' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Back From Eternity (1956)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Back From Eternity (1956)

If "Gilligan's Island" had not premiered until 1964 I'd be of good mind to conclude that director John Farrow stumbled across an episode one night and decided to steal the premise and ratchet up the psychological stakes by crafting "Back From Eternity", a tidy thriller from 1956 that is actually based on a film from 1939 which I guess proves the idea of a plane crashing roundabout nowhere and forcing its survivors to either come together or split at the seams is unceasing. "I’ve got a bunch of characters but I don’t know what to do with them. Crash them on an island!"

"Back From Eternity" spends a solid thirty minutes establishing its premise, introducing an obligatory motley crew that converge on a Pan American plane bound for Boca Grande that just happens to be flying over an infamously isolated stretch from jungle populated by a legendary headhunting tribe. Of course, the weather gets rough, the plane gets tossed and is forced to land in this dangerously uncharted thicket. With the Pilot, Bill Lonagan, (Robert Ryan) and his co-pilot, Joe Brooks, (Keith Andes), the Professor and his Wife (Cameron Prud'Homme and Beulah Bondi), the political assassin being escorted in shackles by his capturer (Rod Steiger & Fred Clark), the aw-shucks, gee-whiz kid traveling in the stead of a mobster guardian (Jon Provost & Jesse White), the happy-but-about-to-become-unhappy lovebirds, Jud and Louise (Gene Barry & Phyllis Kirk), and the blonde bombshell (Anita Ekberg).

Not everyone can survive, and the screenplay cleverly (expectantly) structures it so the ones who die are revealed as wearing Black Hats and the ones who live are revealed as wearing White Hats. When their plane is repaired, they discover it can only carry a certain number of passengers, rendering this Gilligan’s Island a game of picking straws, and so the rooting interests are purposely made plum easy. "Back From Eternity" came around just as the classic era of film noir was beginning to wind down, and so even as it hints at dark secrets and brutal pain dancing in the shadows, its attitude is less fatalistic than rose-colored in black and white.

Consider Anita Ekberg. The film opens with a suck-all-the-air-out-of-the-room shot of her and her monumental eyebrows. She is banished by her apparent Sugar Daddy to Boca Grande where we quickly surmise she will apparently take work in a brothel. She's a burgeoning sultry femme fatale, vamping around sweaty South American airports in dresses intended more for craps tables than the confines of a DC-7 while asking any male she encounters to light her cigarette. Yet if you think her character is bound to cause trouble in the jungle, think again, as her clingy gown gives way to a homely sundress which eventually is accentuated by an even more homely sweater draped over her shoulders as she establishes herself as the aw-shucks, gee-whiz kid's caretaker.

By the end, the woman who's front and center on the poster (which coos "Ooh that Ekberg!") is barely in the film. (She also apparently quits smoking cold turkey without a problem in, like, 32 hours.) Probably because she's a Good Woman now, as opposed to a Bad One, and Good Women know their place as opposed to Bad Women who weasel in wherever they damn please. A film, after all, that actually includes the line "I suppose we'll let the women take care of the cooking" isn't exactly progressive in its sexual politics. Ah.....the greatest generation.

On the other hand, Louise quickly ascertains Jud is a no-good scoundrel weakling and seeks to throw off the shackles of their future wedding the more he melts down. Then again, even as she breaks away from her no-good scoundrel weakling of a fiancé, she simply shifts all her love and affection to the handsome co-pilot because I guess she couldn't even be alone for, like, 1.1 seconds. No woman's nothin' if she ain't got a man or a child, amiright?

The only character with any genuine gristle on his bones is Lonagan, the faux-steadfast pilot, the one who dispenses wisdom but also has a drinking problem. The screenplay doesn't really have time to delve into his backstory the way it does with the others, like the political assassin who predictably professes remorse and obligatorily turns out to be more pure of heart than the FBI agent shuffling him around. About all we get from Lonagan is a fireside admission of "I’ve had it." Had it with what exactly? Hell, everything, I assume. And Robert Ryan, who could always so succinctly summarize bitterness, subtly expresses the notion that he should stay behind to die even though he has to fly that old junkpile. You half-fear that if the movie ran two minutes longer, we’d see a scene where he sets that plane right down in the bottom of the ocean.

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