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Fate Is the Hunter (DVD Review)

6 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available from www.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Glenn Ford, Rod Taylor, Nancy Kwan, Suzanne Pleshette.

Though there was a brief time in the in the late 1950s when his box office clout was second to none, Glenn Ford’s legacy has had to endure a kind of put-down rep that disses him as a white-bread alternative to actors of the era who were truly exciting: Brando, Clift, Dean and the like. But you can’t really say that Ford was bland. Even in his comedies, he always seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and his persona would have likely fit in with the neuroses of the “Mad Men” crowd if the show had been around then.

The character he plays in this once frequently televised Ernest K. Gann book-to-movie is in serious need of antacids, though I learned from Julie Kirgo’s knowing program notes for fledgling Twilight Time’s latest limited DVD edition that this screen adaptation and Gann’s source novel differ a lot from each other. This kind of surprised me because I was such a big fan in the ‘50s of The High and the Mighty that I read the Gann original of it three or four times when I was a kid — and recall that book and movie were very close. In any event, we see that in 1964, aviation has come a long way from what’s portrayed in Night Flight (not a bad evening’s double bill, come to think).

Fate’s barebones story has to do with determining what caused a passenger plane to crash when there didn’t seem to be any reasons for it to do so — other than perhaps a guy at the controls (Rod Taylor with what looks some makeup-artist gray in his hair) who was known to have a taste for revelry. Just by addressing the point that a commercial pilot might have had a few happy-hour pops not that long before takeoff gives Fate a contemporary twist. This kind of thing probably happened more in the old days than now because it was probably easier to keep that kind of corporation-killer under wraps. It seems, though, that this kind of severe professional malfeasance, rare as it is, gets reported more nowadays.

As we eventually learn, Taylor and pressured airline exec Ford have personal history together going back to World War II, and it’s in the flashbacks — one with Jane Russell actually playing herself — that the movie gets into trouble. Whenever it’s dealing with technical material — like, if this engine was damaged, why is it purring like a kitten now that we’re running tests on it? — the yarn-spinning is interesting enough. But as investigator Ford tries to retrace events leading up to crash, we get a lot of boilerplate: an ex-Taylor friend of integrity (Nancy Kwan), a wartime buddy (Wally Cox) and a second combat cohort (‘40’s not-quite star Mark Stevens is pretty good with only a little to work with) who’s a serious alcoholic. The standout exception to all this is an above-average passage where Ford meets a former brief fiancée of Taylor’s (the great Dorothy Malone) and finds that she’s a superficial and off-puttingly flashy society type — who nonetheless might have had reasons for dumping the guy.

It’s kind of tough to believe that the crash hearings would have been carried live on TV unless local L.A. programming was more bankrupt in those days than I know — though Ford’s body language during testimony when he claims that “fate” might have caused 50-some deaths (with just one survivor) is something to see. More credible is someone’s posthumous slur on Taylor’s character because he was involved with a Chinese woman (Kwan), one of those things that reminds us that the 1960s weren’t that liberated in the early part of the decade.

The director is TV veteran Ralph Nelson, whose big-screen credits also included Lilies of the Field and Charly (which got their lead actors Oscars) and Cary Grant’s penultimate Father Goose (which got Peter Stone’s script an Oscar as well). Even if you throw in his credits for Requiem for a Heavyweight and Soldier in the Rain, Nelson was never any stylist, and Fate is more celebrated for Jerry Goldsmith’s score (one of many good ones in that period and isolated on the DVD as a bonus) and Milton Krasner’s Oscar-nominated cinematography near the end of when the academy had a separate category for black-and-white movies. I had to look up the movie that beat it: Zorba the Greek (though I myself would have voted for un-nominated Joseph LaShelle’s keenly framed Panavision interiors for Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid).

The transfer is very good on Twilight Time’s latest trek into deep 20th Century Fox library, a release that also includes a color-faded but funny coming attraction for the next title up on the TT docket: Susan Hayward’s 1959 frontier potboiler Woman Obsessed, opposite Stephen Boyd. The two really have a go at it in their domestic arguments, and taking her on was probably only a little easier for Boyd than fourth-gearing Messala’s chariot in the same year’s Ben-Hur.

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