Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film Review: The Devil At 4 O'Clock (1961)

By Tennessee Jed

I recently promised a review of The Devil At 4 O'Clock (1961). Quite honestly, this movie had slipped by my radar until, while eating breakfast at the Pioneer Inn (1901) in the village of Lahaina on Maui, I saw an old movie poster on the wall and it piqued my curiosity.

As it turns out, the inn was used as the hotel in several scenes from the film which also features the harbor, old courthouse, and the banyon tree located nearby. Other scenes included the Io valley and famous "Road to Hanna." Initially, my curiosity centered primarily on recognizing in the film, some of the places where I had just been, particularly considering the amount of changes that took place over the past 50 years. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how much more was going on in this film than merely Hawaiian scenery.

The Review

I am hardly a professional film critic so apologies are offered in advance for lack of a real format. The review merely reflects my own observations and impressions.

The The Devil At 4 O'Clock was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy who has either produced or directed such films as Wizard of Oz, Little Caesar, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and The FBI Story. It may not be the first "disaster" genre movie ever made, but it certainly preceded (and probably inspired) the wave of such films released in the late 60's and 70's including "Airport" and "Poseidon Adventure."

At the time of it's release, it was critically acclaimed, particularly for the special effects. In fact, the shots depicting lava flow were used for a long time in later movies involving volcanic eruptions. It is always difficult to go back in time and view effects without comparing them with today's technology. Still, considering this film is 50 years old, it is worthwhile viewing for anyone just to consider the process of how movies were crafted back then.

The movie also features a cast with major stars Spencer Tracy in one of the last few films of his career, and Frank Sinatra just before his performance in Manchurian Candidate.

Plot

I will try to avoid any spoilers and limit discussion to little more than you might see in a trailer. The movie opens with a plane which is carrying three prisoners to the penitentiary in Tahiti. Another passenger is a young priest who is traveling to replace an older priest (Tracy) at a posting on the fictional island of "Talua," ably portrayed by the real life island of Maui. (I believe it should have been considered for an Oscar for best portrayal of a fictional island by a real island.)

The plane makes an overnight stop at Talua to refuel and drop off the young priest. Father Doonan is a crusty old man who has become cynical and questions his faith, but saves the three prisoners from a sadistic local jailer. The main prisoner, Harry (Sinatra) plays a crusty young man who has become cynical and never had much faith to begin with. Doonan requires the prisoners to travel with him up the slopes of the volcano on the island to do some work at a missionary school he founded for children with Hansen's disease (leprosy.) While there, Harry falls for Camille, a young native woman ably played by Barbara Luna (Marlena in the 1967 Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" among many other t.v. roles.) On the way back to town after completing the work, the volcano begins to behave erratically until . . . . all hell breaks loose. Most of the movie is predictable, but entertaining.

So Was It Any Good?

The movie develops a tad slowly, but eventually hits it's stride. In the old days, writers had to rely more heavily on dialog to fill in back story and develop the characters. The acting is reasonably good. Tracy, plows familiar fields as the priest (see Father Flannigan in 1938's Boy's Town). Sinatra is better than most pop singer icons who graduated to acting. Much like John Wayne or California's 'governator' Sinatra usually had the good sense to not stray too far afield from his own persona.

It is never easy to go back and see older movies without comparing it to today's techniques. Does the film looked dated? Of course, but that is half the fun to see how the craft of movie making has evolved over time. Also, it was a hoot to see many, if not all of the now familiar character and plot devices so familiar to the "disaster" genre.

But Wait, There's More

Yes, this movie has something of a twist! And, it actually attempts to deal with some larger and more idealistic themes, none of which I will reveal here.

As you watch this film, let me leave you with a some questions to consider:

1) How does this movie treat faith and religion? What would it's message be today? Would it even get made?

2) In the end, who really saves whom?

3) Do you consider this a "happy" ending? Is it sad or ultimately uplifting? Did they have focus groups in the 60's to "test" the best liked ending? (l.o.l.)

4) Does the representation of the French represent an over the top cliche?


13 comments:

ScottDS said...

Nice write-up! I confess I'd never heard of the film till now but I guess I'll have to put it on the Netflix queue.

Interesting comments about shooting in Hawaii and special effects. I'm a huge fan of Lost and they shoot in Hawaii (which has doubled for everything from New York City to Iraq). And it's always fun to watch old visual effects, back when this stuff had to be made up and manipulated by hand.

One of the reasons I stopped reading Cinefex magazine was every article soon became about pixels and polygons, as opposed to more "hands on" methods like model-making and cloud tank photography. I recommend a great book called Special Effects by Richard Rickitt.

