A Film of No Importance
In the end it all comes down to Desert Fury. Desert Fury ? You haven't heard of it? Of course you haven't. Why should you? A 1947 Paramount release starring Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster, this turgid melodrama about a gambling casino owner's daughter infatuated with an underworld gambler suspected of murder figures in no known pantheon or cult. Its director, Lewis Allen, is devoid of auteur status. Its performances are, by and large, not of award-winning stature. Its composer, Miklos Rozsa, has surely written more interesting musical scores.
Shot in color largely on studio sets representing outdoor locales (there was some actual location shooting as well), Desert Fury 's not-quite-noir plot makes it the odd-film-out among the equally florid programmers produced during the same period (I Walk Alone, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The File on Thelma Jordan ). You aren't likely to find Desert Fury listed on a revival or repertory house schedule. It isn't available on home video. At best you might be able to catch it in some 3 a.m. slot on local television, or unspooled some afternoon when rain cancels a baseball game. And why not? It's "just a movie"—produced, consumed, forgotten. Not good. Not bad. Mediocre. In fact, one might even go so far as to call it quintessentially mediocre.
Of course to invoke notions of mediocrity is to evoke the specter of critical qualitativeness so dreaded by theoretical cadres, committed as they are to the promulgation of the notion of "value-free" analyses. Still, it wouldn't be going out on much of a limb to state that the diegesis of Desert Fury lacks the textual complexity found in such pantheon favorites as Young Mr. Lincoln, The Pirate, Touch of Evil, North by Northwest , or that most persistently picked of theoretical plums, Letter From an Unknown Woman .
The production of Desert Fury plainly involved choices of camera placement, focal length, lighting, sound mixing, musical scoring, and the like, perfectly commensurate with studio practices of the late forties at their most routine. The script by Robert Rossen, adapted from a Saturday Evening Post serial by Ramona Stewart, is workmanlike but formally quite undistinguished, holding as it does to a simple linear dramatic progression, unities of Time, Place, and Action, and such time-honored melodramatic conventions as "Fate" and "Ironic Coincidence" in the pulling together of otherwise unlinked aspects of plot and characterization. You've seen its like before, and all things being equal you'll doubtless see it again.
And yet something lingers over Desert Fury —hangs on, suspended in the studio indoor/outdoor air. For this writer (critic? journalist? theorist? historian? film buff?—the terms begin to slip, as well they might as the text begins to pull astride specified object of desire) cannot quite be done with Desert Fury . The heavy-lidded, smokey-voiced ambiance of Lizabeth Scott certainly plays a part in this—particularly in those scenes where she's set against the gleamingly dentalized muscularity of the young Burt Lancaster. A certain Pop Art palimpsest common to late forties product observed in retrospect is part of this picture as well—especially as Desert Fury 's color gives actors, backgrounds, and objects the polished sheen so prized by Richard Hamilton. Mary Astor's performance as Scott's mother is also there to be enjoyed, albeit in a much more straightforward way—the one element of Desert Fury whose quality is not in question. And last but not least there's the novelty of the character played by Wendell Corey—a homosexual psychopath given to dryly cynical asides and sudden violent rages. But then, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Make no mistake, there's no avoiding the fact that critical congress with Desert Fury risks trafficking with nostalgic indulgence at its most absolute. Yet this is precisely why a Desert Fury is of such intense interest. Standing clear of the swamp of mass-media affection that forever grounds the likes of Casablanca, Gone With the Wind , and Citizen Kane, Desert Fury can be dissected with cool remove. It speaks to cinematic desires barely formed and only half-uttered—that vague itch for "a movie" answered by a compendium of images and sounds that never reach a level that could be called "memorable" yet somehow manage to "divert."
For any theorist worth his or her salt, the next step would be, of course, to scramble for a proper analytical position. All you have to do is scout a specified ground for study, then nail Desert Fury down with an appropriate abstract. Surely there's a grande syntagmatique to scrutinize here. Or perhaps a simple two-shot or two containing some quirk of psychoanalytic import. Feminist interest goes without saying. How does the figure of Lizabeth Scott "speak castration"? Let me count the ways . . .
But the simple, brutal fact of the matter is that all these techniques are very much beside the point.