Post-War Western noir
H Bruce Humberstone was one of those jack-of-all-trades film directors who from the mid-1920s to the mid-60s did every kind of movie for Fox. There were Betty Grable comedies and Carmen Miranda musicals, half a dozen Charlie Chan films, a couple of Tarzans – whatever was required. He was probably best at films noirs and thrillers such as I Wake Up Screaming in 1941 with Grable and Victor Mature. Curiously, though, he only directed three Western movies: Lucky Cisco Kid with Cesar Romero in 1940, Ten Wanted Men with Randolph Scott in 1955 and in between, Fury at Furnace Creek. But all three were more than competently done.
In 1948 Westerns were in full spate, and all the studios, including Fox, were in on the act. There were truly great ones like Fort Apache, Red River and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There were very good ones like Four Faces West, Yellow Sky and The Man from Colorado. There were large numbers of cheapo Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Lash La Rue and other programmers. But there were also some really good B-Westerns that got overshadowed and are definitely worth watching again today. I am thinking of fine movies such as Coroner Creek, Blood on the Moon or Return of the Badmen. Fury at Furnace Creek is such a one.
It starred Victor Mature. Now Mature was the classic Hollywood hunk and was to become famous in sword-and-sandal pictures. He was Samson in Samson and Delilah as well as playing various other exotic roles in movies about biblical times or ancient Egypt. He was not one you would naturally think of for a Western. But in 1946 he had been a stunningly good Doc Holliday in Fox’s Wyatt Earp picture My Darling Clementine, directed by John Ford. So in 1948 they gave him another go in the saddle. He was really powerful.
The story starts with a 6th Cavalry general court-martialed for having withdrawn an escort from a wagon train and caused a massacre by Apaches. We do not see the massacre of the settlers. The train is seen being abandoned by the soldiers, then pulling into Fort Furnace Creek (one of those imaginary wooden forts that Hollywood loved). Suddenly Indians jump out and slaughter the soldiers of the fort. It’s an effective and punchy beginning.
The general has a heart attack and dies on the stand and is thus unable to prove his innocence. But he has two sons who are determined to do so: Rufe, a young Army captain (Glenn Langan) who turns out to be as stupid as he is obnoxious (i.e. very) and Cash, a disreputable frock-coated gambler, the black sheep of the family, whom we first see in jail, doing that excellent trick (which I am determined to perfect one day) of flipping cards across the cell into his upturned hat. You can tell right off the bat that Cash is going to be the one to solve the crime, clear his daddy’s name and of course get the girl. He heads West. In that coded moment that all we Westernistas recognize, Cash swaps his black frock coat for buckskins, and thus changes from the city slicker into the Western hero.
Really, Furnace Creek is a classic Humberstone/Fox film noir. Its crime plot has Mature almost as a private eye and its black & white, shadow-filled photography with many night scenes and dark interiors add to the atmosphere. In this way it reminds me of another '48 Western, RKO's Station West, with Dick Powell as hard-boiled investigator. At the time, in the late-1940s, noir Westerns were very much in vogue (Pursued, Blood on the Moon, Coroner Creek, several others) and this one is a worthy addition to the genre. It was a remake in Western key of Fox's 1938 John Ford mystery Four Men and a Prayer.
The town of Furnace Creek, near the now abandoned fort, is owned by slimy bad guy Albert Dekker. Wasn’t Dekker good? The double-crossing gang leader in The Killers in 1946, he was notably, for us Western fans, the horrible railroad detective Harrigan in The Wild Bunch, his last role. Furnace Creek was his twelfth of seventeen Westerns and time again, as here, he was the bad guy, usually rich, powerful and corrupt.
Reginald Gardiner is quietly moving in a way as the Army man descended into drunkenness and losing what shreds of self-respect he has left. Gardiner was a RADA-trained Englishman who retained his clipped accent through his many years in California (he arrived in 1935). From being a dancer at a ball in The Lodger in 1927 to a butler in a 1968 episode of The Monkees (I'm sure you remember both), Gardiner was always a delight to see. This was his only Western film.
The girl is played by Coleen Gray as Molly the waitress. She's perky and bright in a rather two-dimensional part. She was Fen in Red River the same year. She was in thirteen Western movies and a lot of TV shows.
The comic relief is provided by Charles Kemper, entertaining as Peaceful Jones, the town drunk who, for the lack of a town jail, is regularly chained to a massive log in the main street. He is so big, however that he is able to shoulder the tree trunk and go back to the saloon. He and Cash take a shine to each other and Peaceful helps out when the action climax comes.
Buried down in the uncredited extras as an Army sergeant is Ray Teal. What a waste of a great Western character actor. Naughtier, as far as lack of credit is concerned, is the fact that we have a young Jay Silverheels as Little Dog, the Apache chief, whose “master was old Geronimo himself.” Little Dog plays a crucial role, especially at the end (I say no more) so he really ought to have got a mention.
The score by David Raksin, billed as “original music”, isn’t. It seems to be a straight reworking of the Gerard Carbonara soundtrack from Stagecoach. It’s jolly, though, and gets nicely dark in the appropriate places.
The luminous black & white cinematography is by Harry Jackson (eight Westerns from Cimarron in 1931, where he worked with Cronjager, to Pony Soldier in 1952). The locations were at and around the famous Kanab movie fort in Utah.
Fury at Furnace Creek is a minor but nice little noir Western which compares well with, say, Yellow Sky, even if Victor Mature wasn’t quite Gregory Peck. I’d give it a go if I were you.