Tuesday, March 23, 2021

#2,543. Wind Across the Everglades (1958) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray never got to finish Wind Across the Everglades; he and the film’s producer Budd Schulberg clashed repeatedly during its production, and their differences of opinion (complicated, no doubt, by Ray’s out-of-control drug and alcohol consumption) eventually led to his firing (Schulberg stepped in and completed the movie himself).

As a result, most Ray fans turn their nose up at the movie (though the French New Wave critics of the time declared it a masterpiece). Which is a shame, because Wind Across the Everglades features moments of pure brilliance, and enough of Ray’s unique touch is evident throughout to make it a worthy entry in his filmography.

The setting is Florida, in the early days of the 20th century, when the territory was still wild and lawless. Teacher Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) is hired to serve as the area’s new Game Warden, and is tasked with protecting the local loon population, which is being hunted, en masse, for its plumage.

This puts Murdock in direct conflict with a poacher known as Cottonmouth (Burl Ives), who, along with his band of criminals, shoots dozens of Loons daily, selling their feathers for a nice profit to the businessmen of Miami. Cottonmouth (who, true to his name, carries a pet snake around with him) is a powerful man, and his hideout is situated deep in the swamps of the Everglades, making it almost impossible to reach him.

Murdock, however, takes his job very seriously, and despite the warnings of the town’s leaders, as well as those of his new girlfriend Naomi (Chana Eden), he vows to bring Cottonmouth to justice, or die trying.

The cast assembled for Wind Across the Everglades is solid, and along with featuring a number of firsts (it was Christopher Plummer’s first starring role, as well as the screen debut of Peter Falk, who plays a member of Cottonmouth’s gang), the film co-stars such notables as stripper Gypsy Lee Rose (as the Madame of a Miami brothel) and circus clown Emmet Kelly (appearing briefly as yet another of Cottonmouth’s thugs).

The standout, though, is Burl Ives, whose gritty portrayal of Cottonmouth figures in many of the film’s most memorable scenes; when two escaped prisoners (one of whom is played by boxer Tony Galento) stumble upon his swamp hideout, Cottonmouth gives them a chance to earn their place in his group by fighting a pair of his cronies

As he did in Johnny Guitar, Ray continually blurs the line between hero and villain throughout Wind Across the Everglades, and as a result we both fear and admire Cottonmouth. Though often treacherous, he proves time and again that he’s an honorable thief, especially in the film’s unforgettable final act (during which we also catch a glimpse of the “hero” Murdock’s darker side).

Shot on-location in Florida’s Everglades National Park, Wind Across the Everglades is a gorgeous motion picture - enhanced by the inclusion of stock footage that features the area’s wildlife - but true to form, Nicholas Ray ensured (as much as he could, that is) that his characters and their story were never once overshadowed by the scenery.

Despite the fact he had been fired, Nicholas Ray still tried to salvage his “version” of Wind Across the Everglades. After seeing a preview of the movie, he wrote a lengthy letter to Schulberg imploring him to re-insert several excised sequences and assuring the producer that, had he been retained, he would never have permitted Burl Ives’ “overacting” in the final scene (which was shot after Ray had been dismissed).

As previously stated, Wind Across the Everglades is a strong, well-paced, highly entertaining picture in its current state. Yet the Nick Ray fan in me can’t help but wonder how much better it might have been. Rating: 8 out of 10

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