“The desert,” says Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey), “I’d personally give it back to the Indians.” He and longtime partner Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) hole up on a ranch outside of Las Vegas. Once he meets a girl, Eddie wants to stay put. His second-in-command thinks otherwise. Chuckawalla is strictly small time. Johnny dreams big, for the both of them.
What starts off as a caper movie quickly takes a strange turn. Eddie orders Johnny to stop at the bridge five miles from town. He complies, reluctantly. When an icy blonde pulls up behind them in a wood-paneled convertible, Eddie looks like he’s seen a ghost. The blonde is Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott), one of the locals. We later learn she’s a ringer for his deceased wife who drove off the bridge. While Miklós Rózsa’s pervasive violins scream “melodrama,” Johnny reacts with more than brotherly concern when he senses Eddie’s attraction.
My colleague Jesse Ataide’s essay “Furious Queerness” calls this “one of the weirdest, queerest films I’ve ever seen.” But, don’t look for any overt sex, hetero or homo. It’s all in the subtext that ultimately comes up and hits you in the face. There’s an explanation made for Johnny’s possessiveness. He needs Eddie as an attractive front, that’s why he can’t let go. It’s too convenient and doesn’t address Johnny’s obvious emotional involvement. Paula is unusually attached to her mother, Fritzi (Mary Astor). Ataide also wonders how the extraordinarily butch Fritzi “stomping about in slacks, barking orders, and endlessly calling Scott ‘Baby’ “ could’ve been seen as anything but a lesbian. During a thunderstorm, Fritzi hints at a standing offer to share Mother’s bed. It’s no wonder Deputy Tom (Burt Lancaster) is the odd man out, with the same-sex action taking center stage.
A rare Technicolor noir, directed by Lewis Allen, the look of the film is beautifully rendered. In her book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, Imogen Sara Smith describes the picture perfect allure: “Everything unfolds in high style against glowing landscapes, like a brochure for a desert resort: burnished yellow, molten orange and sandstone red set off by cool dusky blue night scenes.” To Johnny, who hopes to get back with “the boys” in LA, the sagebrush-littered desert is more “a cactus graveyard” strewn with bad memories. Longing for familiar urban ground, it’s a place he couldn’t leave soon enough.