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Film

Existential Beefcake: 'Storm Fear' Brews Up a Stew

Director Cornel Wilde was drawn to rugged, violent themes in which his directing style was vigorous and confident. And he kept his shirt off.


Storm Fear

Director: Cornel Wilde
Cast: Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1955
USDVD release date: 2015-08-04

Beefcake star Cornel Wilde took control of his career in the mid-'50s by becoming one of the actors who founded his own company to produce vehicles for himself, usually co-starring his wife Jean Wallace. His first such effort for Theodora Productions was the terrific noir film The Big Combo, and that same year he undertook his feature debut as a director, Storm Fear. He'd consistently be drawn to rugged, violent themes in which his directing style was vigorous and confident. And knowing his strengths as an actor, he was prominent with his shirt off.

Among its other remarkable qualities, Storm Fear was the first feature from a hot young writer of TV plays, Horton Foote, who was several years away from an Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird and many more years from another for Tender Mercies. Even though Wilde's film is a mere melodrama of criminals holing up in a family's remote cabin, the characters are packed with enough backstory and complicated relationships to choke Tennessee Williams. Poor choice of words -- let's say enough to make Tennessee Williams blanche. Oh, let's make it Eugene O'Neill. In any case, Foote was working from a novel by Clinton Seeley.

The snowed-in mountain cabin belongs to a failed, touchy, ailing, self-pitying weakling of a writer, Fred (Dan Duryea, far from his tough roles), along with his troubled beautiful wife Elizabeth (Wallace) and their son David (David Stollery), who mourns for the beloved dog shot by his angry father. The dog, and the cabin for that matter -- and even David if you must know -- were gifts from Fred's younger brother, the no-good small-time criminal Charlie (Wilde), who shows up fresh from a disastrous hold-up with two stereotypical cronies: the floozy Belle (Lee Grant) and the hot-headed, half-crazy, trigger-happy Brooklynite Benjie (Steven Hill).

Dennis Weaver plays the handyman who makes eyes at Elizabeth, but nothing like the eyes she and the bad brother make at each other. This movie fairly throbs with undercurrents, resentments, and erotic tensions in web of criss-crossed loves--all thwarted. It's clear that David loves both the handyman and Uncle Charlie more than his own father, even before he starts to gather that his father may not be his father. The physical casting of Stollery and Wilde is right on the money for implying their relationship before anyone hints it.

Indeed, this a mighty interesting cast. Hill was an up-and-coming New York presence with a strong reputation. The credits "introduce" him, but he was already in a film five years earlier directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who did The Big Combo, so possibly Lewis recommended him to Wilde. Child actor Stollery is most famous for Walt Disney productions, such as the "Spin and Marty" serials on The Mickey Mouse Club, and Weaver was several years away from TV stardom. Grant's presence shows that Wilde didn't mind hiring blacklisted actors (as he could do for an independent production through United Artists); her next film was in 1959.

Whether in the claustrophobic cabin scenes that take up much of the movie or the equally threatening outdoors of the final act (shot in Sun Valley, Idaho), Joseph LaShelle's superb black and white photography is shown to advantage on this pristine-looking Blu-ray. The final "recuperative" shot tries to salvage the bleakness by implying a new fabricated family for the fade-out, but the whole is a sour, sad, traumatic adventure. This is the "existential" path Wilde would follow as a cult director of such items as The Naked Prey, Beach Red and No Blade of Grass. It all starts here.

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