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What with the smash success of The Hunger Games, it's a good time to tout some vintage 'death game' movies, all commonly traced to a thrilling story by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game. Connell's wild tale of a sadistic hunter who prefers to hunt humans instead of animals was adapted by RKO for a deliciously sick Pre-code suspense classic. Starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray, and filmed on sets prepared for King Kong, the 1932 film is still quite a shocker. It has been remade in one form or another ad infinitum, officially crediting the original source at least twice. 1945's The Game of Death was directed by Robert Wise. The 1956 adventure Run for the Sun is a more liberal updating of the basic situation, filmed on location in the jungles near Acapulco in beautiful Technicolor and SuperScope 235.
Veteran screenwriter Dudley Nichols has extracted most of the sadism from the original but left the jeopardy intact. Romance plays a bigger part, as does the beautiful color cinematography of Joseph LaShelle. The movie was one of four produced by actress Jane Russell and her husband Robert Waterfield; hence the "Russ-Field Corporation" in the credits. Several aspects -- the source of the property, the emphasis on airplanes -- make us think that Run for the Sun began as an RKO project, or that Howard Hughes relinquished it to Ms. Russell in lieu of moneys owed, or something to that effect.
The story plunges directly into footage showing off the beauty of former RKO star Jane Greer. Katie Connors (Greer) flies into a sleepy Mexican coastal town on a furtive mission to find the reclusive author Mike Latimer (Richard Widmark). After writing a series of gritty, well-received adventure tales about his experiences in the war and Africa; Latimer has withdrawn into hiding and spend his time hunting, fishing and flying in his small plane. Katie and Mike become a romantic couple in short order. Then he reveals his private story, of a woman who abandoned him in Africa, precipitating a major writer's block. Ashamed of her deception, Katie tries to leave but Mike insists on flying her to Mexico City. A problem with the plane's compass forces them down in the middle of the jungle. Unhurt, they become the guests of Englishman Browne (Trevor Howard) and Dutch archeologist Van Anders (Peter van Eyck). Almost immediately, things don't add up. The local Indians are kept as virtual prisoners on the grounds. Latimer finds no evidence of any scientific activity. Their hosts' claim that they have no transportation is belied by the presence of another working airplane on the property. Latimer also thinks he recognizes Browne's voice, from far in the past. Why would an Englishman and his Dutch associate have cut themselves off so thoroughly from the outside world?
Run for the Sun's one major coincidence lands our lovers in the clutches of a pair of desperate fugitives, an event that seems arbitrary after half an hour of unrelated dramatic complications. Otherwise the film's story of survival makes fairly good sense. Mike Latimer wants to disappear, and stumbles onto two men even more serious about disappearing than he is. Katie Connors is excited by the idea of tricking a mysterious celebrity into revealing his personal crisis, but is forced to compare herself to another "faithless" woman in Michael's past. The film's central exposition scene comes off as mordantly funny. Writer Mike Latimer reveals his suspicions about Brown and Van Anders in the form of a storyline, only to find at the finish that he's written his own death warrant. These men can't let their captives escape alive.
I haven't revealed the secret of Browne and Van Anders, even though almost every synopsis of Run for the Sun blabs their whole story. I found it too interesting to discover that for myself. MGM's idiotic package text uses only 34 words to describe the movie, and gives away its secret. The reasons for the villains to be there in Mexico make perfect sense, and at least in Browne's case, are almost sympathetic. It is a stretch to wonder how they could possibly have stayed out there for ten years. Where do they get their new clothing, or their liquor? Frankly, I'd think that their Indian servants/slaves would have cut their throats a long time ago.
Modern variations on Richard Connell's "fight for your life" story usually fill the entire film with a violent ordeal in the wild, and barely bother with character motivations. Run for the Sun is of course not as graphic or violent. The jungle chase is fairly realistic as long as one doesn't dwell too long on the inability of those lethal Doberman Pinschers to find and attack our heroes. Latimer uses one of the deadly traps from the original story. This being the 1950s when film-fare had to be angled toward women, a couple of particulars are botched in the interest of not fixating on gory details. However, one bit of business with a solitary rifle bullet and a heavy oaken door is brilliantly handled.
This is an all-round quality job of production. Director Roy Boulting blocks out the movie with effective camera moves and attractive visual compositions. Trevor Howard and Peter Van Eyck are a convincing pair of desperados, hunting their prey out of selfish necessity instead of any sadistic urge. Richard Widmark makes a solid nice-guy impression, after seven years of playing down his sick-o Tommy Udo image. Favorite Jane Greer is no less luscious than she was back in Out of the Past and The Big Steal, her previous Mexican adventures for RKO and Howard Hughes. We're told that while making this movie Ms. Greer picked up an ailment that gave her a serious health problem. That's really her slogging through the mud of the swamp like a real trouper. I guess I'm a dedicated Jane Greer fan: this happened almost 60 years ago and she's been gone for some time now, yet my concern for her well-being is very much in the present tense.
As I said, the film's airplane-related details make Run for the Sun seem like something cooked up for Howard Hughes. The early part of the movie gives us three colorful Mexican characters. Taxi driver Hernandez is actor Juan García, who can be seen in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz as Pedro, the guitar-playing Juarista that Burt Lancaster tells to, "Make it a long one Pedro, 'cause it's gonna be your last!" Widmark's fisherman pal is played by José Chávez Trowe, who can be seen thirteen years later as Mapache's grungy quartermaster-pimp in The Wild Bunch. He's much nicer here. Neither the credits nor the IMDB catch the identity of the pleasant hotelier, the old man with the bags under his eyes. He's played by the legendary Spanish actor Francisco Reiguera, who found a home in Luis Buñuel's Mexican films after fleeing Franco's fascists. Reiguera is a picture-perfect Don Quixote in Orson Welles' never-completed movie -- Welles found out only during production that politics forbade Reiguera to return to Spain. Reiguera also plays the amusing "old Apache" in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Run for the Sun looks great, with very bright and saturated colors that show not the slightest sign of fading. The Mexican locations are really beautiful in both the hot sun or with dark clouds moving overhead. Joseph LaShelle lights many to-die-for close-ups of Jane Greer, and the extensive work in the jungle and swamps clearly took a lot of work.
Run for the Sun was the first film to be shot in SuperScope 235. Normal Superscope exposed a flat Academy-formatted 35mm frame, then took a 2:1 stripe of image out of the center, squeezed it, and blew it up so that it could be projected with a 'Scope lens. The "235" improvement used the full width of the film including the soundtrack area (the "silent aperture"), maximizing the image area. It could be blown up to a full 2:35 width.
MGM's transfer of Run for the Sun looks very good at 2:1, even though the books say that it should (or perhaps just could) be transferred at 2:35, as indicated in the SuperScope 235 logo that opens the movie (duh!). Whatever the truth may be, this is a very satisfying transfer. I never felt as if I were missing information on the sides. MGM transfers so many widescreen movies at an open-matte flat ratio that this is no disc to raise a ruckus over. Of course, just in case the company starts turning out wonderful Blu-rays of its vintage titles... 1
Run for the Sun is certainly one of the better UA thrillers from 1956, a classy thriller with a life-and-death escape by characters one really cares about. It's highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Run for the Sun rates:
1. Knowledgeable authorities Jack Theakston and Bob Furmanek always quote original documentation for their articles about film formats and Aspect Ratios. They have also been known to scan actual 35mm release prints of movies under examination, as I once saw they did for This Island Earth.
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T'was Ever Thus.