Color Watch: Hellfire (1949)
There has been one glaring deficiency in the movies we’ve chosen to discuss thus far: color. For the month of January, we’re expanding our palette by watching five color films from the 1920s to the 1950s. This week, Adam and Rodney watched Hellfire from 1949.
Adam: Right from the get-go, it’s apparent that Hellfire is an unusual Western. After the credits appear over a roaring blaze, a Godlike voice intones, “Man with his misdeeds kindles his own HELLFIRE!” Then there’s a rapid-fire montage of sin: six shooters blazing, a woman being whipped, drunkenness, carousing, and lustful dancing. However, any thought that this might be a raging fire-and-brimstone action story are immediately extinguished by the first scene which takes a couple unexpected turns.
A preacher (appropriately enough played by H.B. Warner, J.C. in DeMille’s King of Kings) is pleading for some rowdy bar patrons to donate money to the building of a church. One drunkard dumps a shot of whiskey into his empty hat. Zeb Smith (Wild Bill Elliott) slugs the miscreant. Thinking he acted out of honor, the priest says, “Thank you, friend, but you shouldn’t have done that for me.” Zeb scoffs, “For you? That was my drink he took,” and goes back to his poker game.
Rodney: The opening was strange to me, because it looks like a typical Republic western, but doesn’t act like one. Already the use of color is notable, and the montage definitely leads one to believe that they’re seeing something different. I wonder how many viewers expected a “regular” Republic feature and were surprised to see the difference in tone.
A: The writing, by brothers Dorrell and Stuart McGowan, plays by the genre’s rules in its dialogue (punchy lines like, “Fast on the draw and fast on the jaw, ain’t ya!?”) and situations (shootouts in saloons, horseback journeys through the brush, sieges on the town jail), but it blazes trails with characters that occasionally betray the audience’s sympathy and an overarching sense that the path of righteousness has many bends and gnarled patches.
That priest is integral to the plot—he sets Zeb on a journey to raise money for a church playing by “the rules,” i.e. The Bible. The reformed card shark’s spiritual quest is one of three trajectories in the film. Forrest Tucker as Marshal Bucky is on a quest for justice—namely, the arrest of bandit Doll Brown. The third quest is to reunite a family. Marie Windsor plays the bandit, who in a former life was in an abusive relationship which led to her sister fleeing. She is searching in every tawdry tavern to reunite with her sibling.
R: What this movie does so well is slowly take you over to Doll Brown’s side in all of this, at least it did me. I never condoned her actions, but I always felt great sympathy for her character, trying to do all the right things in the wrong ways. Forrest Tucker didn’t really register much with me, although he was perfectly capable in the role. His quest for justice seemingly goes awry during the later third of the film, which makes him an even more complicated character to emotionally reckon with.
A: Wild Bill Elliott is top-billed, and his implacable presence is the guiding hand of the story, but there’s no doubt who makes the biggest impression: Marie Windsor. Maybe this impact is because she is essentially playing a character with three identities, the bandit Doll Brown, the seductress Julie Gaye, and Mary Carson, the blessed (or the penitent). I agree with you, she garners sympathy despite the ruthlessness. Maybe it’s because the Utah-native was just a natural on horseback. Maybe it’s because her big blue eyes glow like sapphire in Trucolor. Whatever the case may be, Windsor fully inhabits this character and is the single most compelling reason to watch the film. She was especially proud of this role. In a later interview, she put Hellfire in her top three performances right alongside The Narrow Margin and The Killing.
Wild Bill delivers a great line about this extremely complicated character: “You’d be a mighty uncomfortable woman to be married to.”
R: Early on in the pandemic, I went down a deep dive and wound up running all of Wild Bill’s Red Ryder pictures here at home. It was the sort of film festival that I wouldn’t be likely to get around to during more normal times, but I found the experience pretty amiable overall, and I was happy to get to spend a little more time with him while viewing this picture. One particular line made me chuckle out loud as Zeb (Wild Bill) refers to himself as a “peaceable man,” which seemed to harken back to his days as Red Ryder.
