Saturday, October 8, 2011

Desire in the Dust

If you want to see a very overboiled potboiler, you could do far worse than to watch the southern family melodrama Desire in the Dust, which is airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel. (Even the title sounds fun.)

The movie starts off with a bunch of people waiting for the next train into town, which we know means that Somebody Important to the Plot is about to get off. That's followed by a cut to a shot of the town's doyenne, Mrs. Marquand (Joan Bennett), celebrating her son's birthday, only for the camera to pull out and reveal the birthday is at his grave: the kid has been dead for six years and that death has pushed Mrs. Marquand off her rocker. These two items are going to come together, and thankfully, the movie does this for us fairly quickly. The man getting off the train is Lonnie (Ken Scott), who has just spent six years in the state penitentiary for the vehicular homicide conviction of the little boy.

But there's so much more going on. Lonnie is the son of a sharecropper, and it turns out that the sharecropper family has many more connections to the noble Marquands. Lonnie, before going to prison, had a thing of Melinda (Martha Hyer), the daugher of the Marquand family. And Peter, the other Marquand brother, has fallen in love with one of the sharecropper girls, a fact that irritates the father, Col. Ben, to no end. The Colonel is played by Perry Mason. Er, make that Raymond Burr; watching Burr ham it up as he tries to play a southern patriarch is part of the fun of this movie. Our Colonel is a domineering man, to put it mildly. He's got ambitions to hold higher elective office, and when his son died six years earlier, he realized the circumstances behind it could be problematic for him. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We're not supposed to know the details of this; all we know at first is that the editor of the local newspaper suspects something.

Anyhow, Lonnie had been in love with Melinda, and when he gets out, he still wants her all for himself. The only problem is that in the meantime, she got married to Dr. Ned (Brett Halsey), the doctor looking after Mrs. Marquand. It's good for the Colonel, who wants Melinda married to somebody respectable, but bad for Lonnie, who is determined to get Melinda back all for himself. She'll go with anybody she can, it seems, tempting Lonnie by wearing a series of dresses that do things to her breasts that should violate all of the laws of physics, and then not paying off. And then there's Daddy's relationship with her, which at times seems to imply that there's been some incest going on!

As I said at the beginning, Desire in the Dust is a potboiler that includes a little of everything as it goes way over the top. I haven't even include The Corrupt Sheriff or the shootings, the trope of The Reporter Willing to Break the Law to Prove the Truth, or the Colonel's treatment of his wife and his son Peter. Poor Joan Bennett has fairly little to do other than to provide seeming comic relief by breaking all of the breakable set pieces every time somebody has the nerve to tell her her younger son is actually dead. Until the finale when we know she's finally going to accept the truth, much like Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer The Colonel is also still treating Peter like a little boy.

All in all, Desire in the Dust is one of those films that isn't all that good, but is a hell of a lot of fun.

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