Sunday, June 2, 2013

DVR Diary: RUN FOR THE SUN (1956)

In the story "The Most Dangerous Game" Richard Connell gave cinema one of its most popular tropes. You can probably trace any movie in which people are hunted for sport to Connell's 1924 story, which was first made into a movie by Merian C. Cooper's crew in 1932. Roy Boulting's Run For the Sun, made for a production company partly bankrolled by Jane Russell, takes the trouble to credit Connell as its source -- and for all I know they may have paid Connell's estate (the author died in 1949) for the rights. Rights to what, though? Once you watch the picture, you wonder why they acknowledged Connell at all. Had it become established legal precedent that the idea of people hunting people -- and not necessarily for sport -- was the intellectual property of Richard Connell and his heirs? Maybe Boulting and co-writer Dudley Nichols originally intended a more faithful retelling of the old story, but that's not what they ended up with.

Instead, we have Richard Widmark playing Michael Latimer, a famous author clearly based on Ernest Hemingway. Like the protagonist of Connell's story, Hemingway was a famous hunter. Like the protagonist of Boulting's film, Hemingway was a best-selling novelist and a war correspondent. Latimer's latest novel has bombed, much like Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950. Unlike Hemingway, who bounced back with The Old Man and the Sea -- which turned out to be the last major work published in his lifetime -- Latimer has reacted to failure by disappearing. Katie Connors (Jane Greer) is out to track him down for Sight magazine. She finds him somewhere in Central America living a dissolute he-man lifestyle. She tries to conceal her interest but it doesn't work. Like Hemingway, Latimer resents reporters prying into his personal life, but eventually warms to Katie. He even offers to fly her to Mexico City, the first leg of her return to New York. But her magnetized notebook screws up the compass of his plane, forcing them off course and into a forced landing deep in the jungle. This becomes an international news story, echoing the premature obituaries written for Hemingway when his plane crashed during a 1954 safari. There are more potentially Hemingway-inspired details in this section, most notably Latimer's pining for a first wife who was his original inspiration to write, but once the plane lands in the jungle Run for the Sun ceases to be a riff on Hemingway without quite becoming "The Most Dangerous Game."

Latimer and Connors are taken in by an Englishman named Browne (Trevor Howard) who already has a permanent houseguest, a Dutch archaeologist studying nearby ruins. Latimer senses something familiar about Browne but can't place it. Meanwhile, local Indians seem to have made off with Latimer's plane, which he had hoped to repair. Something's fishy about that, too, and Latimer starts nosing around the estate until he finds pieces of the plane, his pistol, and various bits of Nazi paraphernalia. Now everything clicks. What Latimer recognized about Browne was his voice. The character is a version of "Lord Haw-Haw" the British voice of German propaganda broadcasts during World War II. Unlike the best-known Haw-Haw, William Joyce, Browne has escaped Allied vengeance and holed up with the alleged archaeologist, who proves to have been a genuine war criminal. Neither of them wants their whereabouts or true identities to be known by the outside world, and Latimer's efforts to bargain for Connors's life prove futile. They have to make a break for it, and the villains have to go after them. At no point is there any proposition that Latimer and Connors win their freedom if they hold out for a certain time. This is no formal or sporting hunt as in "The Most Dangerous Game," nor is there any reflection by Latimer on the hunter having become the hunted, which would have been the bare minimum we should have expected from an official adaptation of the Connell story. It may seem mean of me to criticize a film for actually being original, but it just seems stupid to acknowledge Connell needlessly when Jane Russell could have saved herself whatever money she might have spent on the rights.

On its own merits, the film benefits most from its Mexican locations. Widmark is more convincing as a plain adventurer than as an artist, but that'll do for this picture, while Greer, whose character could represent any number of Hemingway love interests, not to mention Lillian Ross, the author of an infamous celebrity profile of the novelist, gradually recedes into the role of a damsel in distress. The script has its stupid moments, especially when Latimer endangers himself and Connors by  boasting of everything he knows about Browne's past. But the villains are the film's weak point, however odd it may seem that Nazis make less compelling antagonists than decadent aristocrats. That's how it is, just the same. Run for the Sun isn't a terrible movie; at its best it has the urgent technicolor vitality of the period's paperback original covers. But "The Most Dangerous Game" is a better story, and better movies have been made closer to the source.

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