Family conflict is at the heart of this independently made crime film. Directed by Cornel Wilde with a screenplay by Horton Foote (Trip to Bountiful), based on a novel by Clinton Seeley, Storm Fear pits brother against brother. At the core of the trouble is a woman, no surprise there either. Wilde directed eight feature films. Prior to this work he directed one episode of G.E. True Theater. Storm Fear was his first feature and it’s an impressive first time out.
Along with Wilde, the film stars Jean Wallace, his real life wife, Dan Duryea, Dennis Weaver, Lee Grant and Steven Hill. Hill, in what was only his second big screen role, is best known for his roles in Mission Impossible and later on in Law and Order. The only other member of the cast is young David Stollery, whose most notable role began the same year, 1955, this film was released, in the Disney TV series The Adventures of Spin and Marty (he played Marty).
Though brothers Fred (Dan Duryea) and Charlie (Cornel Wilde) Blake have taken different paths in life, one good, the other bad, both men are failures at their choose careers. Fred is a writer who over the years of writing has only had one novel published and it was not a success. He’s married to Elizabeth and they have a son David. They live on a remote farm in the mountains for reasons having something to do with Fred’s health and the solitude he needs to write. Brother Charlie is a thief, a bank robber, a man without a good bone in his body. He and his two cohorts, Benji (Steven Hill) and Edna (Lee Grant), are on the run from the law. Charlie is wounded with a bullet in his leg. They have come to hide out at Fred and Elizabeth’s farm for a couple of days to give Charlie’s leg wound a chance to heal.
What unfolds over time has less to do with the hostage takeover of a family, which does happen, than about the dynamics of a family with some deep dark secrets that are revealed as the film unfolds. Strained relations, regrets, secret desires long buried, resurface. Additionally, Charlie’s two partners in crime add another level of distrust particularly, Benjie (Steven Hill) who pretty much wants to take his share of the money from the bank robbery and take off.
The film’s dynamics center on the family and their long secretive history. You see, before her marriage, Liz and Charlie dated. Later, she married Fred, after she gave birth to David, mostly as a matter of convenience. Their marriage is as cold as the snowy weather outside. Young David does not know his real father is Charlie.
Interesting enough, though Duryea’s Fred is the honest brother, he comes across as less sympathetic than the crooked Charlie. He is nasty, bitter, self centered and unforgiving. A melancholy feeling hangs in the cold air throughout. You feel for Charlie while emotions run completely dry for Duryea’s Fred.
The film takes place around Christmas time though there is little holiday spirit or anything to cheer about. Other than a dreary looking tree there is little about the film to suggest Christmas. Well, there is the snow that has blanketed the mountain terrain, but as I said, there is little holiday tidings in this tense drama. In fact, the coldness of the harsh terrain can be seen as a metaphor for the coldness of all the characters, that is, except for the young boy, David, who develops a warm fondness for his “Uncle” Charlie.
It’s the bleakness of the film, along with the complexity of the characters that draws you in to this film. Dan Duryea’s Fred is a beaten man with a career going nowhere, a marriage that is a sham and a “son” who he cannot give any love. When it comes to dark characters there are few who are in the same class as Duryea. Other than the young boy, Jean Wallace’s Liz is the center of the film. Like Fred, she is frustrated by her loveless marriage. One difference is she loves her son. But underneath this frustration there are sexual feelings that are rekindled when Charlie shows up. She knows he’s no good, but her desires are heating up within. Then there is Hank (Dennis Weaver), a neighbor who likes Liz and wants her to dump Fred and come live with him. This all leads to a lot of tension to say the least. With the added addition of a music score by Elmer Bernstein you have a solid, bleak thriller that deserves more attention than it has received.
According to TCM, location shots were filmed at Sun Valley in Idaho and interiors, for this independent production, were shot at the studios of KTTV in Los Angles.
Sounds like a very interesting film to see, and a good cast. I had no idea Wilde directed anything! Thanks for writing about this film, and I’ll keep my eyes open in case TCM airs it.
It’s is interesting. I especially liked Dan Duryea in what was a different kind of role for him. Thanks Jen!
This is one I didn’t know about. Though I’m not much of a fan of Cornel Wilde (as an actor), I’ll keep an eye out for Storm Fear (strange title) – it sounds interesting and I’ve only seen one other film Wilde directed (The Naked Prey).
I’m no big fan of Wilde’s either but he’s okay if nothing special. The only other film he directed that I ever saw was BEACH RED back in the late 60’s. I remember THE NAKED PREY being out but never caught it. Thanks Eve.
I always thought Wilde was kind of stiff, but okay — Dan Duryea is an odd duck, but a good actor. It’s hard to like him, isn’t it? But then, he seems to always be cast in those kind of roles — I guess he’s just good at that. Don’t you wonder what he is really like in real life? I always do with actors like that. He’s probably a great guy! Nice article, John. I haven’t seen this, but it sounds like one I’d like.
Becky, Duryea is, at least for me, perfect when he is on the wrong side of the law. When he is on the right side it does come off as a bit odd. There always seems to be something sleazy about him. As for Wilde, well I’m no big fan but I did like him in THE BIG COMBO which I think is a terrific 50’s crime film.
I have been collecting every Elmer Bernstein score I can get my hands on by way of CDs. I have over 50 now. And you have really captured my interest here with a film I have not yet seen. Foote is a great writer of course and it sounds like it features a great cast.
Another outstanding review here John!
Thanks Sam! Bernstein’s music always add a nice touch.
My god …… Those actors had earned their pay checks trodding through the landscape with snowshoes the way they did ! Not an easy feat for the crew filming where tracks reveal numerous takes and set ups . Enjoyed the film and dynamics but bothered by Hill’s one dimensional character and cliched accent.
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Horatio, I agree, Hill is rather dull. In all honesty I always found him on the dull side no matter what role he plays.
I knew Clinton Seeley when I was a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Seeley lived in a wonderful 28-room Victorian-style mansion in Rye, New Hampshire. At the time, he had not written any novels after the publication of “Storm Fear,” which had been a best seller, and spent his time writing book reviews. He wrote the novel at the urging of William March, with whom he would meet once a week. They would break out a bottle and laugh hysterically at the latest chapter March had written for the novel he was working on and believed it to be the funniest book he had ever written. The novel, which also became a best seller, was called “The Bad Seed,” and turned out to be one of the scariest films in the mid-1950s. Seeley told me he had been a fruitcake salesman based in New Orleans in those days and wrote “Storm Fear” during his train trips to meet with customers. After March read the first draft, he told Seeley it was destined to become a best seller, largely because the story was told from the boy’s point of view wherein the reader knew perfectly well what was happening while the boy couldn’t make sense of what was going on around him. Cornel Wilde bought the book the same year it was published and made it as his directorial debut. I ran into Wilde decades later at a Hollywood reception and, in introducing myself, told him that I had known Clinton Seeley. He was stone faced when I mentioned Clinton’s name, as though I had touched some nerve, and that was the end of our conversation.
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Michael, thank you for stopping and sharing your memories. Interesting that Wilde was so sensitive about Seeley’s name being brought Wonder if they met and there was some bad blood over how the book was transferred to the screen. Thanks again!