From 1950 to 1955, James Stewart made 8 films with director Anthony Mann, five of them westerns. Everyone always talks about those westerns, and they are all undeniably wonderful, each in their own way, but the colorful adventure drama Thunder Bay usually gets overlooked whenever the Stewart/Mann collaboration is brought up, and it's a shame. Perhaps it doesn't quite hit the heights of their best films together, such as The Man From Laramie or Bend of the River, but it's an exciting, absorbing film in its own right, and deserves to be better known.
1946, Louisiana. Ex-G.I. buddies Steve Martin (Stewart) and Johnny Gambi (Dan Duryea) have spent all their mustering out pay to gamble on a wild scheme: Steve is convinced that there's oil out in the bay, and he knows how to get it. With a mix of hucksterism and the passion of a true visionary, Steve convinces the lease holder, oil tycoon Kermit "Mac" McDonald (J.C. Flippen), to bankroll the building of an offshore oil rig. Mac, a former wildcatter with a hardscrabble background himself, senses a kindred spirit in Steve and agrees to fund the extra $1 million to complete the project, against his company's financial adviser's (Henry Morgan) and board members wish' with one condition: they have to build the derrick and strike oil before Mac's lease runs out...in three measly months away.
Getting the funds proves the least of Steve and Gambi's problems, however, as the town's shrimp fishermen, experiencing several years of bad luck and poor catches, soon come to resent the oil men's presence, starting with their dynamiting shrimp beds to test for the best location for the rig. One of the more vociferous opponents is Stella Rigaud (Joanne Dru), daughter of veteran fisherman Dominique (Antonio Moreno). Stella once left her little backwater town for life in the big city and was burned badly in a relationship with an oil man not so unlike Steve. More amenable to the pair - especially the affable, boisterous Gambi - is Stella's pretty younger sister, Francesca (Marcia Henderson). Gambi is soon in hot pursuit, enchanting Francesca and luring her away from her stolid boyfriend, Philippe (Robert Monet). Also in the mix is local tough guy and charming blowhard Teche Bossier (Gilbert Roland), who's happy enough in lean times to take the oil men's money, but changes his tune when he feels the shrimp business that is his, and the town's, heart-and-soul is threatened.
To make his dream of being the first person to strike oil offshore come true, Steve drives Gambi and his crew of workmen hard - but he's even harder on himself, pursuing his plan with a single-minded determination that at times borders on obsession. Despite her bitterness over her past experience, Stella gradually begins to thaw towards Steve, but when a disgruntled Phillippe, reluctantly assisted by Teche, tries to blow up the rig during a big storm, Steve is incensed, convinced that Stella had something to do with it. Meanwhile, Gambi's growing more and more tired of Steve's hardcharging management style, and is on the verge of quitting. With time running out, the board's funding pulled, and nearly everyone (town and workers alike) turning against him, it seems Steve's chance of a big offshore oil strike is disappearing before his eyes...
Filmed in Technicolor, on location in Louisiana, Thunder Bay has a nice sense of place, of small town harbor life. Much of the action later in the film takes place on what seems to be a real working oil rig, giving the movie an authentic feel. It's a kick to see Jimmy Stewart and Dan Duryea changing their city slicker duds into hardhats and greasy work overalls, and they manage to pull it off, becoming convincing as oil workers (helped by a solid script by John Michael Hayes and Gil Doud). Director Mann exchanges the gunplay and life-and-death struggles found in his westerns for a more modern series of struggles that most audiences can relate to: trying to make a living in economically down times, the rewards and dangers a big, environmentally unfriendly business can bring to a small town used to living off the land, and the troubles faced by those obsessed with making a seemingly impossible dream come true. That's plenty of juicy thematic material to deal with there, but Mann still gets some crowd-pleasing action onscreen, including a brief barroom brawl, a rousing hand-to-hand fight on a storm-lashed oil rig, and several tense standoffs between Steve and crowds of angry townspeople.
Seeing the movie today, it's tempting to side with the fisherman against the interests of "big oil," but Thunder Bay positively brims with baby boomer confidence in progress and technology. The movie's main fault is that it tries to satisfy both sides at the climax, and the "Let's all get along" ending doesn't quite ring true. (On the plus side, Mann and company neatly sidestep this problem with a well-executed romantic fadeout.)
Character-wise, this is a busy film, and at times it seems as if Gilbert Roland didn't realize he was a supporting actor and thinks the movie is all about him. He's a lot of fun as the town macho man and scalawag, Teche, who in the end proves to be a good - if egotistical - man.
