The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)
“They jumped into hell to save part of heaven.”
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, Kerwin Mathews
Synopsis: A crusty, eccentric priest recruits three reluctant convicts to help him rescue a children’s leper colony from a Pacific island menaced by a smoldering volcano.
The Devil at 4 O’Clock contained all the ingredients for a box-office hit: a pair of massive stars – one at his peak, the other whose halcyon days were behind him but who had settled comfortably into character roles; a dependable director in Mervyn LeRoy, and a race-against-the-clock disaster premise featuring an erupting volcano on a remote island. What could go wrong? Well, not that much actually – other than the fact that they’re all saddled with a laboured script and a running time that is a good twenty minutes too long.
Spencer Tracy, back in a dog collar once more, plays Father Matthew Doonan, a priest on the island of Kalua who has lost his faith after establishing a hospital for leprous children on the slopes of the island’s volcanic mountain. The hospital and its patients are shunned by the island’s inhabitants, who only grudgingly donate even modest goods because of Doonan’s constant haranguing. Onto this island come three convicts (Frank Sinatra, Gregoire Aslan, and Bernie Hamilton) en-route to Tahiti. On the day that Doonan is due to leave the island for good, the volcano erupts, stranding the children and medical staff in the hospital, and Doonan persuades the three convicts to help him guide the children back to safety.
Tracy and Sinatra are an odd combination, and although Tracy could play his character with his eyes closed, Sinatra is miscast as a hardened criminal who, together with his two fellow convicts, acquires salvation through redemption in a fairly unlikely manner. He’s too scrawny for a start, unbelievable as a leader of men in a brutal prison environment. The role called for a physically imposing type, a mercurial character, someone like Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster. The transformation of the convicts, undergone in a matter of a couple of scenes late in the film, never really rings true either, simply because so little time is given over to the matter – even though, at over two hours, the film feels a little bloated. Also skimmed over is the romance between Sinatra and Barbara Luna’s Camille, a blind girl from the hospital. The couple share one scene together, during which Sinatra‘s convict, not realising she is blind, hits on her quite blatantly, then, about an hour later, Tracy suddenly announces that he has married them. Talk about a whirlwind romance.
Overall, despite its glaring deficiencies, The Devil at 4 O’Clock provides passable entertainment, and the scenes in which the volcano finally erupts are particularly well-handled for its time.
(Reviewed 9th June 2012)