Blu-ray Review: Thunder Bay | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, June 7th, 2020  

Thunder Bay

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Jul 12, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

As the dozen people who read these reviews know, Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann are one of the great unsung star/director pairings of cinema; a duo that should rightfully be mentioned alongside De Niro and Scorsese, Mifune and Kurosawa or Hawke and Linklater. Of the eight films they made together between 1950 and 1955, five were westerns. All five are variations on a similar theme and all are good-to-great, with the standouts including Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Naked Spur. Their first deviation from this formula was the 1953 film Thunder Bay, which casts Stewart and reliably unsavory character actor Dan Dureya as down-on-their-luck engineers trying to scrape together enough capital to build a new oil rig in the then untapped Gulf of Mexico. Their dreams of striking it rich are complicated by the local fishing community, who see our heroes as a threat to their livelihood. If you’re beginning to suspect that a movie that valorizes drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t play well in 2019, congratulations, you’re a sensible person!

It’s easy to see how a story about underdog oil drillers would appeal to Stewart and Mann; their shared filmography was built on stripped down, working class morality tales and rugged outdoorsman action. Thunder Bay was shot on location in Louisiana and on the Gulf, but the open ocean and fishing towns don’t hold a candle to the stunning mountain and forest vistas of their Western collaborations. Similarly, Mann frequently cast Stewart as mournful ex-killers, bad men trying to make amends by helping others. Stewart’s Thunder Bay protagonist, Steve Martin (lol), is an ambitious and single-minded jerk who eventually softens toward the townspeople, but the film ultimately positions him as being in the right. Joanne Dru is also on-hand as the fiery daughter of a local fisherman who protests the building of the rig until she falls in love with Stewart’s character. This “wearing down the principled, self-possessed woman into a submissive love interest” subplot was more than common in Golden Age Hollywood, but the broader implications of the story to a modern audience - the rig is definitely going to destroy her town’s livelihood despite what the film says - makes it even grosser than usual and makes Dru’s character come off as completely naive.

Stewart’s passion and conviction as an actor can sell anything, even a gobsmackingly dumb monologue about how drilling for oil is just a way of making the past work for the future, but the problems in Thunder Bay go deeper than its retroactively dubious mindset. The film also stars Mexican actor Gilbert Roland as Teche Bossier, the dashing fisherman who initially leads the townspeople in their revolt against the building of the rig. In a story that wasn’t pure propaganda for the oil industry, Bossier would be the hero of the film. Roland gives a dynamic and engaging performance, but the character ultimately ends up being a narrative cul-de-sac; he’s too likable and sensible to work as an antagonist, but the film can’t let him win either. His casting also sets a bizarre precedent for the male townspeople all being played by Mexican and Spanish actors, despite the setting and character names clearly implying that they’re Cajun. Another bizarre misjudgment in the production of Thunder Bay was the initial decision to shoot the film for 3-D, a common tactic in the early and mid-1950s to lure audiences away from the novelty of television. Universal scrapped these plans sometime during production, but the film features multiple shots of water being sprayed against the camera lens, a tactic that’s extremely common in modern films shot on handheld, but sticks out like a sore thumb in something from this era.

Even accounting for its horrendous propagandizing, it’s difficult to recommend Thunder Bay to anyone but the most die-hard Stewart and Mann fans. For every moment that allows you to wallow in the absurdity of the premise - like the scene where Stewart disperses the rightly upset townspeople by throwing dynamite at them - there’s another - like the one where Stewart finally strikes oil and allows himself to be showered in it, cackling and rubbing his hands together - that reminds you that the film is advocating for an industry that’s done untold harm to the world-at-large.



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