On The Devil at 4:00

The Devil at 4:00 opens with a scene on a cargo plane: Father Perreau (played by Kerwin Matthews) is in the hold with three convicts chained together. Charlie (Bernie Hamilton) and Marcel (Gregoire Aslan) and Harry (Frank Sinatra) are on their way to a prison in Tahiti, while the Father Perreau is on his way to the much smaller (and fictional) island of Talua to replace Father Doonan (Spencer Tracy), the whiskey priest with a cynical heart of gold. Father Doonan has made too many enemies on the island, presumably because of the mendicant glad handing he does on behalf of a charity project that is even less popular with the French residents: a hospital for children lepers he has built half way up the side of a mountain that happens to be an active volcano. One may doubt the wisdom in choosing an active volcano as the site for a children’s hospital, but then Doonan maybe was drunk while making the initial survey.

In any case, the hospital is very much a work-in-progress, and Father Doonan figures that convict labor is the best way to get it done, especially since he, being from Hell’s Kitchen, has become the nemesis as well as a kind of tough-guy friend to Harry, being from Jersey. Here’s the memorable exchange marking the turning point in their … relationship:

DOONAN Where you from, tough guy? I hear echoes.
HARRY I’ve been around… What’s it to ya?
DOONAN You spit your T’s. That’d be Jersey, I guess, maybe Jersey City. Hunh! I came from just across the River – Hell’s Kitchen. We used to eat punks like you.
HARRY Maybe. That’s when you had your teeth.

That’s not the only … relationship formed by Frank – pardon me, I mean Harry, who tries to seduce one of the local gals in the Hospital garden one night before he figures out that she’s blind. Then he falls in love with her.

All this is getting a little complicated, meaning that it’s time for the volcano to start acting up, which it does as if on cue. The govenor of the island (well played by Alexander Scourby, familiar to me as the narrator of the KJV bible on 40 something CDs) orders the evacuation of the island, in due consideration of the fact that lava is begining to stream down the sides of the mountain. What about the hospital, not to mention the children staying there? Well, Tracy – pardon me, Doonan – has a plan, in which he and the three parachute onto the volcano to lead the children and the hospital staff to safety. Governor Scourby – or maybe it was the ship’s capitaine – agrees to wait unitl 4:00 the next day before taking off in a rescue schooner.

I won’t give the rest away – what comes of the children, what comes of the priest and the convicts, and what comes of the budding romance between Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Polynesian Beauty without eyesight – but it’s fairly compelling drama of the disaster film cum Problem of Evil with bare bones theological commentary in dramatic form. I think it’s worth seeing. I’ll also note that, thus far, Tracy has the edge over Guiness when it comes to movie priests. The Gruff Exterior is inherently more dramatic than a Saint or a Genius.

Overall rating: B
Priest factor: B+

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