Slattery’s Hurricane (1949)

Director: André de Toth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

 A torrent of windswept rain is now smashing against our windows and outside the water is filling the streets, and the wind is intensifying, swaying power wires and trees. Miraculously we still have power, but I fear for a cessation as the eye of the storm is predicted in about four or five hours. Few if any cars are on the streets, with only police sirens heard in the distance. It’s a real sight to behold. So far the sewers are holding up. We have three leaks in the house, and have strategically placed plastic containers to gather the water. I just applied plastic packing tape on the front windows in the kitchen and living room to guard against glass splattering. Weather forecasters are saying, however, that the storm has lost a bit of its severity by staying on land, but warn against anyone letting their guard down.

Film blogger from Wonders in the Dark, frequent FonF commenter, and good friend Sam Juliano sent this dispatch from the front as Hurricane Irene has New Yorkers and New Jerseyites hunkering down for an unaccustomed bit of weather. Facebook is all abuzz with hurricane talk and FB friend Lesley Gaspar asked for suggestions of hurricane movies to watch while waiting out the storm. Slattery’s Hurricane came immediately to mind.

Slattery’s Hurricane is a noirish kind of film in plotting and casting. It establishes a self-reproachful voiceover narration by Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) as he reviews the selfish, stupid moves he made in the previous few weeks as he flies an airplane into a Category 1 hurricane. A naval airman during WWII who was busted out of the Navy for disobeying orders so that he could sink an enemy vessel, Slattery has lived for money and the moment as a private pilot for Miami “candy” (drug) distributor A.J. Milne (Walter Kingsford). Like many a great noir antihero, Slattery’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of former flame Aggie (hot-as-hell Linda Darnell), married to Will’s buddy “Hobbie” Hobson (hunky John Russell), when the old Navy pals run into each other on a Miami street and later have dinner.

Hobbie is still with the Navy, attached to their meteorology division, and he takes Will up on a mission and right into the eye of a hurricane to show Will what he does. Will returns the favor by taking Hobbie and a reluctant Aggie up in the plane he flies for Milne; his stunts, meant to impress Aggie, frighten her instead, and they head back to the Milne estate where Will is reprimanded by Milne’s nervous partner Gregory (Joe De Santis). Dolores Grieves (Veronica Lake), Milne’s secretary and Will’s girl of the moment, senses that Will and Aggie seem to know each other, but lets it go. Will doesn’t. Will and Aggie arrange to keep bumping into each other until the initially resistant Aggie responds to Will’s declaration of undying love with passion. The affair is back on.

Fortunately, De Toth’s strategy to skirt the Hays Office keeps this adulterous affair off the screen, and we are left with a very exciting “man against the elements” feature. The film is a wonder in the way it depicts what storm trackers did in the days before satellite radar could paint an accurate location for a hurricane and make landfall predictions to aid evacuation efforts—fly planes into the eye of the storm and have them send back coordinates. The sequence in which Hobbie and his crew take Will through each step of their work is fascinating, and the airplane interior shudders and creaks believably in the heavy weather; a process shot of the cloud wall of the eye is breathtaking to contemplate. Just as with Day of the Outlaw, De Toth makes great use of real locations to lend atmosphere. The tropical exteriors in Florida and the Caribbean, with their cloud-filled skies and strong breezes, lend the elemental force the film needs, and the drug-running sequences resonate with what we know about the illicit drug trade in that part of the world.

The opening sequence jumps us right into the action, as we see Will, already fighting the building wind, walk onto Milne’s estate, punch out another one of Milne’s employees when he tries to stop Will from taking the plane, and take off. Hobbie and his commander (Gary Merrill) threaten Will by radio with a courtmartial (Will has been cleared and reinstated as a reservist by the Navy and given a medal for his bravery), but the stubborn Will insists they use him for storm tracking as long as he’s up there—he wants to die doing something good. This sequence is almost a mirror of the climax of Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, but audiences in 1949 were not in the mood for any downer endings after a world war, and the film suffers as a consequence.

More problematic is Will’s shift from Aggie back to Dolores at the close. Will has treated Dolores like a convenience—it’s clear that even if Aggie hadn’t come back into the picture, Dolores was little more than a placeholder. Bold for 1949, Dolores is a drug addict (“Please Mr. Milne, I’m sick, I’m very sick,” she says in a moment of upset); later, she shoots up (off camera) and ODs at the naval base when she sees Will and Aggie together after Will’s award ceremony. Will’s guilt is how the script has him discover his deeper feelings for Dolores, but I just didn’t buy it. When he says repeatedly that he never got Aggie out of his system—and when you compare the two women—there’s no question that he’s telling the truth. Aggie is gorgeous and alive, whereas Dolores is mousey and a walking shadow. De Toth and his wife Lake, who was actually addicted to drugs and alcohol, wanted to break her out of her femme fatale roles. While she is heartbreaking and shows how brave an actress she is in this film, the script doesn’t offer the kind of support needed to really change her image; she needed a complete break from noir for that. Slattery’s Hurricane was her last picture for a major studio. After one more film, an independently made Western called Stronghold (1951) and two no-budget horror films, her big-screen career was over.

Widmark gives a tour de force performance with energy to burn. We don’t need the voiceover to tell us that Will is scared, that his impulsiveness has him close to the edge. In a scene where Gregory demands what he took from Milne when the drug boss died of a heart attack on the plane, you can practically see Widmark calculate his odds if he lies to them about having the drugs. In a film shot today, we’d see a gunfight; in Slattery’s Hurricane, we see a man who knows he’s not quite smart or strong enough to rob a drug smuggler and get away with it. It’s a shame that crime has gotten so stupid in the movies today. If you look at it objectively, his guilt-driven daredevil routine is 90 percent suicide attempt, as his odds of having a successful mission are close to nil and his exposure of the drug smuggling ring might never have come had his failing radio truly gone dead. In honor of his success, the naval mission is called “Slattery’s Hurricane,” but this “hero” really never stopped being a heel.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    28th/08/2011 to 2:36 pm

    This one skirted the rules quite cleverly – nowadays we automatically assume drug use for poor Dolores; back then they wanted the audience to assume she was an psycho alky – the hospital scene had a tiny inkling it was drugs if they looked quick enough, tho. Lake was really good here, and between her, Widmark and Darnell, this a tight, smart cast by themselves. It’s one of the great flight films, IMNSHO, they used the real stuff, and showed how the Right Stuff worked. Widmark was really the glue, too, he kept the film in continuity despite all the flashbacks. I still see this as a war film in a way – not just the background, but Widmark’s fighting the drug ring and Mother Nature at the same time, in left-over WWII airplanes, with the same intensity as combat – I think it qualifies. They used to show this film on TV all the time, I loved it as a kid, and I even ran across a magazine serialization of the book that had killer pulp illustrations, that exactly matched the intensity of the film. Thanks for the excellent review, I hope more people see this film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/08/2011 to 4:08 pm

    Van – Thanks. I agree that the performances are great. Eddie Muller also thinks that Milne and Gregory are a gay couple, which seems quite plausible but not underlined in the same way Dolores’ drug use is. As far as calling it a war film, well, the war kind of hovers over most post-war films because so many of the male parts are presented as former servicemen. I don’t know if I agree that this is a war film – certainly Will wasn’t fighting the drug lords. If he really wanted to get them, he would have ensured that someone knew about his note in the safe deposit box instead of radioing the info.

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