Monday, September 19, 2022

Thunder on the Hill (1951)

Thunder on the Hill (AKA Bonaventure) is a 1951 Universal International movie directed by Douglas Sirk and included in Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: Dark Side of Cinema 2 Blu-Ray boxed set. The awesome thing about this set is that not a single one of the three movies in it is even remotely film noir. They’re all pure melodramas. That’s not to say that it’s a bad set. It’s actually an interesting set and well worth buying. But noir it ain’t.

It’s not Kino Lorber’s fault. These days almost every movie made in Hollywood prior to 1960 gets labelled as film noir because the marketing people believe that it’s only viable to release old movies on Blu-Ray if they’re labelled film noir. They certainly don’t believe that it’s viable to release melodramas or women’s pictures as melodramas or women’s pictures, which I think is terribly sad. Some of the very best Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s were seen at the time as women’s pictures but the prejudice against that genre seems to be as strong as ever.

The story takes place in a convent hospital in Norfolk. There have been severe storms and floods and the locals have all taken shelter at the convent. The nuns are barely coping with the problem of housing and feeding so many people. Things start to get interesting when three more people arrive. Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) is a convicted murderess on her way to Norwich to be hanged the following day. She is accompanied by two guards, one male and one female. Valerie was convicted of giving her seriously ill brother a fatal overdose of his medication.

Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is troubled by guilts of her own. She feels responsible for her sister’s death eight years earlier. Sister Mary becomes convinced that Valerie Carns is innocent and she decides to play amateur detective.

The convent is now cut off from the outside world by floodwaters and the phone lines are down. There is one thing that could aid Sister Mary’s detective efforts - most of the people involved in Valerie’s trial are now in the convent.

Sister Mary manages to turn up a clue. It doesn’t prove Valerie’s innocence but it does shed a new light on the case. The really vital clue is quite clever and the way it’s discovered is quite clever.

Sister Mary manages to reach Norwich by boat, thanks to the efforts of the simple-minded, quick-tempered but good-hearted Willie (Michael Pate). She brings Valerie’s fiancé back with her. Now everyone with any connection to the case has been assembled.

Unfortunately the solution is blindingly obvious right from the start so as a whodunit this movie is a total washout. There is some decent suspense. It’s a race against time to save Valerie and the vital clues always seem to be just out of Sister Mary’s reach.

The acting is melodramatic but this is a melodrama so that can be forgiven. Claudette Colbert is good as Sister Mary, a woman with some complexity. She is convinced that she is right but she fears that that is her problem - she always thinks she’s right. Ann Blyth is quite good as Valerie. Gladys Cooper is overly obvious as the evil bitch Reverend Mother. The supporting cast no is no more than adequate although Connie Gilchrist is fun as the dotty Sister Josephine. Gavin Muir manages to be both dull and nasty as the vindictive police sergeant in charge of Valerie.

It’s interesting that all the authority figures in this movie are both vicious and two-dimensional.

Sister Mary is the only character who is even the slightest bit interesting.

The convent setting works very well.

As I hinted earlier there’s not the slightest trace of film noir in this movie. It can’t even be described as noirish or noir-tinged.

Thunder on the Hill tries to be both a mystery and a suspense movie. It’s a failure as a mystery and a reasonable success as a suspense movie. The obviousness of the plot makes it less interesting than it should be. I wouldn’t recommend buying this one had it been a standalone release but if you’re going to buy the set it’s worth a look but don’t expect it to turn out to be a neglected gem.

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