CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
The 1949 film “Slattery’s Hurricane” skirts the world of film noir without ever quite settling there. To an extent this may have been the fault of the Motion Picture Code folks, once again infantilizing their audiences. The film was based on an original work by Herman Wouk, who then collaborated with Richard Murphy on the film script. It’s one of the earlier films dealing with drug-smuggling, but Fox chose to concentrate on the other component of the film–a study of the pilots who worked with the Weather Bureau to track the path of hurricanes, a subject more in sync with their preferred mode of semi-documentary film-making.
The plot in a nutshell concerns an ex-Navy fighter pilot who now has a cushy job as the private pilot of an elderly candy magnate. The seemingly-kindly magnate has a brutish business partner and a profitable sideline in drug smuggling. The pilot’s girlfriend also works for the magnate and his partner. She’d like to quit but can’t because she’s an addict. Initially, the pilot has no idea that he’s transporting drugs into the country, nor does he know why his girlfriend acts as oddly as she does. Truthfully, he doesn’t care. This brings us into another level of the film. The pilot has bumped into an old war buddy, who stills flies for the Navy and has married the pilot’s wartime flame. If the pilot were being played by Dana Andrews or Victor Mature, he might suck it up, but this pilot is being played by Richard Widmark, and Widmark is having none of that. Instead he goes into overdrive re-seducing the old buddy’s wife.
This hero is already an anti-hero and becomes even more of one when he learns the real purpose of his flights. Rather than being coerced into continued collaboration with the bad guys, he asks for a bigger cut of the pie. We seem to be heading into a study of an unregenerate heel, but when he learns of the harm his ruthlessness has done to his cast-off lady friend–we assume that she overdoses, but of course the Code won’t allow us to see that–he decides to atone for his sins and sacrifice himself. He will take the place of his wronged ex-buddy and fly the dangerous reconnaissance mission into the eye of a massive hurricane.
The Production Code really hurt Veronica Lake’s work in the film. Because it’s never clearly spelled out that she’s an addict, she just seems to be acting in an unnatural and unconvincing manner. Linda Darnell did well as the sorely-tempted wife, and John Russell, usually cast as a bad guy at this time, was fine as the deceived, nice-guy husband. But it’s clearly Widmark’s film, and he gets to run through a full gallery of his personae. He’s a trickster, a heel, a crook and a romantic. Andre de Toth coaxed a sour, disillusioned performance out of the usually righteous Dick Powell in “Pitfall” and a similar heel-into-hero transformation for Robert Ryan in “Day of the Outlaw.” The world of de Toth’s films is shot through with cruelty, violence and, above all, deception. “Slattery’s Hurricane” begins in media res with Slattery arriving in a driving rainstorm, clobbering the smugglers’ muscle and stealing their Grumman Mallard seaplane. As he heads into the storm, his story is told in a series of flashbacks. It’s a good film that could have been a better one. Aside from its whitewashed depiction of the Lake character’s addiction, and her almost miraculous return to normalcy once Widmark renounces Darnell, the ending, in which (a) Widmark survives the storm even after his engines conk out and (b) he avoids prison even after he confesses to working for drug smugglers feels a tad too “Hollywood.” Maybe the film needs a modern re-make. After all, we still have ex-Navy pilots, drug smugglers and hurricanes.