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Storm Fear

Storm Fear(1956)

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Still one of the most rudely unsung directorial voices in Hollywoodhistory, Cornel Wilde began producing and then directing his own moviesin the mid-'50s, as he saw the decline of choices loom in hisleading-man career. The big picture is that on the strength of threefast, vicious, pulp-amok films, all of them struggles for survival -The Naked Prey (1965), Beach Red (1967) and No Blade ofGrass (1970) - Wilde fashioned crude, startling visual argot asabrupt, savage, churlish and, finally, infantile as any the movies haveever seen. Watching the films, you may certainly get the sense, ascritic David Thomson memorably suggests, of "watching the first filmsever made," but what's more, you may sense that an untamed id is beingstoked, and you can get a reawakened sense of how deep in our reptilebrains the fears, hatreds and needs of being alive still lurk unappeasedby the narcotics of technology, fame, ritual and entertainment. For thislater chunk of his career, Wilde's breakneck brand of genre moviemakinghad the cruel simplicity of folk art, and the achievement can stillleave friction burns on your eyeballs, and exclamation points explodingin your head.

Where this sensibility came from can be a vexing question, if youstart with his rather bland acting career, in which he is bestremembered as being noir-persecuted, and overshadowed, by strong andsecretive women - Gene Tierney in Leaver Her to Heaven (1945),Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947), Ida Lupino in RoadHouse (1948). There were scads of grade-B swashbucklers, and onlyhis reliance on brawn and anxiety gave any indication of his futurefilmmaking M.O. As an actor, his personality couldn't find a foothold.But if you look at the first film he directed - Storm Fear (1955)- you can see the real Wilde emerge, as if from a strait-jacket. Apalm-sized, claustrophobic noir scripted by Horton Foote (his firstscreenplay), the movie is stagey but madly intense, as though three orfour people trapped in a room together is the de facto equivalent of abarrel of gasoline and a thrown cigarette. The set-up is peeled for uslike an onion, and it's not simple: in a remote cabin in theAdirondacks, an uneasy and destitute family dynamic idles, betweenanxious Mom (Jean Wallace, aka Mrs. Wilde), watchful 12-year-old son David(David Stollery) and sick and depressed Dad (Dan Duryea), whose writingcareer is at a dead end. In through the door without announcement comesa familiar noir ingredient: the small band of outlaws on the run (agunshot Wilde, Lee Grant's weathered but empathic moll, and Steven Hillas the sociopathic muscle with no taste for the wilderness), looking tohole up after a robbery in the city, and possibly take the quaintdomestic unit as hostage if need be.

Only slowly do we realize that Wilde's gangster is in fact theDad's bad-seed younger brother, and that the boy is actually his - andeveryone knows it except David, whose dawning awareness parallels ourdiscovery of the lingering, sexually impulsive, bitter romantic bondbetween Wallace's Mom and Wilde's hood. (As she grows angrier with hisendless pattern of irresponsible neglect and criminal instinct, he growsguiltier about the boy's situation, and therefore more sympathetic.) Ofcourse the situation in that tiny cabin begins to boil over, as the kidlooks to subvert the interlopers, the despairing Dad becomes instantlyconvinced that his brother and his wife are planning to run off togetheragain, Hill's hair-trigger gangster (who's already left one body behindhim) begins to get violent, and with the law presumably approaching, thebank robbers decide to force the boy to guide them on foot over themountains. The journey takes up the third act, on snowshoes, shiftingthe moral weight of action away from all of the adults and onto David,who realizes he alone must put an end to the story.

Pile onto all of that, in 88 minutes, the directorial climate Wildebrings to the situation - everything percolates in the key of Goddamn,with everyone ready to ignite at any second. The relationship betweenWilde's bad boy, crippled from a bullet and trying for the moment tokeep everybody satisfied, and Wallace's furiously heartbroken Mom beginsat a sweaty, stricken pitch and then rather graphically moves towardmoments of stunning sexual stress. In fact, we're pelted with concernsabout Wallace's sexual availability - a bizarre narrative element tojump out at you from a '50s noir, and especially in regards to Wallace,who's no vamp but instead a warm and self-sacrificial hausfrau. DennisWeaver, as a kind and courtly ranch hand, shows up drunk, and aseverybody else hides and listens, confesses to his ardor for Mom, andmakes a plea to take her David away. Wilde cuts back to the secreteavesdroppers, guns at the ready, and we're in Wallace's shoes as shetries to fend off the only completely decent adult in sight, in order tosave everyone's lives.

Storm Fear is distinctively thick with anxiety; thecharacters in aggregate suffer more humiliations and guilty freight thanin any other noir one could think of. Wilde's budgets were never large,and he never cared for the professional polish that might've made acheap movie feel slick, and his debut in particular is glaringlyinexpensive, with studio pickup inserts standing out obviously from themix. But those are formal details, which in the case of noir is nevermuch of a pertinent matter. In the case of Wilde, it can be seen as partof his directorial signature - a willful disregard for fluidprofessionalism that translates into a love for raw, cut-to-the-boneemotional tension. Index him against Samuel Fuller, Phil Karlson and DonSiegel (not to mention contemporaneous Japanese New Wavers like SeijunSuzuki and Kinji Fukusaku), and he shines as a hyperbolist auteur ofstruggle and human damage.

By Michael Atkinson

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