Wendell Corey as Johnny Ryan, stone-cold mob enforcer
Nevada, Spring 1947
Film: Desert Fury
Release Date: August 15, 1947
Director: Lewis Allen
Costume Designer: Edith Head
In the spirit of #Noirvember, I want to celebrate an entry in the relatively rare “color noir” category as well as the career of Wendell Corey, the Massachusetts-born actor and one-time AMPAS President who died on this day in 1968.
Corey was a familiar face in classic film noir like I Walk Alone (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) before his perhaps most recognized performance as the skeptical Detective Tom Doyle assisting Jimmy Stewart‘s peeping amateur crime-solver in Rear Window (1954). It had been an impressive rise for an actor whose feature film debut had only been a few years earlier, appearing in Desert Fury (1947) as the gay-coded mob killer Johnny Ryan, right-hand man to smooth racketeer Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak).
Also starring Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster, with whom Corey would again co-star in I Walk Alone, Desert Fury joins contemporaries like Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Niagara (1953) as the rare examples of full-color movies that maintain enough of the themes, style, and sinister story elements of traditional film noir to still qualify for this classification.
“The desert… I’d personally give it back to the Indians,” Johnny moans as he and Eddie arrive in the fictional mining town of Chuckawalla, Nevada, where Eddie had been banished after his wife died under suspicious circumstances years earlier. First, Johnny, I don’t think the Indians would mind so much if you were the one to return their land. Secondly, maybe you wouldn’t have such disdain for the desert if you weren’t wearing tweed?
What’d He Wear?
Though Johnny’s wardrobe varies during their stay in Chuckawalla, his most prominent costume—worn for his and Johnny’s arrival and their departure with Paula (Lizabeth Scott)—is a black-and-cream herringbone tweed suit that presents a warm gray appearance.
After the end of fabric rationing following World War II, tailors took advantage of the more abundant material to them. Even generally simple suits like Johnny’s tweed clabber reflected this sartorial celebration after years of restrictions due to the Depression and the war, with fuller cuts, wider-shouldered jackets, and trousers resplendent with pleats and cuffs.
Johnny’s single-breasted suit jacket has wide shoulders with considerable padding, though the silhouette is still softer than Eddie’s more squared shoulders. Front darts add shape despite the generous cut, and the back is ventless. The notch lapels roll low to three buttons spaced closely at the waist, with the jacket otherwise traditionally detailed with its welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, and four-button cuffs.
When not orphaning the jacket with odd trousers, Johnny wears the suit’s matching trousers that rise appropriately high to Wendell Corey’s natural waist, where they’re held up with his usual narrow brown leather belt that closes through a rectangular leather-covered single-prong buckle. Consistent with the prevailing post-war tailoring trends, the trousers have double forward-facing pleats and cuffed bottoms. In addition to on-seam side pockets, the back pockets are jetted with a button to close the back left pocket only.
Johnny wears a pale-mauve shirt in a soft mottled fabric that hangs and wrinkles like linen or a linen blend, at least providing a comfortably light-wearing layer under the warm tweed suit. The shirt has a spread collar, front placket, straight back yoke, and double (French) cuffs. When he wears the shirt sans tie, we see the top of a white cotton crew-neck short-sleeved undershirt.
Generally abandoning neckwear after their first night in town, Johnny wears a simple black knitted wool tie for his and Eddie’s arrival in Chuckawalla.
Johnny eventually comes to resent Eddie romancing the blonde dropout Paula Heller (Lizabeth Scott), daughter of Eddie’s prior paramour Fritzi (Mary Astor). One night, he returns to the ranch wearing the jacket orphaned with odd trousers and a dark navy flannel sport shirt, layered under an olive gabardine raincoat and water-logged dark fedora. The coat has a long fly front, with only the button at the neck exposed and flapped patch-style pockets on the hips.
With all of his outfits, Johnny tends to wear plain brown leather derby shoes, with a pair of blue socks visible as he returns to the ranch that rainy night.
On his left wrist, Johnny always wears a silver-toned dress watch with a squared beige dial on a brown leather strap. A gold signet ring shines from his left pinky.
In the final act of Desert Fury, Eddie tells Johnny that he’s quitting the rackets and their partnership—and its myriad of implications—to stay with Paula in the desert. With the budding couple planning to skip town and get married, Johnny asks for a ride at least as far as Las Vegas, which was in the midst of its invention as America’s gambling mecca thanks to the likes of real-life racketeer Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
En route, the trio stop at a roadhouse for cigarettes, coffee, and a long-awaited confrontation, which Johnny punctuates by drawing his Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless semi-automatic pistol.
Introduced to the market in 1903, the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless quickly became a favorite of civilians and criminals alike for its shrouded hammer (it wasn’t exactly “hammerless”) that allowed it to be smoothly drawn from a pocket without any protrusions that could snag on clothing. Of course, its single-action operation and hair trigger would have been quite unsafe to carry in one’s pocket with a round chambered, even with its external thumb safety catch.
The Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless was initially offered for just .32 ACP ammunition with a variation for the .380 ACP available within five years, though this larger round meant one less could be loaded in the magazine. Colt produced these popular pocket pistols through the first half of the 20th century, when they were even issued to famous generals like Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, and George Patton, who had his grip panels decorated with the stars reflecting his rank. On the opposing end of the lawful spectrum, the pistol was also rumored to be in bank robber John Dillinger‘s trouser pocket when he was killed by FBI agents and police on July 22, 1934.
How to Get the Look
- Black-and-cream herringbone tweed suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pocket, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Pale-mauve linen shirt with spread collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Black knitted wool tie
- Brown leather narrow belt with leather-covered single-prong buckle
- Brown leather derby shoes
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
It’s funny, ain’t it? People think they’re seein’ Eddie and, all these years, they been really seein’ me. I’m Eddie Bendix. Why is it women never fall in love with me?