5 August 2002 | bmacv
McCambridge, Roman stand out in King Vidor's overloaded desert melodrama
Richard Todd sits on death row, waiting execution for his wife's murder. At the eleventh hour, a reprieve and new trial come through; he's acquitted, thanks to one holdout juror (Mercedes McCambridge). Released, he disappears into the west Texas desert.
Enter Ruth Roman, a touring actress in search of the desert's restorative climate. An innkeeper and his wife become solicitous of her when she stops in a small town, and lend her a car to get to the dude ranch where she hopes to recuperate. En route (in a scene prescient of Janet Leigh's flight from Phoenix in Psycho), she gets lost in thunderstorms and takes refuge in an abandoned house -- where Todd is holed up. They size one another up and, next morning, she continues on to the dude ranch. Run by McCambridge and her emotionally disturbed young brother (Darryl Hickman), it has closed down, but they agree to put Roman up for a few days. But she seeks out Todd again, despite conflicting stories about his guilt or innocence.
Director King Vidor and scriptwriter Lenore Coffee, having goaded Bette Davis to pull out all the stops in Beyond The Forest two years earlier, here take on another overloaded melodrama, with mixed results. We see too little of key events and rely instead on hearsay about other characters, who sometimes haven't yet been sufficiently established (and the one brief flashback is a mistake -- we need either more or none). And of eight major characters, two or even three (including Zachary Scott) prove superfluous. But the movie's biggest stumble lies in the casting of Richard Todd. Remembered if at all as the title character in that echt-1950s biopic of pious patriotism A Man Called Peter, here his stiff British accent and acting falsify the whole Southwestern milieu (Lightning Strikes Twice, like Desert Fury of five years earlier, evokes the new Sunbelt of money and leisure).
Happily, the female characters fall on the plus side. Kathryn Givney shows spunk and intelligence as the strangely solicitous Mrs. Nolan. Ruth Roman, on evidence of this movie and Tomorrow Is Another Day, had more range and subtlety than she was let display in her best known role as Farley Granger's mannikin-like fiancee in Strangers on a Train. But the acting honors, inevitably, fall to McCambridge. Looking especially tomboyish, her face registers every thought and feeling that passes through her head; she's hyper-alert in her moods and responses. And so, as was her custom during her disappointingly thin screen career, she delivers the most memorable performance of the film.