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One of the final projects that Humphrey Bogart would complete before his untimely death was Edward Dmytryk's offbeat adventure drama The Left Hand of God (1955). For its day, the subject matter and themes addressed by the film were still relatively sensitive for Hollywood to broach, and the cast and crew managed to do so in a straightforward and memorable manner.
The screenplay (adapted by Alfred Hayes from the William E. Barrett novel) opens circa 1947 in the Chinese hinterlands, where an American priest (Bogart) answering to Peter John O'Shea has made the treacherous trek to a remote Catholic mission. It's there that he makes the acquaintance of Dr. Dave Sigman and their chief nurse, Anne Scott (Gene Tierney). The Sigmans apprise O'Shea that his responsibilities will be difficult, as the church's influence in the community has grown tenuous, and that the local populace lives in fear of the forces of regional warlord Mieh Yang (Lee J. Cobb).
The grim prospects don't daunt the newcomer priest, however, and he soon moves amongst the parishioners in Anne's company. The nurse is impressed with O'Shea's assured demeanor in relating with the Chinese faithful; however, her curiosity is piqued by his reluctance to perform standard sacramental duties. Further events transpire that make Anne certain that there is more to Father O'Shea than there seems - and that stir up feelings for the man that she knows are impossible to resolve.
On a pilgrimage to confer with Protestant missionary Thomas Marvin (Robert Burton), O'Shea confesses the truth of his situation. His real name is James Carmody, and he was a U.S. Army pilot shot down during WWII, rescued by Mieh Yang, and placed into forced servitude as the warlord's subordinate. When Yang's foot soldiers waylaid and killed the real O'Shea, Carmody found his long-sought chance for escape by stealing the dead man's vestments and identity. It all comes to unravel as Mieh Yang, tipped to the ruse, has his men attack the parish, and O'Shea/Carmody has to risk the safety of all on a desperate gambit.
Barrett's 1951 book had actually spent a few years being passed around by the studios, with William Faulkner having prepared a screen treatment at one juncture, and Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck variously attached for the role of Carmody. Fox ultimately paid $110,000 for the rights to the novel and Faulkner's screenplay draft; they also had to promise that "O'Shea" would not be depicted performing any sacraments in order to comply with the Production Code.
Dmytryk (whose wife, onetime MGM contract ingnue Jean Porter, can be seen as Carmody's common-law bride) could see that Bogart was already in physical decline, which he reminisced about in his memoir It's a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living. "His chain smoking was really getting him down. Before the start of a scene, he would slip into a paroxysm of coughing that would elicit concern from almost every member of the crew. At one time or another, nearly every one on the set begged him to cut down on his smoking, but Bogey would just shrug his shoulders and light another cigarette." The director also noted how gamely Bogart, who had recently suffered a slipped disc, approached his requisite sequences on horseback.
For the beautiful and emotionally fragile Tierney, The Left Hand of God would be her last lead appearance in a Hollywood film. As she recounted in her autobiography Self-Portrait, finishing the shoot proved a struggle, and it was not lost on Bogart. "He recognized the signs, went to the studio bosses and warned them I was sick and needed help...They suggested Bogart be kind and gentle. He was nothing less. His patience and understanding carried me through the film."
Producer: Buddy Adler
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes; William E. Barrett (novel "The Left Hand of God")
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (James 'Jim' Carmody), Gene Tierney (Anne 'Scotty' Scott), Lee J. Cobb (Mieh Yang), Agnes Moorehead (Beryl Sigman), E.G. Marshall (Dr. David Sigman), Jean Porter (Mary Yin), Carl Benton Reid (Father Cornelius - bishop's envoy), Victor Sen Yung (John Wong - church sexton), Philip Ahn (Jan Teng - Buddhist priest).
C-87m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg