The auteurists have been quiet too long about S. Sylvan Simon, the producer-director of Red Skelton and Abbout & Costello movies, and I'm not even kidding. His first claim to prominence is probably Grand Central Murder (1942), an absolute masterclass in camera blocking with large-ish groups of people, and his Skelton trilogy of Whistling in the Dark, Whistling in Dixie, and Whistling in Brooklyn would be Exhibit 2, maybe, but Lust for Gold (1949), which he was working on when he died (George Marshall, another maybe-underrated director with a great eye, took over) is really strong too, and it's a noir disguised as a western with a crazy structure and you should see it.
We start with a fervid voiceover read by an overheated William Prince, who's playing the author of the original book this is based on, and he's telling us about the famous Lost Dutchman Mine (so named because it was started by Spaniards then rediscovered by a German) at Superstition Mountain, and the striking black and white landscapes and ominous music seem to imply that the rumored curse is no superstition.
In Prince's framing narrative we learn that someone's murdering prospectors who go looking for this mine, and then we lurch into a huge flashback in which Glenn Ford plays the German Dutchman (!) who finds the loot but keeps its location secret for fear of claim-jumpers, and Ida Lupino plays the seductive baker (!) who decides to seduce him so she can rob him blind. Gig Young is her no-good husband, and you realie that nobody in the 1870 part of the story is any good. The townsfolk are all mean grotesques (S.S. Simon gets practically Leone-esque with his close-up uglies) and our three leads are (1) a cold-blooded murderer (Ford kills the guys who get to the mine first, then his own partner), (2) a femme fatale who overcharges for her buns, and (3) her husband, who fled suspicion of murder in another state (let's face it, he was guilty).
And, since the film devotes more attention to them that their venal, shady or just plain unpleasant fellow residents, they're the most appealing characters available. Back in the 1949 framing narrative, everyone's comparatively nice except one of them is a gold-fevered serial killer. But which?
Well, the answer's signposted quite heavily, though part of me was willing it to be an impossibly grizzled centenarian hold-out from the 1870 part of the film, smothered in latex appliances. The lack of such a twist leaves the flashback completely disconnected from the framing story except by theme and locale, a way to combine two stories not complex enough to fill out a feature independently. And who knows, maybe that loopier ending was contemplated, and got dropped during the changeover of directors?
Marshall was a good choice to replace S.S.S. because their blocking style is comparable: lots of fluid shifts of composition, never resting on a flat two-shot for long, turning a medium shot into a wide by moving the actors, or an over-the-shoulder to a three-quarter close-up by spinning someone round—Marshall's approach is well illustrated in something like Murder He Says (1945). It makes Lust for Gold a masterclass in dynamic dramaturgy.
The noir style, by the way, extends to bit part casting like the appearance of Percy Helton (corrupt coroner in Kiss Me Deadly) as the town barber, his own dome etched with a ludicrous Spirograph™ whorl that might make most of us hesitate before setting buttock in his chair.
Lupino, of course, is great, not bothering not to sound English, but fitting right into two very American genres at the same time. Ford seems to relish the opportunity to be an unredeemed villain (which plays more to his strengths anyway, he always seems kind of unpleasant, or at least embittered and grudging), and Gig Young is another actor who seems to gain in interest when he plays against his bland good looks (maybe I'm prejudiced against him because of the bad end he came to).
S.S.S. was only 41 when he died. He'd made 33 features. If he'd lived to 83, like Marshall, he might have made 90, like Marshall. And who knows how many good ones?