sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-12-16 03:29 am
Entry tags:

He had the brains all right, your father

It struck me as I was beginning this post that Storm Fear (1955) is technically a Christmas movie—there's not much in the way of holiday spirit in it, but it takes place at the right season and briefly features a tree. Certainly it's not a film noir, although I first heard it described as one. Talking about it with [ profile] rushthatspeaks and other people, I've mostly gone with the labels "Northern Gothic" or "traumatizing Bildungsroman," although "fascinating and unexpected demolition of mid-century models of masculinity" also works. Cornel Wilde produces and stars in his triple-threat directing debut.1 I hope the title meant something to the original novel by Clinton Seeley, because it is completely irrelevant to the film.

Twelve-year-old Davey Blake (David Stollery) lives with his parents on a remote farmhouse somewhere in the Midwest, an ordinary, representative white American kid of the mid-1950's. It's winter, there are mountains, there are eight-foot snowdrifts everywhere. The family moved out to the middle of nowhere so that Davey's father could write his second novel in peace, but it's going badly: Fred (Dan Duryea, even farther from type than the last time I saw him) is distant, peevish, and poorly, emerging scarf-wrapped from his study only to snap at everyone and break up in coughing fits,2 and while his guilt about isolating his family for the dubious sake of his art is apparent from orbit, no one's going anywhere until the spring. Their only regular human contact comes in the form of Hank (Dennis Weaver), the earnest hired hand whose unrequited crush on Davey's mother, the lovely but frayed Elizabeth (Jean Wallace), is equally visible from space. He pays attention to Davey when no one else will, buys the kid a .22 for Christmas, promises to take him hunting like a '50's father-figure should. He is not the inciting event of the story, however much he might like to be. That's the arrival of fugitive robber Charlie (Wilde) with boozy, brittle moll Edna (Lee Grant) and trigger-happy hoodlum Benjie (Steven Hill, forty-five years in advance of Law & Order) in tow, looking to use the Blakes' farm as a safe house until the manhunt following a botched bank job blows over.

Charlie's no outlaw come by chance à la The Petrified Forest (1936), though. He's Fred's estranged younger brother, the prodigal presuming as always on the upright son's better nature, although by this point in his life Fred doesn't look like he has much of that left. Charlie has a bullet in his leg, Benjie has a chip on his shoulder, Edna has a mink coat that she shows off to Davey with flirtatious pride. Elizabeth has a tight, silent anger in the line of her mouth that opens as soon as she's alone with Charlie, prying the lead out of him as he twists and arches on the old spring-shot bed. Much sooner than this set-up suggests, the history of the two brothers and the woman who married one of them unravels under the tension of the snowed-in house, tightly kept secrets spilling over with confinement and jealousy and desire. Twelve years ago, Elizabeth was in love with Charlie: she fell pregnant by him, he refused to marry her, and Fred, the older, shyer brother who had always been sweet on her, made the noble gesture of offering his name, which just goes to show that "noble gesture" is frequently synonymous with "bad idea," because twelve years later the two of them are trapped in this fruitless parody of a nuclear family with a child who isn't getting the affection he needs from either of his parents. It's not that they don't love him, but he's the emblem of everything they cannot speak about. Now here's Charlie back again, the same forceful, volatile combination of vulnerability and danger that knocked Elizabeth for a loop when she was a girl, but she's grown now, a wife and mother, and she actually slaps him when he pulls her down on the bed, murmuring that it's the same between them as always—"when all I had to do was whistle." Fred doesn't see her fight his brother off; all he sees is the sexual current between them and his own humiliation when his efforts to assert himself as defender of his home are contemptuously smacked down by vicious little Benjie and his limping no-good of a brother needs to step in. His failures don't tell him anything he didn't know already, but it hurts all the same and he doesn't handle it well.3

