Inferno (1953; Roy Ward Baker) is the type of movie that would have been created by Albert Camus and Fred Nietzsche on a Friday night tequila bender: an incredible, existential neo-noir “man against nature fight for survival” that’s grounded by yet another tour de force performance by legendary actor Robert Ryan.
It’s a taut thriller that continuously ups the ante, with a unique structure, and nary a wasted moment.
Originally released in 3-D, and rarely screened since then (I didn’t know the film even existed until a few years ago), Inferno is a new fave of mine, and another “Great Older Film Discovery” for this year.
Like a mad combo of the philosophical/survivalist aspects of The Incredible Shrinking Man, William Golding’s underappreciated novel Pincher Martin, the first 20 minutes of There Will Be Blood, and The Book of Job,
Inferno is, for the most part, a one-man show, following millionaire Ryan as he’s left to die in the Mojave Desert after he’s broken his leg in a horseback-riding accident.
The movie intercuts between Ryan struggling alone in the harsh environment, and his wife and her lover as they cover their tracks, create false leads to send the cops in the wrong direction, and then, thinking Ryan’s dead, kicking back and enjoying their ill-gotten gains.
Often the film plunges into sick humor as it counter’s Ryan’s parched, miserable condition with the lovers’ access to plenty of water: they’re shown diving into clear blue swimming pools, squirting seltzer water into ice-filled glasses, getting soup and food brought to them by servants, and so on.
Meanwhile, the audience is given access to the determined man’s thoughts via voice-over. But in contrast to his grim physical condition, Ryan’s VO is cool and sardonic, usually very self-deprecating—bordering on fatalism—he looks at some currency in his wallet, and says, “Well, I could use it to start a fire”—
and most importantly he never whines.
It’s this lack of self-pity that helps garner sympathy for this “doomed” man:
While nearly every other character in the film refers to Ryan as a mean, paranoid guy, the film wisely never shows us that. We can believe it, Ryan’s certainly played enough roles like that, but we never see it in the film itself, thus maintaining empathy for the guy.
What we do see is a man unjustly maligned, and his struggle to survive: it’s a physical ordeal that becomes a spiritual transformation.
Honestly, Inferno is an inspirational film: when Ryan says, “I am going to live,” he means it.
Ryan is a broken man who does the impossible through sheer will, and he only has faith in himself—not once in the film does he call out to any mythological being for aid. God helps those who help themselves.
Fuck Chuck Norris. You want a real man? Look for Robert Ryan.
This movie should have been called “Crucible” because Ryan’s character is transformed by the heat and horrors (including rattlesnakes and coyotes)—his bad personality traits melted away by the experience in the inhospitable wastelands. He will never be the same again.
For an American flick, its structure and tone is very European—it feels like a missing Henri-George Clouzot film (although it has nothing to do with Clouzot’s unfinished film of the same name).
Having Englishman Roy Ward Baker (credited as “Roy Baker”) as director, though, probably helped. Inferno feels much more mature and intelligent than other pictures of the time.
Importantly, this is one of those rare movies where the protagonist’s brain is more important than his fists: because he’s so well read, Ryan’s character knows how to find water, set his own leg, use unrelated items as survival tools, and more.
Baker also directed the classic 1950s Titanic flick A Night to Remember; in 1968, he helmed the sci-fi classic Five Million Miles to Earth (a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit) for Hammer, and in 1973, the kinky curio Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde for that company, as well.
Unavailable on any home viewing format (I don’t think it was even ever on VHS), Inferno used to be available on YouTube. That account is now closed, but snoop around; you can find Inferno if you look.
For a review of the movie as a 3-D experience—with intermission (!?!), go HERE