DESERT FURY. Paramount Pictures, 1947. Lizbeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey (debut), Mary Astor, James Flavin. Screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on the novel Desert Town by Ramona Stewart (Morrow, 1946), previously serialized as “Bitter Harvest” in Collier’s from November 24 to December 8, 1945. Director: Lewis Allen. Available on DVD.

   Paula (Lizbeth Scott) is the spoiled daughter (she’s supposed to be nineteen but seems much older) of controlling casino (The Purple Sage) owner Fritzi (Mary Astor) who tries to run her the way she does the little desert town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. She’s just run away from another boarding school tired of being looked down on because of what her Mother does, yet defiant enough to want to be part of the business.

Deputy Tom Hansen (Burt Lancaster walking into Fritiz’s office): The wages of sin.

Fritzi (counting money): Are very high.

   Complicating things are the arrival of handsome gambler Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) whose wife died in a mysterious accident years earlier and his dangerous too devoted stooge Johnny (Wendell Corey in his film debut), and washed up rodeo star turned local deputy Tom Hansen (Burt Lancaster) who is attracted to Paula too and still suspicious of the way Bendix wife died.

   When Fritzi’s meddling and Tom’s suspicions drives Paula into Eddie’s arms complications ensue.

   You couldn’t have much better Film Noir bona fides than this cast, screenwriter Robert Rossen, or director Lewis Allen, and the film is handsomely shot on location and set in color. But despite that, despite the mystery and the broken characters, Desert Fury is more soap opera than Film Noir, Gothic fiction in rancheros and with cactus instead of brooding castles on crumbling cliffs, but Gothic romance for all that.

   The film is attractive, and entertaining, but it never quite evolves into the promise of genuine noir. Maybe it’s because Hodiak’s Bendix is so obviously a bad ’un (no Maxim de Winter he, “He’s no good … you think I brought you up for the likes of Eddie Bendix … I’d rather see you dead first.”) and Lancaster’s Tom so obviously the wounded hero of a thousand Gothic novels from Jane Eyre to Rebecca.

   Corey’s Johnny, with his sinister slightly perverse devotion to Eddie and his threat of violence to anyone who might cross Eddie or come between them, is the most noirish element in the film, and Corey, self assured in his debut, cannily underplays it avoiding any temptation to compete with Van Heflin’s Oscar winning debut in the similar role opposite Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager. The undercurrents here are just that, undercurrents.

Johnny: People think they’ve been seeing Eddie, and they’ve really been seeing me. I’m Eddie Bendix.

   If a single character was enough to make a film noir, Corey’s Johnny would qualify.

   When Eddie chooses Paula over Johnny it brings things to a head and we learn the real secret of Eddie’s wife’s accident and what Eddie has been hiding.

Paula: I hope you never get finished with me.

Eddie: Why?

Paula: I’d hate to be left on a desert road at night with my luggage.

Eddie: Keep it in mind.

   Gorgeously shot in Technicolor and well written with a lush Miklos Rosza score, Desert Fury is an entertaining Gothic, but it isn’t the Film Noir it wants to be. Its dark secrets are those of romantic fiction and not Noir, its perversions those of soap opera and not existential angst. The big revelation that Eddie and Paula’s mother were once an item is still more soap than noir.

   Even the tough guy stuff between Hodiak and Lancaster is half-hearted at best.

   As Paula starts to find out who Eddie is and the truth pours out of Johnny when Eddie abandons him the tension rises (“.. he’s never been able to take the rap.”). It builds to a suspenseful finale, and if taken as the Gothic fiction decked out as Film Noir it is the film does not disappoint, but it really isn’t quite Noir however much it tries to wear the look and feel.

Paula: There was no Eddie Bendix. Everything that people thought was Eddie Bendix was Johnny.

   You could almost say the same of Desert Fury. It really isn’t Film Noir. Everything you think is Film Noir isn’t, but accept it for what it is, and it more than does the job.