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THUNDER BAY (director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: Gil Doud/John Michael Hayes/story idea by George W. George, John Michael Hayes and George F. Slavin; cinematographer: William H. Daniels; editor: Russell Schoengarth; music: Frank Skinner; cast: James Stewart (Steve Martin), Joanne Dru (Stella Rigaud), Gilbert Roland (Teche Bossier), Dan Duryea (Johnny Gambi), Jay C. Flippen (Kermit MacDonald), Henry Morgan (Rawlings), Marcia Henderson (Francesca Rigaud), Antonio Moreno (Dominique Rigaud), Robert Monet (Phillipe Bayard); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Aaron Rosenberg; Universal-International; 1953)
“There’s not many directors other than Anthony Mann who could have made the rival wildcatters and shrimpers become so lovey-dovey and have it work out as well as it did.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The team of actors James Stewart and Dan Duryea and director Anthony Mann (“The Naked Spur”) unite again for another action film (one of eight that Stewart and Mann made together); it’s an old-fashioned Western but with oil rigs and shrimp boats instead of horses and stagecoaches. It came at a time Hollywood was threatened by television and to compete upped the ante in technology by showing this film in lush Technicolor (the cinematography of William Daniels was just wonderful) and for the first time on a wide-screen with a three-speaker stereo sound system in its NYC opening. The film touched on a real-life controversial issue taking place at the time between the local Louisiana fisherman and the oil industry. It was filmed on location in Morgan City and on a barge in the Mexican Gulf.

Steve Martin (James Stewart) and Johnny Gambi (Dan Duryea) are down-and-out oil riggers who talk embattled oil company president Kermit MacDonald (Jay C. Flippen) to gamble on them being the first offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico, even though he’s advised by his personal secretary Rawlings (Henry Morgan) not to do it because the board of directors don’t think there’s oil under the sea and are about to remove him from office if their company doesn’t begin to show a profit in the near future. Given the okay to start drilling in the shrimping town of Port Felicity by the president, also a dreamer and a risk-taker like Martin, the partners are told they have only three months to show results and then the leasing rights to explore the Gulf will expire. Martin is obsessed with bringing in the oil, while his ex-Navy buddy from wartime is a happy-go-lucky Johnny who only sees it as a job.

As expected trouble arises from many sources and the outsider wildcatters and the local shrimpers become enemies. Johnny steals local gal Francesca Rigaud (Marcia Henderson) from her longtime boyfriend and promised husband Phillipe (Robert Monet), while Martin has a more antagonistic relationship with her older and embittered sister Stella (Joanne Dru), who spent a few years in Chicago where her heart was broken by a city slicker just like these two dudes. Their shrimp boat captain father Dominique (Antonio Moreno) is struggling to survive, as shrimping has become bad. After the the oil platform is built on the sea, there’s a hurricane and a resentful Phillipe tries to blow it up with dynamite. After surviving those incidents there’s a blowout and then the wildcatters are informed by the president that the board of directors reneged on its promise and is cutting off paying the men’s salaries with a week to go and they are asked to stay on for an extra week without pay but receive promises of a $300 bonus if they strike oil. If that weren’t enough, the peaceful Dominique is incensed that Johnny married his daughter and she has run away with him. He rallies the town to form a crazed mob to attack the riggers and tear down there platform and kill them if they resist. It reaches its peaceful climax when oil is struck and the fisherman discover this is the location of the giant golden shrimp they were searching for, as they learn they only come out at night.

There’s much speechifying, barroom fights, and a blue-chip performance by Gilbert Roland in an incredulous role, in which only someone of his stature could pull off and make it semi-plausible, as he plays Teche Bossier a tough shrimp boat captain with a heart of gold who doesn’t despair when Stewart steals Dru from him and the wildcatters make it known they’re here to stay for good. It comes with a Hollywood-like happy ending that tries to avoid all the controversial issues such as environmental hazards by taking a patriotic stand that oil is what makes the country go and you can’t stop progress. The outcome has shrimpers and oil men willing to live with each other in harmony, saying there’s room for both (but not too subtly suggesting the oil men are more important). There’s not many directors other than Anthony Mann who could have made the rival wildcatters and shrimpers become so lovey-dovey and have it work out as well as it did.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”