Make Haste to Live

Released March 25, 1954: MAKE HASTE TO LIVE, starring Dorothy McGuire, Stephen McNally, and Mary Murphy.  Directed by William A. Seiter (You Were Never Lovelier, Lover Come Back, Borderline).  This film opens with a disturbingly creepy scene in which a shadowy figure enters Dorothy McGuire’s home in the middle of the night while she sleeps.  Making his way to her bedroom, he stands in the dark, watching her.  McGuire is eventually startled out of her slumber by the intruder’s presence, but finds nothing when she inspects the house.  However, in the distance we hear someone get into a car and drive off.  This eerie introduction establishes the dire condition of McGuire’s life.  We come to learn that nearly twenty years ago, she lived in Chicago where she fell in love with, and married, a violent gangster (Stephen McNally).  She did her best to endure McNally’s lifestyle and abuse, but decided to flee the marriage when she discovered she was pregnant, refusing to raise her child in a malevolent environment.  Shortly thereafter, McNally was involved in the accidental death of a woman, but due to the condition of the body, she couldn’t be positively identified, so the authorities assumed it was McGuire, and McNally was sentenced to twenty years for murdering his wife.  McGuire was too afraid to return to Chicago to prove McNally didn’t kill her, and eventually settled in Candlewood, NM, where she ran the local paper and raised her daughter (Mary Murphy), never telling anyone about her past.  Twenty years later, her worst fears are realized when McNally is paroled and shows up in Candlewood, pretending to be her long lost brother.  Bent on revenge, he moves into her home, takes all her money and savings, wins over his “niece”, and threatens to kill McGuire, who now finds herself desperate to get away once again.  Dorothy McGuire’s performance is the centerpiece of this film.  She shines as a protective mother who will do almost anything to ensure no harm comes to her daughter.  Living under extreme pressure, she must balance her seemingly normal external life against the strain of McNally’s increasingly threatening demands.  McGuire’s innate sincerity and inner moral strength keep us invested in the story and we can’t help but root for her to prevail in this impossible situation that has no apparent way out.  For his part, McNally presents an insidiously menacing foe.  Outwardly cordial and friendly, but constantly scheming, he manages to stay one step ahead of any ideas McGuire has to extricate herself and her daughter from his oppressive presence.  However, in spite of the compelling story and McGuire’s stellar performance, the film doesn’t deliver the expected level of tension or suspense.  McGuire’s ordeal is distressing, but the film stops short of making the audience squirm with discomfort.  This is likely due to the prevailing censorship rules of the era.  Nowadays, McGuire’s predicament would be depicted with much more harrowing realism, which isn’t necessarily an improvement, but some added tension would enhance the overall narrative.  Working in the film’s favor are the many location shots in New Mexico.  Even by the mid-1950s, Candlewood and Albuquerque appear to be nothing more than small frontier towns, and the archeological excavation sites in the nearby Native American pueblos provide a memorable and unique setting.  As often happens in films of this type, the climactic finale wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, but not before tossing in an unexpected twist of misdirection.  In the final sequence, McGuire leads an unwitting McNally to the edge of a bottomless pit within the pueblo labyrinths, presenting the perfect opportunity to cleanly do away with him once and for all.  The seeds for this outcome were planted early in the film when we were introduced to the mysterious pit, and it seems like the obvious culmination.  But unexpectedly, McGuire’s strong moral compass takes the ending in a different direction, which may disappoint some viewers, but when viewed in context, stays true to the character’s inner motivations.  Look for Edgar Buchanan and Carolyn Jones in small supporting parts.  Both would achieve notoriety as stars of 1960s TV sitcoms Petticoat Junction (1963-70) and The Addams Family (1964-66) respectively.  We give Make Haste to Live 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

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