Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Edge Of Fury (1958)

What a bizarre little movie. Shot on a ten cent budget with no name actors, EDGE OF FURY is nevertheless a movie with real power to disturb. Adapted from the novel WISTERIA COTTAGE by the Lost Generation art critic/novelist Robert Coates, the film tells the story of a troubled young painter named Richard Barry who befriends an elderly woman named Florence and her two daughters, sexy and sarcastic Louisa, and doe-eyed innocent Eleanor. When Barry finds a cottage for sale on the beach, he convinces the ladies to buy it as a summer home for the four of them. As the summer wears on, tensions begin to strain, particularly between Richard and Louisa, until finally Richard snaps.

Richard is played in a fearless performance by the actor Michael Higgins. At the time, Higgins was an unknown bit player on television, but he connects to this character in an awful way. Richard can be ingratiatingly needy, and its easy to see why kindly Florence takes a liking to him. It helps that Lois Holmes makes Florence a real human being, one capable both of warmth toward the confused young man and, later, of resolve as he starts to come unhinged. And he does come unhinged. One thing I enjoyed about Higgins’ performance is that he never makes Richard menacing in a conventional way. He’s weird, even creepy, but he’s also awkward and nerdy. You can also understand why the sassy older daughter thinks she can push him around and mock him to his face. Until she finds out differently, that is.

The film was co-directed by Robert J. Gurney (whose other credits were primarily cheapies like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN) and, possibly more importantly, Irving Lerner. Lerner would go on to direct a couple of first rate crime pictures, CITY OF FEAR and MURDER BY CONTRACT before settling into a career as an editor and television director. On this project, Gurney and Lerner made a film quite unlike anything either of them would do again. It’s a strange piece of work, violent and neurotic, predating PSYCHO but occupying a similar emotional place. It reminds me of another film: watching this movie, I could swear that I saw some foreshadowing of Travis Bickle. I’d be interested to know if Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro or Paul Schrader had seen EDGE OF FURY before they made TAXI DRIVER.

One thing that both PSYCHO and TAXI DRIVER have in common with EDGE OF FURY is a focus on disturbed male characters with deeply tortured relationships with women. This film is surprising in its frankness (for the time) about sex. Louisa taunts Richard with her body—unsnapping her bikini top and asking him to rub on sun tan lotion—and he recoils from her teases with a prudish rage. Likewise, when sweet young Eleanor develops feelings for Richard, he reacts with anger. Sex is repugnant to him. In an unsettling later scene, Eleanor tries to kiss him and Richard throws her on the ground and attacks her. It’s unclear exactly what has happened—I read the scene as a rape—but the next morning Eleanor, clearly upset but trying to act chipper, apologizes to HIM. This is problematic for obvious reasons, but the sequence could certainly work it handled right. After all, some victims of sexual assault do feel a misplaced sense of guilt. Yet we’re never quite sure what’s going on with Eleanor. Her attraction to Richard never makes much sense—he’s clearly got a lot of problems—and at the point Richard finally begins to snap, the film shifts the focus away from Eleanor and she disappears.

Ironically, Florence and Louisa come into sharper focus at this point. Florence finds a righteous anger to confront Richard (not abut the rape, which is never discussed out in the open and which Florence seems to know nothing about), and Louisa finds a genuine concern for her sister and mother.

In some ways, EDGE OF FURY reminds me of Edward Dmytryk’s THE SNIPER, another classic noir about misogyny. Both films are flawed, but they are also valuable in observing these issues begin to emerge in the culture. However, where THE SNIPER was stark and matter of fact about its story, EDGE OF FURY has a haunted quality, accentuated by the music of Robert Sydney and the ethereal cinematography of Jack Couffer, Marvin Weinstein, and a young Conrad Hall (who was just starting out in movies). EDGE OF FURY isn’t a perfect work of art, but it is genuinely unsettling. How many fifties films can you say that about?

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