Thursday, May 1, 2014

Man on Fire (1957)

With a new month beginning, I'm going to try to post a few more posta that are actually fuller-length items on individual movies. Tomorrow, May 2, marks the birth anniversary of actor and singer Bing Crosby, so TCM will be showing several of his movies. This includes one that has him doing relatively little singing: Man on Fire, at 2:30 PM.

Crosby plays Earl Carleton, a well-to-do businessman who runs a factory. He's divorced, but rather amazingly has custody of his son Ted (Malcolm Brodrick). Life seems to be going rather well for him, although that's about to change:. A newspaper headline reveals that his ex-wife Gwen (Mary Fickett) is about to return to town along with her new husband Bryan Seward (Richard Eastham), who is relatively high-up in the State Department in Washington DC. Their return to town can only signal one thing: Gwen is going to try to get custody of her son. Earl, who really does love the kid, is obviously quite displeased with this turn of events.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. Dad got custody of the kid in the original divorce settlement. Why should that change just because Mom wants it to? Surely there must be some reason why Dad got custody, since family courts so often give custody to the mother that there's a fairly widely-held belief, especially among ex-husbands, that family courts are severely biased against men. (Disclaimer: I'm not married and don't have kids.) If they didn't give her custody in the divorce, she must not have deserved it, you'd think. Well, that reason is implied that Gwen only signed the divorce decree giving Earl custody under a bit of duress. She wanted to marry Bryan, but going through a messy divorce wouldn't have been good for Bryan's political career. Now it looks like the government worker and his wife are going to use the power of the state to wrest their kid away from Dad.

Well, there are other justifications given for why the kid would be better off with Mom. Since dad is a wealthy businessman, his work often takes him out of town, with the result that the housekeeper takes care of the kid at those times. And besides, a kid should see both of his parents. Since he's spent the past two years with Dad, why not spend some time with Mom? At least, that's the argument given to Earl by his lawyer Sam (EG Marshall). Meanwhile, Sam's secretary Nina (Inger Stevens) has taken some interest in Earl, who by this point has started taking it out on himself in the form of self-pity, treating everybody around him like dirt. There's another reason why perhaps the kid would be better off with Mom. Finally, the fact that she gave him up in the first place somehow proves that she's really more fit to have custody, based upon the parable of Solomon and the two women who both wanted custody of the same child. With everything stacked against Earl, he's willing to get desperate....

Man on Fire has some good things going for it, in that it treats divorce as a complex issue and makes both parents sympathetic figures. It's easy to understand a parent who felt they had to give up custody under duress, and it's easy to understand the parent who is about to lose custody and doesn't see anybody on his side, including the people he's paying to be on his side. On the minus side, the ending is a bit too pat. I'm also not certain if Bing Crosby was the best actor to play the father. He shows that he really can act, and wasn't just a crooner suited to light comedy. But I can't help but think that the role would have been filled better by somebody who could portray both being sympathetic and having a dark side, like Gregory Peck or Glenn Ford. Crosby's performance, however, doesn't detract from the movie.

All in all, Man on Fire is well worth watching, and surprisingly not so well-known. That's probably because it doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, forcing you to catch the rare TCM showing.

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