Trouble in Chuckawalla
It's 1947. Let's go to the movies. What's playing? It's Desert Fury . Who's in it? Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott. What's it about? Well . . .
After having been thrown out of her fifth finishing school, Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) has come home to the small desert town of Chuckawalla where her mother Fritzie (Mary Astor) runs the local gambling casino. Paula wants to go to work for her mother. Fritzie would prefer that Paula marry Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), the local deputy sherrif. Paula's attracted to Tom but isn't sure she's ready to settle down, especially as Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) has just come to town. A gambler/gangster from the big city, Bendix and his henchman Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey) are staying at a ranch outside of town. Years before, Bendix's wife had been killed in a mysterious auto accident on the Chuckawalla bridge, with suspicions of foul play. Paula is attracted to Eddie, and he to her, as she resembles his late wife. Fritzie is opposed to Paula's seeing Eddie, and so is a very possessive Johnny Ryan. Both (separately) plot to keep the pair apart. Eddie and Paula get together nevertheless and defiantly confront Fritzie. In a last-ditch attempt to stop them, Fritzie tells of her own past romance with Eddie. Paula leaves with Eddie nonetheless. On the way out of town the couple run into Johnny. At a roadside restaurant Johnny tells Paula the truth about Eddie—that he arranged his wife's death. Eddie shoots Johnny. Paula drives off with Eddie in pursuit. Tom joins the chase, which ends with
Eddie crashing his car into the Chuckawalla bridge—exactly where his wife died years before. Tom pronounces Eddie dead at the scene. Fritzie arrives and she and Paula make amends. She leaves, and Tom and Paula—also reconciled—walk off together into the setting sun. The end.
It goes without saying that the above summary provides only the most general overview of Desert Fury . It establishes a basis for further discussion, a point of possible entry. But it is only one point. Plot alone can't deal with the morass of images and sounds that calls itself Desert Fury . Consider, for example, the quasi-hypnotic effect created by the blindingly bright shade of blue sky behind Hodiak and Corey's heads as they stand by the bridge in the film's first scene where they enter town, or the dazed look on the face of an extra standing behind Scott in a scene in the casino. Then there's a visual frisson created by cutting between an actual outdoor locale and a studio set of the same place. Think of the picture window in Scott's bedroom—creating a picture-within-a-picture on a screen already chockablock with iconographical bric-a-brac. Then there's that framed black-and-white photo of Scott in Astor's office and the disturbing effect created when Scott stands astride it—which image is more "real"? All of these factors, naturally, come under the heading of "distractions" or "accidents"—they're not "meant" to be seen as narrative integers. But they're nonetheless there .
There too is Desert Fury 's advertising pitch. Itself a narrative, it runs parallel to whatever fragments of the film's actual story it chooses to disclose, playing on a series of alternate associations—roles played by the performers in the past, films Desert Fury hopes to recall as a possible point of appeal. And it is here that we find yet another Desert Fury : "A story that sweeps with sinister and growing menace thru sun-baked desert towns, luxurious ranches, colorful gambling houses to the greatest chase climax ever recorded by cameras."