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Actor-producer-director Cornel Wilde was at one time a critical whipping boy for his acting, which was denigrated as being, 'cheerfully bland.' If a movie he was in didn't do well, he was blamed. How many Marlon Brandos were needed back then? Ex- Olympic fencing competitor Wilde certainly had the looks -- in the Technicolor pics Leave Her to Heaven and Forever Amber he was just as or more beautiful than his leading ladies Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell.
By the early 1950s, set loose from studio contracts, Wilde showed bigger ambitions by launching his company Leonora Productions. His first film The Big Combo was done in combo with Philip Yordan, with Joseph H. Lewis directing. But on his second outing Wilde winged it alone, and stepped into the role of director as well. Plenty of actors tried to 'do it all' and learned a harsh lesson; Wilde was different. Ten years later he'd produce a trilogy of violent action movies, his nearly perfect claim to fame The Naked Prey, the ugly Beach Red and the exploitative No Blade of Grass. His second outing Storm Fear should be considered one of his best pictures. It has a fine cast and a workable story, and Wilde's acting and direction are excellent.
The show was filmed in Sun Valley, Idaho, and captures the feeling of a snowbound farm. The Blake family isn't doing well. Writer Fred Blake (Dan Duryea) moved his family there so he could concentrate on his book, but he's instead consumed by self-doubt. His wife Elizabeth (Jean Wallace) married him because the man she really loved, his no-account brother Charlie (Cornel Wilde), was a bad risk. Her young boy David (David Stollery) is really Charlie's son. Neighbor Hank (Dennis Weaver) is filling in as father for David, much to Fred's chagrin. The situation is so obvious that when Hank gets drunk, he spells it out to Elizabeth -- she should leave Fred to his misery and marry him. Just as a storm front moves in, who should show up but Charlie, wounded from a bank robbery. He and his cohorts Edna and Benjie (Lee Grant & Steven Hill) intend to stay only long enough to bandage Charlie's leg, but the snowstorm changes those plans. In the day they spend there everything comes out -- David's parentage, Fred's failure, Elizabeth's frustration. Charlie loves his 'nephew' but isn't above including the trusting boy in his dangerous plan to escape over the snow-covered mountaintop. Making things worse are the heavy-drinking Edna and Benjie -- and Benjie is a borderline psycho, who delights in intimidating people, and causing chaos. With the cops closing in, Charlie's facade of family harmony crumbles -- he's just another rat trying to escape, and even young David can see it.
Storm Fear is a pressure-cooker drama, a Key Largo in a mountain cabin, but it never feels like a cheapie. Cornel Wilde attracted quality collaborators, a number of them near the start of notable careers. Composer Bernstein was just getting big-star credits. Wilde hired playwright Horton Foote to adapt the novel by Clinton Seeley, which is reflected in credible relationships and natural dialogue. Considering all the 'drama' packed into that cabin, Foote's screenplay is a gem. Pro cameraman Joseph LaShelle was no tyro, and had worked with Wilde on the Fox noir Road House.
Wilde is quite good as little David's 'Uncle Charlie,' the great guy who fails to hide his true nature from his worshipful son. Charlie's wounded state provides him an excuse to go about without a shirt; surely this was a vanity point with the body-proud actor-director. Wilde cast his wife Jean Wallace in most all of his movies, even as Guinevere to his Lancelot in 1963's Sword of Lancelot. Her neurotic moll in The Big Combo is impressive, but this may be her most difficult role, and she handles it extremely well. Elizabeth Blake is both unglamorous and quite beautiful, and we are not a bit surprised that three men lust after her. Wilde and Wallace must have shared a fascinating relationship. From the productivity angle, at least, it seems like a positive one.
The self-hating husband doesn't tax Dan Duryea's abilities, and Fred Blake turns out to be the least interesting character. Duryea had been a leading man for a couple of years in the late '40s but had by this time yielded pole position to younger actors.
The great Lee Grant puts in an excellent, rare '50s film appearance here. The powerhouse stage and TV actress had booked a single very impressive film appearance in William Wyler's Detective Story before being blacklisted. Whether through Horton Foote or by Wilde's own desire, Storm Fear became Grant's only screen appearance until 1959's Middle of the Night. The blacklist would continue to dog her into the 1960s. She's great here, purposely making herself look older and worn out. Her character Edna risks her life by refusing to abandon a fur coat. That plot point never seems like a cliché, a testimonial to Grant's skill. A thorough photo-text discussion of Lee Grant's career can be read at this CBS News sponsored page.
Actor's actor Steven Hill made his screen debut in Storm Fear. He's fairly interesting as the screwball psycho Benjie, who keeps reverting to mean-spirited bits of sadism. Hill is another fringe benefit perhaps derived from the Horton Foote connection. Dennis Weaver makes the featured billing list as well, with his nicely-played liquor-fueled proposition to the married woman he loves. In this same year, Weaver would become the comedy relief character Chester on TV's Gunsmoke. It made him famous, if typecast as an eccentric.
The thankless role goes to young David Stollery, who delivers a surprisingly complex portrait of a kid confronted by a stack of 'adult' disillusionments -- his parents' relationship, the true nature of the worshipped Uncle Charlie, and the realization that some adults -- the twisted Edna and Benjie -- are just no damn good. Young Stollery got his big chance in Disney's The Adventures of Spin and Marty show, which fed into another TV serial, Annette. Not much later he quit and wisely took his life in a direction away from show biz.
By the time that Storm Fear is miles up the snowy hill, Wilde and Foote's drama has us solidly in its grip. Unlike films noirs that rely on gimmicks to keep our attention, this solid drama makes us feel its tension, and share in the threat of its violence. I hadn't caught up with it until now, and it has increased my appreciation of Cornel Wilde's talent.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Storm Fear is a great-looking encoding of this United Artists release. The B&W image is excellent, especially in the scenes in the snow, which are more convincing than those of most modestly budgeted thrillers. We wonder if André De Toth's Day of the Outlaw wasn't partly suggested by this film, at least its third-act escape-by-snowy-pass element.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.