"Politics isn't a kids' game--it's life. Fair's got nothing to do with it. "
Superficially enjoyable political meller...in spite of itself. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released A Fever in the Blood, the 1961 drama from Warners, based on William Pearson's best-selling potboiler, directed by old pro Vincent Sherman, and starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly, Don Ameche, Ray Danton, Herbert Marshall, Andra Martin, Jesse White, Rhodes Reason, Carroll O'Connor, Robert Colbert, June Blair, and Parley Baer. Produced and co-scripted (under some duress, apparently) by TV wunderkind Roy Huggins, A Fever in the Blood's twisty, sometimes hardnosed combination of political knife fight drama and courtroom suspenser can't help but keep you involved...despite the chintzy TV-like production, the flat direction, and the surprisingly poor performances from so many good actors--key drawbacks of which the last two can be laid right at the feet of usually reliable director Sherman. No extras for this super-sharp anamorphically enhanced widescreen black and white transfer.
Wealthy, beautiful, and married-but-separated hot-to-trot "sex maniac" Paula Thornwall (June Blair) wasn't expecting her hunky gardener Thomas J. Morely (Robert Colbert) to show up in her boudoir unannounced; unfortunately, her displeasure at his appearance only enrages her psycho former lover, who quickly smothers her with a pillow and stages the crime scene as an accidental fire, before he's briefly spotted by a neighbor fleeing the scene. That's bad news for Paula's estranged husband--and the prime suspect in her murder--Walter Thornwall (Rhodes Reason), who just happens to be the nephew of the state's ex-governor, Oliver P. Thornwall (Herbert Marshall). Why is that bad news for him? Because Capitol City D.A. Dan Callahan (Jack Kelly) knows this is just the kind of sensational murder trial that could catapult him into the public's eye...and into the governor's chair in the upcoming primaries. That's bad news for Judge Leland Hoffman (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), who earlier had offered his old duck hunting buddy Callahan the chance to run as his Lieutenant Governor in Hoffman's campaign for the governorship. Ambitious Callahan's bid for governor is bad news for U.S. Senator Alex S. Simon (Don Ameche), a shrewd, amoral political operative who knows that Senators rarely make good Presidents (of course I mean him, IRS...), but that Governors control state party delegates--quite helpful in presidential campaigns. So when Walter Thornwall's trial ends up in Judge Hoffman's court, with Callahan prosecuting, Senator Simon first unsuccessfully appeals to Callahan to forego any campaign for governor...with the promise of his Senate seat as payment, before he, um...suggests that Judge Hoffman declare a mistrial to thwart Callahan...with the promise of a federal judgeship as quid pro quo. Oh, and Senator Simon's wife, Cathy (Angie Dickinson), has the hots for the judge.
In my recent review of Warner's Wall of Noise, I briefly discussed Warner Bros. ' practice in the mid-50s to the mid-60s of taking their successful TV contract stars and putting them in gussied-up big-screen features, in the hopes of drawing their small-screen fans back into the faltering movie houses--a quick, cheap fix to box office woes at the time that, overall, didn't exactly pay off in big dividends for the studio. A Fever in the Blood is certainly an excellent case study of that unsuccessful tactic--unsuccessful aesthetically as well as economically. In a lengthy Archive of American Television interview, producer/writer Roy Huggins (of Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files fame) discussed how he came about producing and writing A Fever in the Blood, spending far more time detailing the rancorous backstage dealings with Warners that led up to the assignment, as opposed to one or two brief comments about the actual movie itself (which should give you a clue as to what Huggins thought of the final product). In brief: physically worn out by TV Western Maverick's hectic schedule and troublesome production, and fed up with Warners' duplicitous economic finagling when it came to remunerating him for his money-making work, Huggins told his bosses he wanted out of Warner Bros. television, to which Jack Warner countered that Huggins could move over into WB's big-screen features division. Unbeknownst to Huggins (he claimed), the unit he was transferred to was a special division set up to exploit the very TV talent that Huggins helped make famous--a situation that Huggins felt limited his ambitions as a moviemaker. As well, the creative control he was promised didn't extend very far in reality, including the crucial lack of say-so over casting his own projects. According to Huggins, he was "given" TV actors like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Jack Kelly, along with other Warner contractees like Angie Dickinson and Ray Danton, against his will, regardless of whether or not they fit the characters in his script for A Fever in the Blood (co-written, the title card states, by Harry Kleiner, of House of Bamboo, Fantastic Voyage, Bullitt, and Extreme Prejudice fame...although Huggins never mentions him in the interview...). When A Fever in the Blood failed to impress critics or the public, Huggins finally moved on (several times) to other studios.