Re: disaster films, I know Zero Hour! (later remade as Airplane!) came out in 1957 but this sounds as if it could've been one of the first ones.

Tennessee Jed said...

thanks Scott - from what I understand, the model of the actual volcano was built on a farm somewhere in California. The eruption was handled through . . what else, explosive devices.

Tennessee Jed said...

p.s. another one that I absolutely love that came out a little earlier was "A Night to Remember." As compelling as that was, it was pretty much an extremely factual telling of the Titanic disaster, so I didn't really count it. As you point out, there are undoubtedly others, but I couldn't think of any off the top of my head.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Pixels are the way of the future. . . sadly.


Jed, I have to admit I've never heard of this film, and I thought I'd seen most of Sinatra's films. I'll have to check this one out! Thanks.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennesee: Though the movie came out at the time I was most interested in movies, oddly I had never seen it until last year when it showed up on a cable channel (TCM, I think). By that time, I was a longtime fan of real actors and a forgiver of early special effects (I'm a real Harryhausen fan). By the time I got to seeing the movie, I had long since developed an affinity for real actors, real directors directing live actors, and cheesy special effects which were there to enhance plot rather than replace it.

If I'm going to get moral messages, I'll take those interspersed with human beings finding redemption, and an occasional pro-Christian message without preaching at me, over a contrived plot, anti-American and anti-military secular religion, and blue people with tails talking to trees.

Your review indicates that the pros should occasionally look to the heartfelt amateur reviewer who simply likes a movie because of its form and content and without any preconceptions about what he "ought to like." Well done, and thanks.

PS: You were looking at theater marquees in Hawaii? LOL

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - thanks for your kind words. I have never done a review, although will cop to writing book reports like the rest of us back in school, which for you and me, is pretty much a dim memory. It actually was kind of fun to try.

I have seen far too many reviews by newspaper film critics that essentially tells (not to mention spoils) the entire plot and then say whether the reviewer liked it or not. The two things I promised myself I would do were 1) write a review without reading any others, and 2) write the review based on a single, "first impression" viewing, so I'm kind of proud of myself for sticking to that.

The only things I looked up on IMBD were LeRoy's filmography, and the name of Barbara Luna's character as girlfriend of the "bad" Kirk in Star Trek.

While this was hardly a great film, I was caught of guard (pleasantly so) by the ending

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: I think your instincts are excellent. Compare Devil at 4 O'Clock with the blockbuster (and lousy) When Time Ran Out. Compare the successful In Old Chicago with the blockbuster (and lousy) The Towering Inferno. It's most important to make your own judgments (and your own reviews) based on what you think. It's perfectly acceptable to pre-color your own viewing based on what you know about the actors and directors of movies you will be viewing and/or reviewing when it comes from your own viewing of their prior movies. It's far less important to consider what other reviewers think, and think you ought to think. And unlike 1 + 1 = 2, which is a matter of fact, a "good movie" versus a "bad movie" is a matter of opinion and taste. You can prove that a movie is technically deficient, and catch errors in plot and continuity, but you can't "prove" a movie qua movie was good.

And as a high compliment to you, I'd be far more likely to view or shun a movie based on what you say than what Roger Ebert says.

Writer X said...

You had me at Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra.

I've not seen this film but I do love the rawness of films from this time period. That's because they use dialogue to create tension, not just special effects. I know it can sometimes come across as "campy" but, for some weird reason, I always liked it.

Thanks, Jed! Great review!

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Writer X. As a side note, I don't know how you obtain films, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the digital transfer (telecine) for a this one. For such an old film, the image quality was very nice, although the best from that era in my view was the recent DVD re-release of Ben-Hur.

(p.s. apologies to Scott for bringing pixels into the discussion!)

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk, your comments about Towering Inferno reminded me of my first job in the insurance industry as a technical representative. Basically, that meant I worked with clients to help reduce their exposure to loss, so at that time, I was, for example, learning about state of the art life safety systems in high rise buildings. We screened a copy of Towering Inferno at work, and while we appreciated the "spotlight" given to life safety by the movie, we had plenty of guffaws at how technically inaccurate it was. Remember, too, how it featured that legendary great actor, O.J. Simpson as a firefighter?

ScottDS said...

Jed -

No problem! Nothing wrong with pixels, I just get bored reading about them all the time. :-)

Nice to hear the DVD transfer is a good one. Some studios are better than others when it comes to that sort of thing. It also depends on the condition of the original elements, the skill of the telecine technician, the amount of money involved, etc.

Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind are three classic films that also look great on DVD (and now Blu-Ray).

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - you are so right about those fils, and they are even older. In particular, there is something about the Casablanca released in classic B&W that is just awesome.

StanH said...

Good overview Jed! I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ll seek it out.

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