Terrific little nail-biter from cult director Joseph H. Lewis. Warner Bros.' indispensable M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service of hard-to-find library and cult titles, the Archive Collection, has released Desperate Search, the 1952 action/adventure "B" programmer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring Howard Keel, Jane Greer, Patricia Medina, Keenan Wynn, and child actors Lee Aaker and Linda Lowell. Deliberately shot on a shoestring budget, Desperate Search tells its suspense-filled story in the tightest-possible terms, generating a gripping, unbearably tense outdoor thriller that's as effective as any bloated, big-budget spectacle you're likely to see in your local movie house this weekend (...if you have the twenty bucks for a ticket, that is). An original trailer is included in this spiffy-looking black and white transfer.
It's "going home" day for little brother and sister Don and Janet Heldon (Lee Aaker and Linda Lowell). Their father, bush pilot Vince Heldon (Howard Keel), runs his own air charter service in the vast wilds of Western Canada, along with his new wife, Julie (Jane Greer). The sad kids have just spent six happy weeks fishing and tramping around with their father, but they now must reluctantly return to San Francisco to their mother, Nora Stead (Patricia Medina), Vince's ball-busting ex-wife who's an even better pilot than Vince...and a rather indifferent mother, according to the children. As a sullen, angry Vince returns home from the airport with Julie, a news flash comes over the car radio: Don and Janet's plane has been reported on fire. Vince returns to the airport just in time to hear the kids' plane's radio conk out, and everyone fears the worst, which is exactly what happens: the plane crashes into the mountains, where all the passengers are killed...all except Don and Janet. Now it's a race against time for Vince and his buddy Brandy (Keenan Wynn) to find the children before they expire from the elements, hunger, or that vicious mountain lion that stalks them―a race complicated by Nora's competitive need to take over the official search for the children...and Julie's jealousy over Nora's presence.
A perfect little "B" programmer (when they're this well-integrated, why are these kinds of "Bs" so much more satisfying?), Desperate Search doesn't have an ounce of fat on its lightning-fast 71 minute run time, creating a palpable sense of dread and excitement out of the barest bones of filmmaking (Lewis deliberately rejected a fancier, more expensive production to keep things simple): clean frames, expressive performances, razor-sharp editing (from Joseph Dervin), and direction that coordinates these elements precisely for maximum effect. Based on a popular serialized story from Arthur Mayse that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Desperate Search's script from Walter Doniger (Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, Along the Great Divide) expertly cuts back and forth between the physical hardships (and outright terror) the children are enduring on the mountainside, with the emotional trauma the adults are experiencing back at the relative safety of the lakeside charter service. Had Desperate Search been only about the children trying to survive in the wilderness, it may have fallen into more conventional "kiddie" adventure fare like My Side of the Mountain. The addition of the psychological battle of wills between former alcoholic Keel (who fears his ex-wife's iron will and hates her determination to win...even if it means the kids may die), Greer's frightened wife (who saved Keel from the gutter and dreads his weakening again in the face of his stronger ex), and Medina's take-charge bitch (who wants to break Keel's correct hunch about where the kids are just to prove he's wrong as much as to conduct the search "by the book"), gives Desperate Search an added layer that only heightens the already suspenseful adventure elements of the children's survival.
As for those scenes, you couldn't ask for cleaner, more effective direction. Cult director Joseph H. Lewis will probably be forever signposted to his most famous "B" classic, Gun Crazy, and yet I found Desperate Search just as seamless in its mix of physical action and psychological motivation. While the adults push themselves to the limits of physical endurance due as much to their own dysfunctional dynamics as for terror over their children's fate (Keel and Medina fly 15-hour days until their hands shake and their planes crack-up), Lewis also lets us see Aaker and Lowell's fight to stay alive hampered (or aided) by their own emotional orientation. Lewis is careful to have Keel extol Aaker's relative maturity to Wynn during their rescue flights, commenting on how Aaker is a "thinker" who has the wits to survive. As well, the script clues us into little Lowell's psychological level when both parents immediately worry about her fear of the dark, something that doesn't bother the more mature Aaker. Everyone who's seen Desperate Search agrees that Aaker is an unusually adroit child performer, with a quizzical little old man's face that's carefully, wonderfully expressive. His protective, understanding big brother character is never played for phony heroics (he makes mistakes just like his little sister) or with unrealistic bravado; when he slaps Lowell to calm her down (which doesn't work) he apologizes and hugs her, and when the mountain cat comes crashing through the dark woods, Aaker's shakes uncontrollably in fear, firing off all his ammo even after the cat has left. It's a rather astonishing performance from such a little guy.
However, I disagree with all those viewers and critics who dislike Lowell's constant wailing and screaming. If anything, her performance is the simplest, and therefore purest, one in the film: she's a very small little girl, largely without the capacity to reason through her ordeal, who is alternately oblivious to and absolutely terrified of her dangerous circumstances―which sounds exactly right (today, they would have her be preternaturally wise and philosophical, no doubt). Lowell's anguished, repetitive sobbing over her unconscious brother is heartbreaking, and her increasingly horrified screeching as the mountain lion brings her to bay in the frigid lake waters ("Go away! Go away! Daddy! This water is too cold! Go away!") is remarkably realistic and quite chilling. No wonder MAJOR SPOILERS! director Lewis is able to fashion an ending that's as emotionally satisfying as it is terribly exciting―when resolute, undaunted Aaker almost manages to fight off the cat with a stick, only to have Keel arrive in time to beat it to death, we're physically and emotionally wrung out. Those plucky, scared little kids deserve to live (how many times can you say that about child actors in movies today?), and Keel proves himself worthy of keeping them. Importantly, though, at this satisfying climax, Lewis and Doniger can't resist twisting the psychological knife into Medina by way of Wynn, who gloats again about seeing the rescued kids with the parents they deserve...which isn't the selfish, high-flying Medina―another example of Lewis delivering a little bit more than the standard "B" conventions here in Desperate Search.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.