Until a few days ago, I had never heard of the 1950 noirish drama Crisis. It’s a rather overwrought tale of an all-American couple on holiday in Latin America that tries unsuccessfully to leave for home as tensions rise in a small, unnamed, and highly stereotyped country. Instead, Dr. Eugene Norland Ferguson (Cary Grant) and plucky housewife Helen (Paula Raymond) are kidnapped and taken to the estate of the country’s unelected and ailing leader, Raoul Farrago (José Ferrer, in his first film lead). Farrago has a brain tumor and his despotism means he cannot find a qualified surgeon to undertake the risky operation to save his life. At his side is his fiercely loyal wife (Signe Hasso) and ancient, silent mother (Soledad Jiménez) — along with generals and henchmen galore. As Grant weighs the Hippocratic oath against allowing a merciless, sociopathic tyrant to live, he’s pressured by Farrago as well as those who oppose him. I invite you to watch for yourself the “colorful” scene in a café in which the nation’s premiere guitarist Cariago (played by Spanish composer Vicente Gomez) explains that while Farrago is in power he will not play…but then plays for Dr. Ferguson to encourage him to botch the operation. There is also the noteworthy scene in which Farrago, wife, and friends watch Ferguson “practice” the operation with local nurses and doctors, only to tell them “the patient died.” The ending is as American as a 1950 apple pie, condemning both Farrago and the opposition, for all resort to violence. One might conclude that, in the end, the country is rather a “shithole,” and happily leave on the next flight to the good old U S of A.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the film is the relationship between Ferguson and Farrago. The arrogant leader, played with splendid aplomb by Ferrer, offers his doctor lessons on how to rule a nation, even as his tumor reveals his physical vulnerability. There is a homoerotic (or at least homosocial) edge to the men’s relationship, for one rules a nation and the other has the power of life or death. The men spar with words, articulating oppositional perspectives without much nuance, but there’s a sense that each is a bit in awe of the other. And when Ferguson lights Farrago’s cigarette, it’s downright sexy.
But if you’ve this far, you’re probably wanting to know about the noir. There are many elements in the production that link this film with noir, beginning with cast and crew. Crisis was written and directed by Richard Brooks — his first feature film in both writing and direction. His ties to noir include writing and directing Deadline U.S.A. (1952) with Humphrey Bogart and writing but not directing such noir gems as The Killers (1946), Crossfire (1947), Brute Force (1947), Key Largo (1948), and Mystery Street (1950).
This list of films suggests Brooks’ ability to write about liminality — one of my favorite noir themes. Characters cross over into unfamiliar territory and learn about themselves, often via mobilization of xenophobia or at least stereotypes (mostly of Mexico and South America). This can be more nuanced than Crisis, as in Key Largo, where Frank McCloud (Bogart) rethinks post-WWII America over the course of the film, going from apathy (let the crooks take over) to patriotism, even as he decides to remain in the liminal world of the Keys. Post WWII cynicism and xenophobia is also key to Crossfire. We could also discuss race and the casting of Ricardo Montalban in Mystery Street, but I’ll leave that for another post.
That the film is scored by the awesome Miklós Rózsa also ties the film to noir. Before Crisis, Rózsa had scored many of the central classic noir films, including Double Indemnity (1944), Spellbound (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Killers (1946), The Red House (1947), Brute Force (1947), A Double Life (1947), The Naked City (1948), Criss Cross (1949), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Finally, the cinematography (by Ray June) has its noir moments, but theme and plot are stronger claims to noirishness than its style.
To conclude, I’m glad I found opportunity to see this lesser known film, especially to enjoy Ferrer in his first major role and to see another Richard Brooks picture. It also added to my appreciation of Signe Hasso, an actress I found less compelling in the Cukor’s noir A Double Life (1947). And, of course, it ticks off another Cary Grant picture I never knew about until last week. It’s definitely worth watching, if only once.