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Sunday, February 12, 2012

THE DEVIL AT 4 O’CLOCK (1961)

Over a long directing career that began in the silent era, Mervyn LeRoy went from dynamic & confrontational@ Warners in the ‘30s to plush & sedate @ M-G-M in the 40s, then calcified & studio-bound in his late pics @ various studios. But a fair amount of location shooting on this island-set adventure pic seems to have perked him up considerably. In fact, it gives everyone a nice jolt. Spencer Tracy is the aging priest who’s lost his faith and is now getting ready to hand over the reins to his younger replacement (Kerwin Matthews). But not before getting a final bit of construction work out of a trio of prison laborers, including skinny Frank Sinatra. Too bad the island’s active volcano choose that day for a big blowout party. Yikes! Okay, not the most believable set up, and the script over-lards the action by having Father Tracy & his gang of prisoners dashing up a lava-strewn mountain to rescue all the patients & staff from his personal kiddie leper hospital! . . . plus having Sinatra fall in love with a poor blind waif who’s never been kissed. Oy! Everybody gets their chance at a big heroic gesture (even the prisoners in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION/’94 aren’t quite this sweet-natured), so don’t expect to buy into the big sacrificial ending. But its more fun than expected, and LeRoy keeps things moving along between the nifty explosions.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: There’s a big new Tracy bio from James Curtis with more than you'll ever need to know about the guy. (It’s worth it for the cover photo alone, an unblinking masterpiece from Irving Penn.) Apparently, Spence’s fragile health only allowed him to work mornings while Frankie’s carousing ways usually got him to the set post-meridian. By the end of the shoot, these two pals were hardly speaking.

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