To Davey, then, "Uncle Charlie" looks like everything his accustomed father isn't: good-looking, good-natured, physically powerful, emotionally approachable, confiding in him like a friend while protecting him as ferociously as a parent. We've seen this story before. The kid's father is a bitter, withdrawn failure, so he'll learn to be a man from the father-figure who's tough and thoughtful at once; the honest brother is no good to anyone, but the robber has his heart in the right place. Or it'll end up a variant on the home invasion mythos that Straw Dogs (1971) will so violently deconstruct in a generation, where the stereotypically weaker man gathers his courage, fights back, proves he's a real man after all; he can finally be a father to the son he's treated more like a cuckoo than a child all these years, someone strong for a boy to look up to. This is the Fifties, after all, the decade of Father Knows Best (1954–1960). What other options are there? This movie, it turns out. Charlie is an attractive and sympathetic character, sure, but he's also criminally irresponsible in the social as well as the legal sense; self-centered and impulsive, he can apologize until the cows come home for what he recognizes as very real misdeeds, but it won't alter his behavior one whit. When Fred finally takes a stand, it's a decision that destroys him, all the more stupidly because he must have known it would, but it was the macho thing to do. Benjie is an anti-role model, a barely grown punk with a short fuse and no filters—cruelly taunting, always spoiling for a fight. Even Hank, who looked like the one adult male in this story with his head screwed on straight, burdens Elizabeth with an unwanted confession of love and shoots someone he shouldn't. As a genre, the Bildungsroman takes the protagonist from childhood to maturity, generally meaning from boyhood to manhood, patriarchy being what it is. I have never before seen a story of this kind end with a boy crying out for his mother and being comforted by her and this act does not signal the failure of his coming of age, it's a completely reasonable turn for love and support, because his mother has problems of her own, but at least she hasn't given up on her life or murdered anyone.

I worry that I am making the movie sound neater than it is. It twists at its own pace, gives away information that another film would withhold until a more suitably dramatic moment and watches the characters tangle in the consequences; it's full of unfinished conversations. From one angle, the story is a fraternal tragedy. Growing up together, Fred and Charlie had a close relationship, born out of a troubled home. Charlie tells Davey, "Your father was always the smart guy. I always had to look out for him, though—I was the younger, but I was tougher. I never let anybody pick on Fred. He'd always sit around the house reading, learning something. I just about worshiped Fred when we were kids. Mama did, too." Fred's first impulse on seeing his wounded brother is to call a doctor, but after Benjie's beaten him in front of his son, he screams at his brother who brought this thug into their house, "You're nothing but a bum, Charlie! You'll end up in the gutter just like Papa—a thieving, murdering bum! You'll end up just like I told Mama you would!"4 Nothing is ever solved between them, no more than it is between either of them and Davey. I really appreciate, however, that the script takes the time to acknowledge that the tragedy belongs equally to Elizabeth, who married a man she never promised to love for the sake of the child she was having by the man she knew was no good for her and hoped it would all turn out for the best—and when it didn't, accepted her unhappiness like the penance that even a film made in a conservative year knows she doesn't deserve. And there's the effect on Davey, the real protagonist of the picture for all that it doesn't shift to his perspective until the final act, when the abrasive intimacy of the storm-bound farmhouse gives way to the chill, clear danger of the outdoors. Early in the film, he played with a rifle; now he has to use a gun for real. It's not manly, it's awful, and he should never have been placed in a position where it was necessary. The adult world has failed him. There isn't a father-figure left standing. The film's final scene restores temporary harmony, but it's hard not to feel it's a bandage rather than a healing.

I have seen very few movies which reminded me simultaneously of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948) and Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory (1960), but that's as accurate a summary of Storm Fear as any. I am guessing it gets classified as a noir because of its bleak, violent tone, but I'm not seeing it—with its claustrophobic setting, its flawed and darkly colorful characters, and its imploding family unit, it really feels like a northerly variant of the Southern Gothic to me. If the rest of Wilde's movies are this tight and complicated, I will probably enjoy his catalogue. If this is a one-off, it's a pretty good one. The script was Horton Foote's first screenplay; his next was To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Dan Duryea appears to have my permanent interest. I don't believe the term "toxic masculinity" existed in the '50's, but Cornel Wilde knew the thing when he put it onscreen. This assessment brought to you by my sensitive backers at Patreon.

