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Wind Across the Everglades (DVD Review)

2 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark



Available via Warner Archive       
Warner
Drama
$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Burl Ives, Christopher Plummer, Gypsy Rose Lee, Peter Falk.

In addition to the admired-in-some-quarters Bitter Victory (which I have but haven’t seen in a million years), Nicholas Ray directed two of his oddest balls in 1958, and Wind Across the Everglades is probably the odder of these two. This is saying something, given that the other weirdo was Party Girl (a movie I love) — one that seductively smooshed a Robert Taylor gangster pic with a Cyd Charisse musical at the end of both stars’ MGM contracts. But Everglades, a Budd Schulberg baby that ended up with that scripter of On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd firing Ray and taking over some of the shooting and the final editing, really takes the gator cake.

Possibly due to this skirmish — and this isn’t to defend what became Ray’s increasingly erratic and ultimately fatal boozy/druggie work habits — the result never feels like a Ray picture, even though it would seem to have been in his wheelhouse. This is to reiterate (see They Live by Night, On Dangerous Ground, Rebel Without a Cause and more) that the director often gravitated to movies about outsiders entering closed communities, and oh, is there ever one here. The conflict pits a representative of the Audubon Society (Christopher Plummer) taking on the killers of rare birds in the far, far outskirts of Miami — a disreputable trade that serves the millinery industry and flashy ladies of all types (both high society and brothel sub-species). If the movie doesn’t come off, it does rate a few big-time bonus points for an ecology angle way ahead of its time.

The most eccentric angle here has to be the casting, though it fits right in with the screenplay’s band of lowlifes who live out in the swamps and don’t change their underwear too much. Here, in one movie, are boxer Two-Ton Tony Galento; jockey Sammy Renick; and onetime household name and circus clown Emmett Kelly (once played by Henry Fonda in a General Electric Theater TV bio I remember seeing in 1955). There’s also, as a judge, Andersonville novelist MacKinlay Kantor, who was just coming off a Pulitzer — and, for a merciful dose of glamour, Gypsy Rose Lee as an apparently prim Miami madam at a time when Gypsy was about eight months away from its Broadway premiere. Leader of the poacher band — in either a real of fake beard with a red dye job — is Burl Ives, who, like Ray, then enjoying a prolific big-screen year (see also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Ives’s Oscar-winning performance in William Wyler’s The Big Country). In none of these movies, but particularly here, was the actor in Blue Tail Fly mode: His standout Everglades style point is the water moccasin he wears around his neck (we see it move, so this isn’t like Victor Mature wrestling the stuffed lion in Samson and Delilah).

Built around the not altogether antagonistic relationship between Ives (the movie’s strongest component) and Plummer (one of his few ineffective performances) the story simply doesn’t hang together — though its extensive location footage has real merit. Or it would if the printing materials got a much needed restoration, which is about as likely as an Ives Playgirl spread would have been. The cinematographer was Joseph Brun, who had one of those careers tough to peg: Cinerama travelogues, The Joe Louis Story and more pedigreed black-and-whiters; Sal Mineo’s semi-underground Who Killed Teddy Bear?; Jack E. Leonard’s The Fat Spy (talk about “semi-underground”); and Rory Calhoun’s Thunder in Carolina — which I saw at a 1961 drive-in about two weeks after I first saw The Lusty Men (on TV) and thought had really ripped off that earlier Ray masterpiece’s script.

To continue the casting notes, this was just Plummer’s second feature, and he never synched with Ray’s direction or lack of (acknowledged exasperation was shared not just with Schulberg but with he latter’s brother Stuart, who served as producer here). Also to be found amid the Galento-Kelly crowd of misfits is Peter Falk in his big-screen debut — though you have to stare at him for a few seconds before letting go with an “Isn’t that …?”  Put it all together (intimidating Glades creatures included) and we have one of the era’s more fascinating projects, though that’s about the extent of its success.

 


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