MADONNA OF THE DESERT. Republic Pictures, 1948. Lynne Roberts, Donald Barry, Don Castle, Sheldon Leonard, Paul Hurst, Roy Barcroft. Screenplay: Albert Demond. Story: Frank Wisbar. Directed by George Blair. Currently available on YouTube.

   This low budget film about crime and faith and retribution is almost the stuff of a good movie. Anyway it would be a good movie with just a touch here and there and a better director, cast, and budget.

   Nick Julian (Sheldon Leonard) is a slick dealer in dubious art who cheats and if necessary, steals the art he needs. He’s recently discovered that Joe Salinas (Don Castle) a New Mexico rancher owns a fabulous Madonna statue believed to be a product of the Renaissance brought here by his Conquistador ancestors.

   Nick wants the statue and will get it anyway he can, and after a trip to New Mexico ends in a failure to buy the statue cheap he decides to steal it, but not by main force. Instead he has his forger make an expensive copy and will have tough but slick Monica Dale (Lynne Roberts) work her way into the arms of veteran Salinas and switch the statues.

   If you think you know where this is going, you have obviously seen this plot unreel a few hundred times in books, films, and television episodes.

   Monica arrives and goes to work, while Nick and his hired thug Buck (Roy Barcroft) wait nearby in a cabin. When she tries to make the switch at a wedding where Joe has loaned the statue out, the altar bursts into flame and Monica’s dress catches fire. But the Madonna does not burn and miraculously Monica is not burned.

   About this time, Tony French (Donald Barry) shows up, a bitter con just out of prison who has found out about Nick’s plans. His appearance complicates things for Monica who is suffering doubts and a major change of heart and falling for Joe despite his foreman Pete (Paul Hurst) being suspicious.

   You can figure out from here than Nick and Tony will cancel each other out, and there will be a happy ending after a little gunplay. Joe even turns out to be less of a sap than you think.

   This is just barely a medium time passer so long as you aren’t actually paying to see it. Leonard and Barry could do this in their sleep, and don’t, but it’s a near thing. Roberts isn’t quite up to the lead here, or is betrayed by the direction and having no one better than Don Castle to play off of in her best scenes. In any case she falls flat both as a bad girl and a reformed bad girl, and has little to work with anyway.

   Castle is a nice looking guy, but he delivers his lines like he was in a high school play. That’s enough to kill the big emotional scenes where he talks about the Madonna saving him after he was crippled and in a wheelchair when he came back from the war. I’ve heard car insurance pitches delivered with more emotional impact. Roberts tries hard but must have been fighting a yawn the whole time.

   This kind of story requires more than just a flat presentation. Add some moody photography, a couple of leads with a modicum of charisma, and a push here and there to the corn, and it would work. This one is too cheap to even manage an inspirational musical score. There’s not even a closeup of the Madonna using effective lighting, just as well as it looks like a plastic replica from a Vatican souvenir shop.

   I’ve seen episodes of half hour syndicated television series from the Fifties filmed more imaginatively.

   It’s almost a good enough plot to work, almost a decent little movie. Unfortunately pros like Leonard, Barry, and Hurst can’t save it from Castle’s bland hero or Roberts miscast bad girl, and even a charismatic pair of leads would have trouble with this direction and unimaginative production.

   I will give it this, though. Barry puts some real energy into his scenes, and if the movie had concentrated on his character it might have been a solid little B crime drama. It doesn’t, and it isn’t, and nothing relieves the flat-footed production.