1. He had previously produced The Big Combo (1955), a true noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis and starring Wilde himself alongside Richard Conte and Jean Wallace, then his wife and his co-star here as well. Music by David Raksin and I wish it were commercially available. Just listen to the title theme.

2. The traditional writer's complaint in these cases is TB, which in '55 feels like a melodramatic stretch. I have no disbelief when it comes to chronic poor health and nasty winter colds, however. [edit] See comments; it's probably TB.

3. The physical casting in this movie is great. Wilde is dark, compact, muscular, with the kind of blunt, immediate presence that used to get described as "animal vitality"; Duryea uses his height and his lankiness to his character's disadvantage, all awkward angles, a stick figure ready to snap. Fred is the writer; he can talk a mile a minute, cuttingly if he wants to. Charlie has a stammer. It worsens under strain, but it's apparent even in normal conversation; it gives an impression of vulnerability that his actions may or may not bear out. Fred is the fair-haired brother; Elizabeth is also blonde. Davey is as dark as his "uncle."

4. Around this point I realized that I read the brothers as Jewish based strictly on their speech patterns, including features like the use of Mama/Papa rather than Davey's middle-American Mommy/Daddy. Accused of selfishness, Charlie flares, "Who was I thinking about when I plunked down the payment for this farm so that Fred could have a nice healthy climate and write his books and become a bigshot genius and pay me back maybe? I suppose I was thinking about myself, huh?" It's a headcanon. Regardless of whatever Charlie's syntax may imply about his ethnicity, in any case, the fact that it's not the most convincing argument is characteristic.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2015-12-16 01:12 pm (UTC)(link)
Charlie has a bullet in his leg, Benjie has a chip on his shoulder, Edna has a mink coat that she shows off to Davey with flirtatious pride.

I love the way you write about these movies. It reminds me of James Agee.

(This is a big compliment. I have all his film criticism.)
heavenscalyx: (Default)

[personal profile] heavenscalyx 2015-12-16 04:02 pm (UTC)(link)
The traditional writer's complaint in these cases is TB, which in '55 feels like a melodramatic stretch. I have no disbelief when it comes to chronic poor health and nasty winter colds, however.

I have relatives who died of TB in the 1950s, living in small town Delaware/Maryland. Not all that unbelievable, actually.
heavenscalyx: (Default)

[personal profile] heavenscalyx 2015-12-16 08:11 pm (UTC)(link)
No worries -- I didn't know Aunt Caddie and Aunt Fannie, alas (my dad did), but I found their death certificates while I was doing genealogy research and the TB diagnoses made an impression on me. (I'm a disease and genetics geek.) Also, I suspect, people in the 50s still remembered the more extensive TB of the 20s and 30s, so it was still a useful shorthand while that sort of thing was in living memory.

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 09:56 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, how incredibly emotionally complicated, and yes, I can see how a happy ending isn't going to come out of that mix. I'm glad it does a more complicated storytelling than the two stereotypical possibilities you first described. Ahhh, but my heart hurts for all the principals.

Appropriate song, too.

[identity profile] 2015-12-22 11:38 am (UTC)(link)
... not just what she thinks would be best for her son or what she believes she deserves.

So tragic that that second represents self punishment rather than affirmation. She needs some water and sunlight given to her sense of self worth.

The credit goes to iTunes.

Let's hear it for happy coincidences! Here's some new music you might like: "The Soft Parts" That one seems maybe made for you? I love it too, though. And here's one I also like: "The Lawn and the Sky". Discovery credit to [ profile] yamamanama, who has completely other favorites.

BTW I've been listening a whole lot to "Walter Reed."