Bill Knight column for Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, Aug. 7, 8 or 9
In “The Desert Fox” and “Desert Rats,” sunbaked soldiers wage war as they risk sunstroke. In “Beau Geste,” Alec Guinness and Paul Newman swelter in sweatboxes in “Bridge on The River Kwai” and “Cool Hand Luke.” French Foreign Legionnaires withstand stifling temperatures in Africa’s deserts. That continental hothouse also housed Tarzan, who hot-footed it through jungle underbrush like a treetop commuter.
So, pull up a tumbleweed, sip on a cool drink and escape into these movie mirages:
“Backdraft” (1991). Fire has a supporting role in this picture about Chicago firefighters and an arsonist. Kurt Russell and Robert DeNiro star in Ron Howard’s film.
“Body Heat” (1981). Kathleen Turner and William Hurt combust in this steamy thriller. Director Lawrence Kasdan uses shimmering images of heat to stress lust in the dust, a vibrant visual effect. Turner (in her film debut) is a smoking, smoky seductress; Hurt plays an enflamed attorney.
“Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965). Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello show a dizzy, Disney world as ever-optimistic teens frolicking on broiling beaches and scalding sand.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958). Elizabeth Taylor is the frustrated Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ scorching story about hot tempers and hot sex. Positioning for an inheritance is the subplot to a story of disappointment, ambition and greed. Co-starring are Paul Newman as a hard-drinking, ex-athlete son of dying Big Daddy (Burl Ives).
“The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (1962). This science-fiction movie asks, “Is it hot in here, or are we just hurtling toward the sun?” Atomic blasts at the North and South poles knock Earth off its orbit, in an accelerated global warming. (Newspaper editors prepare two front-page headlines: “World Saved” and “World Doomed” – never asking WHO WOULD BUY A NEWSPAPER in the latter situation.)
“Do the Right Thing” (1989). The heat’s presence propels the plot about racial tensions getting tighter with rising temperatures. It’s the hottest day of the year, and a pizza joint in a predominantly black New York City neighborhood becomes a flashpoint of unrest. Danny Aiello stars as the pizzeria owner, and director Spike Lee co-stars as a delivery man. The movie starts as a comedy, then becomes a study of racism’s roots.
“Donovan’s Reef” (1963). With John Wayne and Lee Marvin, director John Ford creates a funny buddy picture set in the South Seas, and viewers can almost feel burning breezes blowing through palm trees.
“Hellfighters” (1969). You’ll check the wick on your kerosene heater after watching John Wayne as a globe-trotting oil-derrick fire specialist. Vera Miles co-stars, but this isn’t a romance, it’s a roaster.
“Hideous Sun Demon” (1959). Released during the Cold War, this B-movie’s previews promised a “thermodynamic horror of outer space ... the blaze of noon made him a monster.” Actually, it was exposure to radioactivity from a nuclear power plant that changes a scientist into a walking blowtorch. The low-budget flick stars Robert Clarke, who also produced and directed (and maybe handled catering).
“In the Heat of the Night” (1967). Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger star in this deep-fat-fried suspense yarn about a cracker cop in muggy, small-town Mississippi helped by a Northern black detective on a murder.
“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). Peter O’Toole leads his camels across sand dunes bigger than glaciers in this epic about the Englishman who during World War I rallied rival Arab tribes into a unified force against Germany and ally Turkey. Director David Lean’s epic depicts the desert as a beautiful, menacing resource.
“Sahara” (1943). Humphrey Bogart plays a World War II tank commander stranded with his crew in the Libyan desert. The group seeks refuge in a fort with a dried-up well (Dang!), then survivors are attacked by thirsty Nazis. (Bogie, it should be noted, also starred in another heater, “African Queen.”)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). Set in New Orleans, Tennessee Williams’ drama revolves around love and lust “all in the family.” Vivien Leigh stars as a disturbed woman who gets by living a fantasy, disrupting the lives of her sister (Kim Hunter) and her bullying husband (Marlon Brando). Elia Kazan directed.