Jeff Chandler, his shirt open manfully, stands in the surf holding a leggy bikini’d Esther Williams as they pose for a promise of torrid osculation. Such is the poster art for Richard Wilson‘s Raw Wind in Eden (1958), a Cinemascope and Eastmancolor spree at long last making its home video debut on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
If this is how the crime drama was sold, and it was, audiences can be forgiven for expecting something more sizzling than a sunny vacation film that spends most of its 90 minutes simmering and sniping. Alas, Hollywood was in a bind during the late ’50s. Under competition from racy European films, studios tried to invent come-hither ways of promising sexuality while remaining within the limits of a rapidly fraying Production Code.
As a result, the latter half of the decade saw many films that flirt or tease with the notion of sex, as long as nobody on screen has it. I call these No-Sex Films; examples are Billy Wilder’s The Seven-Year Itch and Joshua Logan’s Picnic, both from the crucial year 1955. The same year gave us Edward Dmytryk’s The End of the Affair starring Deborah Kerr. She was the only star whose roles could consistently get away with having affairs since she was British and classy. The American Good Girls were still stymied.
Before Universal’s Raw Wind in Eden, Esther Williams had made another film for the studio. The Unguarded Moment (reviewed for PopMatters here) discusses the threat of “assault” (they wouldn’t say “rape”) and how its social fallout works along sexist double standards. You can see how Universal was straining to be adult, relevant, and provocative while being hamstrung.
The Unguarded Moment came one year before the scandalous hit of Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957). Most relevantly for Raw Wind in Eden, the US release of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman opened in October 1957. Vadim’s provocative film, which could only have been made in France, introduced the secret weapon Brigitte Bardot to a bombshell-shocked world. I must assume that the seismic waves triggered by Vadim and Bardot are directly responsible for Universal’s decision to produce Raw Wind in Eden. Both titles evoke the Eden myth, both are about Woman, both are filmed in Europe, and both have plenty of water.
“Plenty of water,” explains Williams, who rarely made a film where she doesn’t swim. As international fashion model Laura, she’s introduced posing for cameras and doing quick changes in fabulous Rome locations during the credits. This gets us all excited that maybe we’ll spend Raw Wind in Eden amid the decadent glories of that city, as shot magnificently by Aldo Serafin. Producer William Alland was very smart to snag him for the widescreen compositions, as Serafin had recently shot ravishing films for Michelangelo Antonioni and Roberto Rossellini.
Laura returns to her big swanky apartment after a hard day’s shutterbugging. She’s greeted by a stranger called Wally Drucker, who’s made himself at home. He’s played by Argentinean heart-throb Carlos Thompson, though dubbed by the distinctive Paul Frees. Wally explains that he’s a partner in business “and of course love” with Laura’s married millionaire boyfriend, who can’t make it for the weekend. Annoyed, she accepts Wally’s proposal to spend a week on the yacht of yet another millionaire. The handsy, smiley, slimy Wally will fly her in his private plane.
Despite the beautiful locations and photography, the budget can’t afford a plane wreck, so that happens offscreen on an island populated by three people near Sardinia. There’s the old caretaker Urbano, played by celebrated Italian playwright-director Eduardo De Filippo. There’s his pert teenage daughter Costanza, played with much flounce by Rossana Podestà, who’d recently played Helen of Troy in Robert Wise’ 1956 film. And there’s the tight-lipped American mystery man known only as Moore, played by Chandler.
We’d been introduced to these three people in the tantalizing pre-credits sequence, which gave us to understand that their isolated island is periodically visited by some young shirtless stud in a rowboat who takes potshots at Moore with a rifle, whereupon Moore uses a big black pistol to fire a few shots at his retreating boat. This is the ongoing drama into which Laura and Wally have dropped.
Most of Raw Wind in Eden will be spent with the characters doing nothing else. One vital plot point is that Laura forever displays her underwear as a flag of distress. Wally and Laura work on Moore’s boat and speculate on Moore’s seemingly unpredictable behavior and what secrets he may be concealing, which turn out not to be all that secret. The main point is that there must be a continual waffling of tension between Laura, who sometimes wears a bright red pantsuit, and the scowling Moore, who half-closes one eye when brooding, which is often.
Supposedly Moore is engaged to marry Costanza next season when she’s old enough (!), and the pot-shotting Sardinian lad (Rik Battaglia) takes umbrage at this. Staking his prior claim, he shows up now and then to “defend his honor”, which Costanza and her dad take in stride as normal behavior. Thus sophisticated Americans are confronted with Old World peasant values and rituals that can only be accepted with multi-cultural aplomb.
Obviously, Raw Wind in Eden is all about sex, although it’s the Hollywood-American sex where nobody has any. Frustrations build to a climactic lather of gunplay and wrestling and similar manly exertions amid rocks and sun and crashing surf. Everyone gets wet, and how. So Raw Wind in Eden becomes an instructive lesson in how Universal and the rest of the major studios negotiated the reefs of sexual subject matter with one foot tied to the dock.
Nobody will mistake this film for a classic of dramaturgy, and anyone looking for that should have just kept walking past the titillating marquee. It is, as they say, what it is, and that’s the type of great-looking, star-powered romantic nonsense that Hollywood has probably forgotten how to make since they’ve moved on to entirely other types of nonsense.
Wilson, who co-scripted with his wife, Elizabeth Wilson, stages the widescreen action with an effective eye for color, composition, and foreground elements that provide continual visual pleasure. Kino’s transfer of a new 2K master makes Raw Wind in Eden look better than it has in decades, and it hasn’t been easy to find. I detect a slight hiss on the soundtrack, but it’s ignorable. The DVD package follows Wikipedia’s lead in labeling the film a “South Seas noir” when it’s neither noir nor in the South Seas.
Film historians David Del Valle and Daniel Kremer have a chatty, film-buffy commentary, mostly about Williams and Chandler, who were having an affair. If such things couldn’t take place onscreen, it’s good to know they happened somewhere.
As for Hollywood sex, 1959 would prove a crucial year because Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place addresses teen pregnancy before marriage, though the teens are infinitely more mature than the grown-ups around them. Of course, the teens decide to get married and begin lives of well-appointed privilege. The kids were more than all right.
Another film that year was Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk, a Universal production in which the characters played by Doris Day and Rock Hudson actually – you know, do it – waking up in bed together with hangovers and no memory of the night before. It’s another startling moment signaling the end of the ’50s, although it quickly turns out they’ve gotten married without knowing it.
That was still the Hollywood version of sex, while John Cassavetes’ very, very independent Shadows, again the same year, even dared to cross sexuality with racial identity. Films like that made Hollywood feel the raw wind blowing across its mainstream conventions.
Clearly, the ’60s were on Hollywood’s horizon, though that horizon kept receding even as the British-made James Bond films prodded Hollywood to new explorations. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) dared to open with two unmarried characters in a hotel tryst, but it was okay because the woman gets punished for it.
In 1961 came daring indies like Alexander Singer’s A Cold Wind in August and Jack Garfein’s Something Wild, which went in directions the studios weren’t yet prepared to tread. Instead, Warner Brothers came out with Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, scripted by the same William Inge who created Picnic. Splendor in the Grass was like Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, except the sexual frustration leads to even higher levels of hysterical melodrama.
Audiences probably knew how that felt, and those who were lured by the provocative poster and title for Raw Wind in Eden undoubtedly knew exactly what they were getting – and what they weren’t. Taken within its lush limitations, it remains a highly watchable and attractive melodrama that measures a certain depth in the tides of social evolution, and it’s good finally to see it in all its grassy, sandy splendor.