One of several testaments of a filmmaker’s quality is his or her ability to take the familiar and bend it into a new shape, to tackle recognizable tropes and offer a different perspective and setting. Cornel Wilde, an actor whose popularity rose in the 1940s, highlighted by an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in 1943’s A Song to Remember, shifted to producing and directing the following decade. As has been written numerous times by far more accomplished critics, what better film tapestry to flex one’s storytelling muscles than noir? They don’t cost much and its tone lends them to stories braced with more grit and daring. Wilde embraced much of what makes film noir such a rich movement for 1955’s Storm Fear, for which he worked both in front of and behind the camera, all the while providing a film experience that shuns certain expectations.
The story opens not in a damp, nocturnal urban landscape where the streetlights make the puddles below glisten, but rather in broad daylight in a winter wilderness. 12-year old David (David Stollery) and his family’s hired hand Hank (Dennis Weaver) return to the child’s home after a pleasant afternoon of successful ice fishing. All is not well in the confines of their house however, as father Fred (Dan Duryea) is a sickly figure and struggling author, having not published anything in about four years. His self-pitying and sullen attitude have to a lesser degree infected mother Elizabeth (Jean Wallace), whose strives to keep a pleasant demeanour despite the undesirable reigning atmosphere. Their collective familial misery is nothing compared to what’s next when Charlie (Cornel Wilde), Fred’s brother and Elizabeth’s old flame, arrives unannounced with two other characters, Edna (Lee Grant) and crazy-eyed Benjie (Steven Hill), a trio of escaped bank robbers fleeing the authorities. Although Charlie only wants to spend the night to rest a wounded leg, the approaching snow storm means they’ll have to stay much longer…
There are lot of ingredients that help Storm Fear stand apart from one’s ‘usual’ noir, whatever that might mean. The most obvious is the wintry, country landscape. While it is somewhat disappointing that no shady shadows dominating nefarious alleyways make any cameos, thematically the story’s solitary location is rather befitting of what the genre speaks to. Time and time again it has been argued that noir explores people’s disaffected attitude towards the norm, towards society’s standard expectations. Its protagonists and anti-heroes go against the grain, for both the right and wrong reasons. The isolation expressed by such characters in an urban environment is transposed with relative ease to the countryside, where isolation is exactly what one signs up for, the one major problem in this family’s case is that they are wrestling with past and present misfortunes, and thus have virtually no support because there is no one around to begin with.
Storm Fear’s distinct qualities go deeper however. Lest it be overlooked, Dan Duryea does not play the film’s actual antagonist. Duryea’s career, especially during the classic noir era, is littered with movies asking him to don the mask of absolute slime balls, miscreants, in fact. Make no mistake, Duryea, for whatever reason, excelled at playing cheap skate lowlifes that sucked the livelihood of others, cheating, lying, and manipulating others to get what his characters desired. Rarely did he portray anyone the viewer could empathize with, but Fred in Storm Fear is one such example. He’s no saint, as his professional misfortune and declining health have taken their toll on his soul, diminishing his personality to that of an embittered husband, whose obvious jealousy resurfaces when Charlie shows his face for the first time in years. It is safe to argue that on an emotional and psychological level, Fred has mishandled his shortcomings, but he isn’t a creep nor is he inherently evil. He is the man who in another noir would plan to rob the bank as Charlie did, but in this case is wallowing in defeat, abhorring his sibling’s callous ways.
A subtler quality helping the movie distinguish itself is the fact that, upon reflection, the story’s central figure is the child who lives an unforgettable coming of age episode. While the hoopla and chicanery erupting intermittently is between the adults (some of whom barely deserve that moniker). David is deeply attracted to his uncle Charlie. The latter creates an exciting frisson when he enters the room, yet he also expresses small gestures of respect and recognition to the nephew he barely gets to see. Learning that Charlie is in fact a criminal plants a seed of apprehension in David’s heart, yet that alone cannot repel his desire to help, maybe even guide him through the mountains once the storm passes.
While David does not feature prominently during the movie’s first half, once the plans to flee the house are set in motion, it is clear that the emotional anchor of all the main players (Fred, Elizabeth, and Charlie) rests with the kid. What’s more, David himself takes on a more active role when the going gets tough, including psychological support for Charlie when the latter finds himself at the mercy of a highly undesirable outcome. With each passing segment, David grows as a character, emerging from the innocence of childhood to the early stages of adulthood, which in essence entails learning that the world is a nasty, vile place when it wants to be, with no one to blame but the mischievous, conniving hearts of human beings themselves.
On a final note, albeit one that does not necessarily argue that Storm Fear is terribly different from the norm, director and star Cornel Wilde has concocted a film that is not for the faint of heart. That’s not to say that film noir is generally for moviegoers who enjoy their films sugar coated and wrapped with easy resolutions, yet Storm Fear cranks the grit and nihilism to a level that a fair number of noir entries would not attempt. Spoilers shall be avoided for the aficionados that have yet to give this film a spin, but suffice to say that certain characters meet unexpected and particularly gloomy ends, including some that, while no angels, did not really deserve so unfortunate a fate. This is truly dark noir, no pun untended.
Perhaps because it is lacks the aesthetic of classic noir, Storm Fear isn’t often mentioned in the discussion. Then again, part of what makes noir so interesting is its very malleability, a deceptively affective quality that Cornel Wilde takes full advantage here. Whatever the case may be, is it absolutely worth one’s time. Juggling deep love and hope with the unforgiving realities of the real world, it makes for a fresh viewing experience, and quite a way to stay cool inside during the hot summer season.