With his pugnacious looks and strong presence, Jay C. Flippen, another of those terrific, often unsung character actors who enriched any movie they appeared in, makes the most of his role as the good-hearted working man's tycoon. Mann must have liked Flippen, as he used him in several other pictures he made with Stewart, including Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Far Country and Strategic Air Command.
Dan Duryea has fun with the second banana part of Johnny Gambi. He and Stewart share a great rapport together, and are both believable as old buddies who get on each other's nerves despite their mutual respect and affection. Duryea gets a lot of screen time and lights up the screen with his unique but definite charisma. (With his runty size, aggressive demeanor and raspy, querulous voice, he sometimes reminds me a little bit of a lighter-weight James Cagney). Duryea could sometimes go over the top in his conception of a character - witness his strange, off-key turn as a fey baddie in the James Stewart / Audie Murphy western, Night Passage (which Mann was supposed to direct but dropped out of after he had a falling out with Stewart - a rare occurrence in the career of the well-liked, easygoing star.)
A veteran performer in westerns herself, Joanne Dru holds her own with her co-stars, delivering a strong performance and (along with the bright, attractive Marcia Henderson) leavening all the manly, rough-and-tumble goings-on with a steely femininity, poise and at times, bracing emotional rawness. Dru had worked for a couple other genre masters: John Ford (in two of his less-celebrated but most accomplished westerns, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master) and Howard Hawks (in Red River). Unfortunately, Dru's big screen career lost steam in the mid 50s, after which she transitioned for a while into television work in the 60s and 70s. She's yet another in a long line of actresses who didn't quite achieve stardom despite plenty of beauty and talent.
Speaking of emotional intensity, Thunder Bay proves another showcase for James Stewart's acting prowess. While always a winning screen presence with plenty of chops, Stewart really seemed to blossom after his experience as a bomber pilot in WWII. His post-war work features a readier, skilled access to the darker sides of his personality. You need look no further than perhaps his most famous film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), for proof. Sure, his George Bailey has all the hallmark Jimmy Stewart "aw shucks" folksiness, humor and likeability, but many fans overlook the nasty, dark turns this holiday classic takes, and Stewart hits every one of these high and low emotional beats with precision, expertly conveying fear, passion, anguish, resentment, bitter disappointment, suicidal despair, seething anger and - that emotion so hard to portray without coming off fake or cloying - buoyant, irrepressible, shout from the rooftops joy. James Stewart had a special skill possessed by few actors - to play characters with all sorts of unpleasant traits, yet all the while keeping them recognizably human and sympathetic. Along with Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann was instrumental in tapping into this dark, scary, raw underbelly of the Stewart persona, and plenty of that ill-tempered prickliness, crazed obsession and fierce, unflinching emotional honesty can be seen in Thunder Bay's Steve Martin.
In case you can't tell, I absolutely adore Jimmy Stewart and think he's easily one of the best actors to ever grace the silver screen. I love his Everyman, All American looks and infectious, boyish enthusiasm, his generosity to his fellow actors, and his staple but extremely effective mannerisms - the stammer when it seems like he's bursting to get the words out, the squint with the quizzical "What's that?," the mumbles, the quiet, thoughtful asides that can quickly transform into angry, querulous high-pitched outbursts. He could do it all, play any emotion, be a convincing bastard as well as not only a believable nice guy (not hard, as by all accounts, he was one of the industry's truly good people), but - much, MUCH harder- an interesting nice guy. Every so often, he found himself stymied in a part (he gives one of his rare dull, unengaged performances in Bell, Book and Candle, for example) but in nearly every case, he brought a bristling energy, intelligence, charm and humanity to the table. Stewart was also canny in his decisions and frequently worked with masterful directors, but even in those films where all the elements didn't quite fall into place to result in a good film, he brought his A-game (See The FBI Story, where he pretty much single-handedly carries this episodic paean to J. Edgar Hoover and anti-Communism).
To my mind, there are only a handful of actors who starred in as many all-time, 14-carat classics as did James Stewart, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, Flight of the Phoenix...really, the list goes on and on. I love all those giant, gourmet cinematic feasts, but a lesser-known, juicy burger-and-fries gem like Thunder Bay goes down just as well some days.
DVD Note: Just to further show how overlooked of a Stewart/ Mann joint this is, Thunder Bay doesn't even warrant it's own stand-alone DVD release. Instead, it can be found in Universal's 3-disc James Stewart: Screen Legends Collection, sharing disc space with The Glenn Miller Story. The DVD contains the 1:66 matted widescreen version of the movie, which was originally shot in 1:33 but distributed to theaters in the ratio seen here. The transfer looks pretty good overall, not pristine but nicely colorful and pleasant to watch on big screen monitors.
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