Thunder Bay Review

In Thunder Bay, Steve (Stewart) and Johnny (Duryea) are wildcatters; oil prospectors on the look out for a big strike. They pitch up in a small Louisiana coastal town which has great potential for an offshore drilling platform and make a deal with businessman Kermit McDonald (Flippen) to find oil and bring the platform into operation within three months. Oil is duly discovered but, in the process, Steve and Johnny manage to rile the local fishermen who are concerned for their valuable shrimp beds. Before Steve’s dream of a safe offshore platform can be fulfilled, he must deal with the local business interests, an enormous hurricane, financial problems and a romantic entanglement with a fisherman’s daughter.

Between 1950 and 1955, James Stewart and Anthony Mann worked together on eight films, five of which were Westerns. This might have been more had the two men not had a major falling out over the script of Night Passage which led to Mann refusing to direct and an irretrievable breakdown of the friendship. It’s a shame that the partnership didn’t continue long enough for Stewart to appear in Man Of The West which might have been the ne plus ultra of the teaming. However, the eight films that were made by the two men are a fascinating collection in themselves. Generally speaking, I like to divide them between Mann films and Stewart films. The Mann films seem to me to be the Westerns which are in pure Anthony Mann territory – increasingly brooding and dark, probing into the Western hero and finding him wanting. They continue and expand themes from Mann’s noir films and dig deep into Stewart’s persona in a manner which was to culminate in the astonishing performance he gave for Hitchcock in Vertigo. On the other hand, we have the Jimmy Stewart movies which reflect his deeply conservative and reactionary views – the comfortable Americana of The Glenn Miller Story, the aggressively right-wing Cold War posturing of Strategic Air Command and Thunder Bay which is a paean to the deeply humanitarian and environmental instincts of the oil business. I’m not saying that Mann didn’t encourage or share Stewart’s views – although I’m not entirely sure he did – but these three films are Jimmy Stewart vehicles in a way that the Westerns are a little too uncomfortable to be.

It’s easy to see how Thunder Bay could have been a more characteristic Anthony Mann film simply through a change in the central character of Steve. If he had been an obsessive, driven man whose need to find oil had some deep psychological basis, instead of being the laconic sweetheart of a man that is presented to us, full of homespun charm and deep concern for the wellbeing of everybody – “If dynamiting damaged the shrimp beds, then I wouldn’t dynamite ‘em!” –, then the film might have had some more grit. His relationship with Jimmy could have been more complex – in the film, Jimmy behaves like a subaltern to Steve’s senior officer. Even better, his relationship with Stella Rigaud (Dru), the daughter of craggy old fisherman Antonio Moreno, could have been rather more interesting and feisty than the tedious diversion from the plot which is how it now appears – she starts out tough then melts the minute he threatens to blow up some of her father’s co-workers with a stick of dynamite.

As it is, the film comes across as anodyne and predictable when it’s not being outright unbelievable. The relationships in the film are deeply simplistic, particularly the ones between men and women, and the characterisation is one-note throughout. The message of the film is that oil equals capitalism equals progress equals “Good”. The fishermen who protest against the drilling platform are portrayed as short-sighted and primitive – especially in the jaw-dropping denouement when we’re asked to believe that the shrimp are not only damaged by the process, they are actually attracted to the rig. There is no long-term view of the relationship between capitalism and the environment and mention of pollution is conspicuous by its absence. The tone of the film is embodied in the character of Kermit McDonald, the honest, idealistic capitalist who is there to fulfil Steve’s dreams and prove that the oilmen really do have the best interests of the community at heart.

It’s easy to be excessively critical of film as naïve and dated as this and to do so would be to deny that there are good things here too. Anthony Mann’s direction is well paced and sometimes builds up a nice head of steam, especially during the exciting hurricane sequence. He also works well with his cast, amongst whom the ever-delightful Dan Duryea and Gilbert Roland really stand out. Fans of James Stewart in folksy mould will have nothing to complain about either since he’s typically relaxed and charismatic. Best of all, however, is the cinematography by the great William Daniels who did notable work for Mann in both black and white and colour and provides some scenes here which are stunningly beautiful.

The Disc

Optimum’s region 2 release of Thunder Bay offers a nice transfer but no extras apart from a trailer. It’s being promoted as part of their “Western Classics” range which is slightly odd since it’s not a Western, any more than was Legend of the Lost.

The film is presented at a fullscreen ratio of 1.37:1 which reflects the way it was filmed. Some initial screenings of the film featured a print cropped to 1.85:1 but it seems to have been composed for the Academy ratio. The transfer is generally very nice with colours that vary from the acceptable to the outstanding – certain scenes are more washed out than others and occasionally tend towards the brownish but others are startlingly vivid. There is some minor scratching by way of print damage but nothing too serious.

The 1.85:1 prints of the film which were shown in New York featured a 3 channel stereo soundtrack. This DVD contains a traditional 2.0 mono mix and sounds very strong and clear.

The only extra is the lengthy theatrical trailer which sells the film on the strengths of Mann and Stewart.

No subtitles are provided – as is shamefully usual with Optimum’s catalogue releases.

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