It's impossible, if you haven't read the source novel, to ascertain how much of a movie's plot comes from the original work, and how much was invented for the screen (I couldn't find much of anything on author William Pearson or this particular book), but whoever came up with the storyline of A Fever in the Blood certainly knew how to string together a socko combination of melodramatic events, alloyed with some pungent observations about the amoral nature of politics and justice. Over and above the already built-in double suspense of who will get the nod to run for governor, and who will prevail in the murder trial, juicy, histrionic revelations come up about every ten minutes or so to further keep the plot pot boiling: Zimbalist used to be Dickinson's lover, but his invalid wife kept them necessarily apart; Ameche had a heart attack in Mexico, so Dickinson begs Zimbalist not to reveal his bribery attempt; the murder victim had a... "sex mania" with multiple partners; the murder suspect's mistress scheduled an... "illegal operation;" Kelly's driver smacks into a kid on the street, and is then told by D.A. Kelly to lie to the cops about the circumstances; Zimbalist, Jr. employs an electronics snoop to bug Kelly, getting the goods on him; and so on. Even better is A Fever in the Blood's suitably nasty, adult view of politics not as a noble civic duty entered into for the betterment of the public...but rather as an unethical bloodsport for driven individuals who crave only power (the "fever in the blood" of the title). Exceptional movies about American politics are rare--Citizen Kane or more specifically All the King's Men for earlier entries, or more contemporary to A Fever in the Blood, such as Advise and Consent or The Best Man--and while A Fever in the Blood is far from exceptional, its overwhelmingly bleak view of who the people are who get into government, and how they got there, feels fairly honest. And dirty. Episodes like Kelly gleefully orchestrating the arrest of an unsuspecting Reason in front of the lying-in-wait press, or the horse-trading bribes of seasoned player Ameche, backed by dire threats of career ruination (a cheerfully vengeful, smiling Ameche threatens a recalcitrant Kelly, "This is where your political education really begins, Danny boy! "), or Ameche's perverted view that a corrupt little chiseler like Kelly would ultimately make a better politician for the public because he breaks the rules when necessary, all convey a nicely gritty verisimilitude that illustrates plainly what creeps politicians really are.
Too bad, then, that all that promising material is so poorly handled here. Huggins can talk about A Fever in the Blood's miscasting all he wants, but that doesn't excuse a script that comes over certainly as busy...but also patchy and superficial. Characters in particular stay two-dimensional, with their motivations for doing what they do either barely hinted at, or unconvincingly put forth. Kelly's go-getter D.A., I assume, is ruthless because guys like political operative Carroll O'Connor and Ameche call him "shanty Irish" and a "mick. " Already wealthy Zimbalist, Jr. flatly tells us he has a special problem compared to the poor folk: finding meaning in his life since all his material wants are already met (please sign me up for such a special problem). However, who's buying that particular "drawback" has somehow led to a "fever in the blood" for politics...when we never hear what he wants to do in politics anyway? Ameche's sly, feline senator is probably the most believable character--he wants power, and he knows how to get it and use it, simple as that--until an absolutely ridiculous twist has him momentarily ascend from his final trip to Hell--in the best deus ex machina style--and save Zimbalist, Jr.'s bacon for no good earthy reason. As for poor Angie Dickinson's character, one can only guess what she's doing here, since the character has but two or three brief, completely superfluous scenes (was she plugged into A Fever in the Blood as a reward for getting chased around a WB executive's desk, or was it punishment for running too fast? The latter, I suspect...). A solid, intriguing set-up, with a surprising number of good twists and turns in the narrative, can't entirely save a script that's weak on characterization and motive.
Nor can such an engrossing plotline long survive tepid, anonymous direction or rather alarmingly miscued performances. Director Vincent Sherman, an old pro at helming palatable studio entertainments (The Return of Doctor X, All Through the Night, The Adventures of Don Juan, Harriet Craig), had, prior to this assignment, directed a big hit for Warners in 1959: the similarly-designed courtroom drama, The Young Philadelphians, with Paul Newman, so naturally Warners must have thought he'd be fine for A Fever in the Blood. However, Sherman's approach is so curiously flat and leaden as to make one wonder if he knew all along he'd be very soon trudging off to end his career in serial TV. Indeed, A Fever in the Blood plays exactly like some "bad television" of the time: cheap, pasteboard sets, blanket lighting, uninformed framing (lots of over-the-shoulder close-ups), and 1-2-3 editing rhythms dragging down a talky, static drama. Why in the world did the studio think ticket buyers would line up for essentially television fare such as this, blown up onto a 60 foot screen? There's nothing in A Fever in the Blood, except for some mildly salacious material, that couldn't be found on the tube for free--including most of the actors.
What's puzzling about the predominantly poor performances in A Fever in the Blood is that almost all of the lead actors are first-rate: either grievous miscasting or Sherman's negligence does them in. Kelly, a skilled light comedian in Maverick, comes over terribly here, in a hammy, overblown turn that's frankly embarrassing in its amateurish pitch (it's not surprising Kelly's big-screen career went nowhere after entries like this). Zimbalist, Jr., always best when he's quiet and thoughtful, is far too young to pull off a character that's supposed to have so much legal gravitas...and far too cool and collected to convince me he ever had a "fever" for anything in this world, especially something as ephemeral as politics. Poor Angie we've already picked on (a talented actress whose unstoppable, palpably erotic allure repeatedly upended her performances in subpar after subpar vehicle). Ray Danton, flat out, makes an ass of himself, playing a manic defense attorney who would have been busted within five minutes for contempt of court--not for any legally questionable behavior...but for continually breaking up the astonished jury box. Lucky for him another Maverick boy, Robert Colbert, is around to give the comedy performance of 1961, in what has to be the most unintentionally hilarious portrayal of a nervous murderer I've ever seen (Colbert on the witness stand, profusely sweating with his eyes darting around like ping pong balls, is sublimely awful--how did anyone on the set keep a straight face after that fit?). And that leaves the true pros, like Jesse White and Parley Baer and Carroll O'Connor (all fine), and particularly Don Ameche, who walks away with the movie by playing his evil, manipulative, corrupted Senator as if he was inhabiting an arch, bitchy drawing room comedy. It's a marvelously funny turn, making his character all the more repulsive because he's making us laugh when we shouldn't. What a pity it wasn't featured in a better movie.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.