A: I’m embarrassed to say I am not familiar at all with Wild Bill’s Westerns. One of these days, I’ll dutifully sit down with my copy of Don Miller’s Hollywood Corral and play catch up. Incidentally, I just checked and the chapter on him begins with the line, “I’m a peaceable man.” So, I guess that was sort of a catchphrase that went over my head.
R: I completely agree with you though that Marie Windsor is the star of the show here, looking absolutely beautiful in the Trucolor hues. She also has the most complex role of the entire film by a long shot. I was unaware that she held this film in such high regard, but after viewing it, it’s very easy to understand why. In every scene that she’s in, she holds you in rapture. It’s really quite a feat.
A: Trucolor was a more economical process than Technicolor but it’s still lush looking. It seems to favor blue and orange (those beautiful Western skies and, naturally, the fire) and is almost entirely devoid of green. The cinematography by Republic-mainstay Jack Marta is top notch. It was a real pleasure choosing still images for this post. The compositions, color, and lighting are stunning.
For anyone who enjoyed Hellfire, it’s worth comparing it to Singing Guns made the following year by Republic. It’s got the same architects—the Brothers McGowan wrote it and it’s again directed by R.G. Springsteen, and it’s in Trucolor. The unlikely star, big band leader Vaughn Monroe, does get in a couple songs (“Mule Train” is the highlight), but it’s another surprisingly cerebral movie and it also has a strong female lead in Ella Raines.
R: Trucolor was indeed more economical than Technicolor but filled an interesting middle ground in that it was more expensive (and more visually appealing) than Cinecolor. Technicolor, on average, cost .0622 cents per foot, compared to .0592 cents for Cinecolor and .06 cents for Trucolor. Republic eventually was able to make a Trucolor feature for about 13% more than a black and white film. The process wasn’t perfect. You note issues with greens, which explains why the use of greenscreens was especially problematic with Trucolor, which Republic used to marketing advantage by stating that certain releases would be filmed entirely on location. They did offer the process to independent producers and often offered financial support as well as their technical staff for certain productions (including Hellfire).
A: That extra expense was worth it just to get the Republic eagle in color.
Hellfire is a layered movie that rewards multiple viewings. The second time around, the flame motif really stood out. Wild Bill destroys a pile of guns in a flame, he contemplates the Bible next to a flame, he cauterizes a wound with an iron in a flame, he escapes danger by kicking a campfire into his captor’s faces, and he is tied up and tortured by having a lit oil lamp pressed on his naked back. The recurrences serve as a reminder of that opening quote. The hellfire is constantly kindled—whether it’s used for good or evil is up to the person.
R: Indeed, symbolism runs rampant in Hellfire, the use of fire is especially forceful, and, arguably, overdone. I was concerned about the religious overtones in the film, which, frankly, I can sometimes find off-putting in vintage cinema, but it all seemed appropriate to the parable of the film.
A: There is no ambiguity: this is a starkly religious movie. I think it plays well to a secular audience because Wild Bill is an especially pragmatic Man of God and the redemption arcs rely on hard lessons, not miracles.
I first took note of this movie when, in 2018, The Museum of Modern Art presented 30 restored Republic Pictures in conjunction with Paramount Pictures and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. I had to read about that series from afar, so it was great to finally catch up with this restoration at home. It certainly met my lofty expectations. 4 stars.
R: Completely agreed. Republic is one of my favorite studios, and I often lament how difficult it is to find truly great copies of many of their product. The Scorsese/Paramount restorations were extremely welcome and exciting when announced, and I’m sad to say that I’ve only managed to see two of them so far (a theatrical screening of That Brennan Girl being the other). I’m on board for ANY of them based on those two films. The restoration finally does this film justice. Four stars all the way. What a treat.