Fox // 1955 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 9th, 2011
Bogart...in a new type of action role!
I appreciate the trend that the big DVD companies have taken on to release their back catalog in a limited edition or on-demand basis. The releases aren't of the highest quality and are generally bare bones, but they wouldn't have been put out at all otherwise. It gives us a chance to look at relatively forgotten pictures, some with big casts and name directors, rather than just the worked deemed classic by whoever makes that decision. The Left Hand of God is a great example of tis. Starring some of the biggest actors of the day in Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep) and Gene Tierney (Laura) and directed by Edward Dmytryk (Seven Miles from Alcatraz), it seems almost like 1955 Oscar bait. Today, though, it plays as overly ambitious, plodding, and occasionally laughable, but it's at least watchable, which is more than I can say for a lot of what gets released in this manner.
A small Catholic mission in China has been without a priest for a very long time, so they are thrilled when Father O'Shea (Bogart) arrives to help them in their spiritual matters. The Chinese people really like him and the lovely Anne (Tierney) takes an immediate shine to his unconventional ways, but O'Shea isn't all he seems. He has a history with Yang (the very clearly Chinese Lee J. Cobb, Our Man Flint) and, if O'Shea doesn't deal with that little problem, all the work he's done for the mission will be destroyed.
The first thing to note about The Left Hand of God is how different Bogart's role is compared to what he was known for. This was one of his final films and, in the preceding few years, he had expanded the kind of parts he played, but a priest is one of the last places I could imagine him going. It is obvious from the opening moments, though, that the character isn't who he says, especially given that he knows basically nothing about Catholicism and avoids holding Mass or confession for people who have waited for months to ease their burdens, but even if the reveal is no surprise, the character still tries to execute the function he arrived pretending to perform. In doing so, he acquits himself of his fraud, learns a valuable lesson, and saves the people, something he couldn't have done if he wasn't a fraud. Bogart's performance is quite good; he shows nuances that he never did early in his career, even if the character isn't nearly as exciting or interesting as those he played in those days.
His performance buoys some of the other work in the film that isn't so good, but his influence on the film is much bigger than that. If not for him, the film would have likely been completely sunk, as Tierney, beautiful and popular as she might have been, had begun her mental decline. Unable to remember her lines or really work at all, Bogart held her hand through the whole thing, drawing out a performance that is perfectly acceptable, if not great. She had to play the dubious part of the Catholic woman who is horny for the priest, much as they could say so in these code-driven days, but she makes her conflict clear. Completing the quartet of white people helping nameless, faceless Chinese are E.G. Marshall (Tanner '88), as the doctor, and Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane), as his wife. They make up the science faction in the conflict with religion, which is prevalent in the beginning of the film, but gives way to the bigger issue of the warlord later. While, in general, I really like Lee J. Cobb, his work here is ridiculous, and not just because he's in a bad Chinese getup. It's the kind of ethnic performance that might get panned in a silent film. Hint: it takes a lot more than squinting to make somebody Chinese.
Edward Dmytryk's direction is adequate, but definitely not up to the standard he built for himself. His work here is flat and uninspired while still maintaining all the pretense of a big blockbuster. He makes it seem important with his focus on the science and religion debate, but reconciles it without any real conflict. The only real conflict comes between the mission and the warlord camp, but there's really no suspense in how that'll play, either. The screenplay by Alfred Hayes (Paisan), adapted from a novel by William E. Barrett, is ham-fisted and makes the occasional mockery of the English language with logic defying lines that I can hear multiple times without ever understanding what was supposed to have been expressed. Coincidences count as suspense and the final moments are painfully telegraphed. Watch The Left Hand of God for some of the performances, not for the story, and there's a little bit of enjoyment to be had; not a ton, but enough to sustain its relatively short running time.
On the Twilight Time label from Fox, The Left Hand of God is actually a pretty good looking release. The ultra-wide Cinemascope image isn't perfect; there are some digital artifacts here and there and some dirt on the print, but there's little damage. The Technicolor looks legitimately great, with deep and realistic colors and very nice black levels. I suspect that not a lot has been done as far as restoration, but it looks very nice as it stands. The sound is average, with a tiny bit of background noise, but generally clear dialog and music. In regard to the music by journeyman Victor Young (Streets of Laredo), his score gets the only extra, with an isolated track featuring his music. It's nice to hear, but the score isn't anything particularly special, so it likely will not get a second listen.
While The Left Hand of God is far from great, it's an interesting look at the last bits of meaningful work by its two leads as well as a reminder of how dismissively Hollywood still treated people from "exotic" lands. It's hard to recommend outside of those terms, but that still basically makes it worth a watch.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score