Desert Fury: Burt Lancaster’s Colorful Noir Cowboy Style

Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury (1947)


Burt Lancaster as Tom Hanson, affable deputy sheriff

Nevada, Spring 1947

Film: Desert Fury
Release Date: August 15, 1947
Director: Lewis Allen
Costume Designer: Edith Head


Born 110 years ago today on November 2, 1913, Burt Lancaster’s connection to film noir begins with his screen debut in The Killers (1946), followed by performances in Brute Force (1947), I Walk Alone (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Criss Cross (1949), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957)—to name just a few of his noir credentials.

While the existence of “color noir” may sound contradictory, there were a handful of films made during the ’40s and ’50s that have been qualified as such, including the 1947 drama Desert Fury which maintains its noir techniques and themes but with lush Technicolor cinematography as opposed to the shadowy black-and-white typically associated with the style.

Let’s kick off #Noirvember in post-World War II Nevada, where Lancaster’s friendly Tom Hanson takes a break from serving as deputy sheriff in the fictional town of Chickawalla to practice his equestrian abilities.

Once a skilled rodeo rider, Tom gets thrown off his horse just in time for his new romantic interest, college dropout Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) to witness it. Tom’s boss, Sheriff Pat Johnson (James Flavin), assures Paula of Tom’s skill and his hope for a comeback despite a past injury and present cynicism. Tom and Paula take a ride through the desert mountains where he declares his love for her and his desire to buy a ranch and—less romantic—his suspicions about gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) having been involved in his wife’s death.

What’d He Wear?

Tom’s equestrian scenes are the only time in Desert Fury that he doesn’t wear his khaki deputy sheriff’s uniform, instead appropriately dressed for riding in a checked sports shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.

Made from a white-and-navy mini-shepherd’s check cloth, Tom’s shirt follows the typical design for sports shirts of the era, with a wide-pointed collar and two chest pockets—each rounded on the bottom and covered with a free-hanging flap that doesn’t button closed. The front has horizontal buttonholes for the buttons that fasten up a plain front (no placket). The highest button is positioned a few inches below the neck, which was designed to be worn open with the collar flat, though the effect is more like the “convertible collar” of contemporary military service shirts and less like the notched one-piece “camp collar”. The back has pleats on each side, allowing Tom a bit more comfortable movement while on horseback, and the long sleeves have narrow single-button cuffs.

Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury (1947)

Tom wears dark indigo selvedge denim Levi’s 501® jeans, identifiable by the telltale red tab sewn along the back-right pocket—a feature that had been introduced only a decade earlier. Desert Fury was produced during the latter half of 1946, so the latest Levi’s available for Tom would be the WWII-era S501XX.

Levi’s jeans had undergone nearly 70 years of transformation by the time the United States entered World War II. Tom’s Levi’s reflect the modernized 501 design (S501XX) that evolved in 1942, stripped down to the essentials in response to the government rationing metal, fabric, and thread during World War II. The most significant change finally removed the cinch-back in favor of the belt loops that had first appeared during the 1920s. For a time, Levi’s were produced with the seemingly redundant triple suspension system of belt loops, back cinch, and suspender buttons, but the removal of the latter two elements aligned the 1940s evolution of the 501 more closely with the 501 Original Fit jeans that Levi’s continues to produce more than 80 years later, complete with button fly and five-pocket layout. (You can read in much greater detail about the intricate history of Levi’s 501 jeans in Mads Jakobsen’s excellent chronicle for Heddels.)

The back-cinch may have been a long-overdue casualty of wartime rationing, but Levi’s was more remiss when the S501XX 1942 redesign [temporarily] discontinued the iconic arcuate stitch that had decorated the back pockets for more than a half-century. To maintain a sense of iconography, Levi’s applied the arcuate design across the pockets using orange paint, but this naturally didn’t have the lasting quality of the true arcuate stitch, which would be re-added in 1947. The 1942 restrictions also temporarily suspended the rivets on the crotch and right-side inset watch pocket, which would also be reinstated with the 1947 edition.

Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury (1947)

Earlier this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the original Levi Strauss & Co. patent, Levi's reintroduced its WWII-era model jeans with the 1944 501® Original Fit Selvedge Men's Jeans (albeit with the true arcuate stitch restored), released through the Levi's® Vintage Clothing brand. Price and availability current as of Nov. 1, 2023.

Tom wears the same dark brown tooled leather ranger-style belt that he wears with his khaki deputy sheriff’s uniform, recognizable for the shapely silver-toned buckle with its matching double keeper and end.

The belt coordinates with his dark brown leather cowboy boots, decorated with stitched calf-high shafts that get some extra exposure as Tom self-cuffs the bottoms of his jeans.

Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott in Desert Fury (1947)

Tom completes the look with a silverbelly felt cowboy hat, detailed with a pinched crown and narrow band of beige grosgrain that matches the fabric piping the edge of the hat’s brim.. Like the belt, this is the same hat that Tom wears with his deputy sheriff’s uniform.

Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott in Desert Fury (1947)

How to Get the Look

Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury (1947)

While off-duty in Desert Fury, Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster) wears a retro western twist on the tried-and-true fall staples of a checked shirt and jeans, styled for horseback with his silverbelly hat, tooled leather belt, and cowboy boots.

  • White-and-navy mini-shepherd’s check long-sleeved sports shirt with open-neck long-pointed collar, plain front, two chest pockets (with flaps), back side pleats, and narrow 1-button cuffs
  • Dark indigo selvedge denim 1940s-vintage Levi’s 501 jeans with belt loops, button-fly, five-pocket layout, and self-cuffed bottoms
  • Dark brown tooled leather ranger-style belt with shapely silver-toned buckle, double keeper, and end
  • Dark brown leather cowboy boots with decorative-stitched calf-high shafts
  • Silverbelly felt pinched-crown cowboy hat with narrow beige grosgrain band and edges

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

Leave a Reply