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In Vincent Sherman's postwar crime drama Backfire (1948), one World War II veteran on the mend says to another "We're out of the jungle now." Warehoused by Warner Brothers for two years, the film lost a bit of its topicality when given a belated premiere in January 1950 but the tale of shattered GIs struggling to reenter society still had considerable relevance. Most of Backfire's running time is bracketed by scenes set on Christmas Eve 1948. In the first, crippled infantryman Bob Corey (radio singer Gordon MacRae, recipient of a freshly inked Warners contract) looks forward to walking out of the Birmingham Veteran's Hospital after having undergone more than a dozen operations to reconstruct his spine; in the second scene, told in flashback, one of Corey's former dogface buddies confesses to strangling his lover in a fit of jealous pique ("And all the time I kept hearing those Christmas carols"). Director Sherman lets the scene play out over a recording of the Yuletide standard "Deck the Halls," whose rallying cry for merriment and joy is presented in counterpoint to a plot that turns on disappointment, bitterness and unrequited love.
"I know it's not a great story," studio head Jack Warner told Sherman, "but I've got six actors sitting around doing nothing but picking up their checks - I have to put them to work." Fresh from helming the opulent Errol Flynn vehicle Adventures of Don Juan (1948), Sherman was eager to try his hand at something smaller and more personal. His property of choice was The Hasty Heart, John Patrick's Broadway play about the friendship between wounded soldiers in a Burma field hospital. Warner balked at producing another war film and foisted on Sherman an original story he had bought, Somewhere in the City by Larry Marcus. The tale had limited appeal for Sherman, who found it "confused and pointless." Working with screenwriters Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff to straighten out the scenario's essential convolutions did little to alter Sherman's opinion of the material but he was persuaded to reconsider when promised The Hasty Heart as a signing incentive.
The other five actors that Warner had bemoaned having to pay for not working were Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Mayo, Dane Clark, Viveca Lindfors and Richard Rober. By the time Backfire was rolled out, O'Brien and Mayo were riding high on the success of Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949), in which they played the federal antagonist and untrustworthy moll of psychotic gangster James Cagney. To promote Backfire, the Warners publicity team cooked up the tagline "The White Heat girl turns it on again!" but the blonde actress is strictly peripheral here, given little to do until the third act, and plays not a femme fatale but a pure-hearted VA nurse. Broken up as a series of interlacing recollections and deathbed confessions, the film toggles uneasily between MacRae's story in the present and O'Brien's backstory as the goon of a shadowy underworld figure whose Austrian chanteuse girlfriend (Lindfors) makes a play for him, inviting doom upon their heads.
It is no surprise that Backfire was a box office nonstarter, offering too little, too late in the wake of George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947), both of which offered returning veteran protagonists and antagonists and more incendiary conflicts. In The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther dismissed the film as "without style or suspense... listless" but it is better than its reputation. Sherman and cinematographer Carl Guthrie contribute a number of impressive compositions, including Lindfors' shadowy introduction (and exit) and an onscreen murder that is staged to echo the highly publicized 1947 rubout of mobster Bugsy Siegel in 1947. Popping up in character bits are Ed Begley (as an LAPD captain with an incongruous Mexican surname), Charles Lane (as a kindly VA surgeon) and John Dehner (as a deadpan detective). Seen in her film debut as doomed showgirl Bonnie Willis is Shela Stephens, then the wife of star Gordon MacRae.
Producer: Anthony Veiller
Director: Vincent Sherman
Screenplay: Larry Marcus (story and screenplay); Ben Roberts, Ivan Goff (screenplay)
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Film Editing: Thomas Reilly
Cast: Viveca Lindfors (Lysa Radoff), Dane Clark (Ben Arno), Virginia Mayo (Nurse Julie Benson), Edmond O'Brien (Steve Connolly), Gordon MacRae (Bob Corey), Ed Begley (Police Captain Garcia), Frances Robinson (Mrs. Blayne), Richard Rober (Solly Blayne), Shela Stephens (Bonnie Willis), David Hoffman (Burns).
by Richard Harland Smith
Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director by Vincent Sherman (The University Press of Kentucky, 1996)
American Film Institute database, www.afi.com