.

I loved your take on one of my all-time favorite movies. You're so right that it's a movie that doesn't crawl out of your head very easily. I first saw it when I was about 6, and I still can't stop thinking about it.

Of all the chapters in my gonna-be-done-someday book 50 Westerns From The 50s, this has been the hardest to write. Some of your insights will help me sort out my own thoughts, I'm sure.

9:00 AM  
Blogger john k said...

Enjoyed your review very much Laura.
There is a high def restoration available and there's no reason why some company could not release it but sadly Kino Lorber's deal with Paramount/Republic has now ended.
Kino's Blu Ray of SINGING GUNS was wonderful and I'd love to see HELLFIRE given the same treatment-hopefully your review might get the ball rolling.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Vienna! Like you, I'm so happy Toby is celebrating this wonderful actress with this blogathon.

Toby, thank you for hosting the blogathon, it's an hoor to participate! I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on this most interesting film.

John, thank you! Kino has done such a lovely job with a few Westerns like SINGING GUNS, I sure wish it were possible for them, or at least another company, to put out this film on Blu-ray.

Best wishes,

9:24 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I've been trying to track this movie down forever because I heard so many good things about it. Can't find it. Drives me nuts.

About half-naked dancing girls, various other shenanigans and religious themes, DeMille really knew how to exploit that angle. He knew he could cram his movies full of all kinds of "depravities" as long as he could sell it all as a morality play and purportedly wag a finger at it. Really quite smart of the man. :)

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Jay Welch said...

I know you can buy or rent it from iTunes/Apple TV and I believe it's available to stream on Amazon as well.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

A well thought-through and charming review of a terrific Bill Elliott western, Laura.
And Marie Windsor is, as so often with her work, entirely central to the film's success.

I didn't get my act together to take part in this blogathon but I'm reading and really enjoying everyone's different choices. I had intended to write on her starring 'noir', "NO MAN'S WOMAN" (1955), which gives her a chance to give a strong and nuanced performance as the femme fatale.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Excellent review. Marie Windsor is always memorable but perhaps Doll is the performance that truly becomes ingrained in the viewer.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Jay, thanks so much for the tip. We just started an Amazon Prime trial membership!

4:05 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

So, I watched it and agree. I great little offbeat Western with a wonderful cast of actors who all should have gone on to become bigger stars.

As for movies with outright religious themes that are central to the plot - not counting DeMille's epics - I can only think of the quasi-Noir Red Light. I'd say a religious emphasis is even more rare in Noir than it is in Westerns.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Margot! Delighted you were able to watch it and that you enjoyed it.

Great mention of RED LIGHT, that was quite an interesting little movie. Been several years since I saw it. Have to mull over whether any other Westerns or film noir titles have similar themes. As you say, it's rare.

Best wishes,

11:34 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Just thought of another "religious" Western, Pillars of the Sky.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It's funny, someone else mentioned that to me in an email just a couple hours ago! PILLARS OF THE SKY will be coming out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and is expected to have a commentary track by Toby Roan. Thanks for mentioning it there! I've not yet seen it and look forward to checking it out.

Best wishes,

12:41 PM  

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