“It’s hard for a man to be brave when he knows he is going to meet the devil at 4 o’clock.”
The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) was in planning at Columbia for several years before it was actually made. Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra were already signed for the two lead roles, but there were problems coming up with a director, apparently because no one was particularly thrilled with the script. Finally, veteran Mervyn LeRoy was persuaded to take on the task and actually spent some time himself massaging the script into its final form. Filming involved some work on a Hollywood sound stage and the use of miniatures, but most of it took place in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The resulting film was a modest hit, mainly relying upon the reputations of its stars. Columbia has now made The Devil at 4 O’Clock available on DVD in one of its now-seemingly-standard bare-bones classic releases.
Three convicts arrive by plane on the French island of Kalua, a stopover en route to Tahiti. Also on the flight is Father Perreau, a young priest who is to replace Father Doonan who has struggled for years to build a children’s hospital for lepers on the island. Father Doonan is scheduled to leave the island when the plane continues on its journey the next day. In the meantime, the convicts — Harry, Marcel, and Charlie — are placed in Father Doonan’s care and sent to repair a chapel near the hospital. In the course of the work, Harry meets Camille, a young blind woman who is the children’s nurse.
The next day, the island’s volcano erupts and an earthquake follows. Kalua’s governor makes a decision to evacuate the island. Father Doonan enlists the convicts’ help to get the children and staff from the hospital safely down the mountain to a boat that will wait until the following day before departing Kalua. The procession slowly makes its way down through poor weather and further volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, hoping that a key bridge spanning a deep gorge on the route will still be standing. Otherwise, they will all be stranded with little hope of survival.
Some people like to speak of The Devil at 4 O’Clock as a forerunner to the disaster films that were so popular a decade later. That’s of course true to some extent, but the picture is hardly alone among classic films in using a disaster as its central plot device and introducing a cast of varied characters whose fate is then played out as the disaster reaches its peak. Efforts such as San Francisco (1936, MGM), The Hurricane (1937, Goldwyn), The Rains Came (1939, Fox), and A Night to Remember (1958, Britain) all mined similar territory and to better effect.
That’s not to say that The Devil at 4 O’Clock is a terrible film. It’s passable entertainment with special effects that are quite well done given the budget available for them. The initial earthquake sequence and the climactic volcanic eruption are both effective. The difficulties lie more in a plot that drags and characterizations that are rather stale. The surprise is that both Sinatra and Tracy seem to have been attached to the project long before the script was finalized. Perhaps a bit of location work in Hawaii and maybe even the opportunity to work together overrode script considerations.
Whatever the reason, both of Sinatra’s and Tracy’s characters offer little that we haven’t seen done better by both actors in other films. Putting Tracy back in a clerical collar doesn’t recall the glory days of the late 1930s, nor does it compensate for the banal subject matter of the film, coming as it does as the follow-up to Tracy’s compelling work in Inherit the Wind (1960, UA). Sinatra gives us too much of his wise-guy, kiss-the-girl-and-she-swoons routine in the film’s first half. The rapid transformation to good-guy and saviour, all in a 24-hour period, doesn’t ring true, even though Sinatra works hard at it in the film’s second half. There’s little worthy of special mention among the rest of a cast that includes Kerwin Mathews, Jean Pierre Aumont, Alexander Scourby, and Barbara Luna.
Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is workmanlike, although he does capture well the chaos and fear involved in the initial earthquake and later manages some tension surrounding the weakening bridge as the children cross over it. The film’s final scenes are also effectively done, but to say more would spoil them.
Columbia’s DVD is not bad at all. The source elements appear to be in reasonable shape and the result is a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that is crisp, bright, and colourful for the most part. A couple of reels perhaps look a little soft, but the effect is not distracting. Speckling and debris is minor and edge effects are not a concern.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is quite adequate for the task, which mainly involves dialogue. The earthquake and volcano sound effects do not measure up to contemporary mixes, but seem to possess a little oompf beyond what might be expected from a standard mono track. Directional effects, of course, are nonexistent. A Portuguese mono track and English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.
Supplements are limited to three trailers, but at least the selection makes sense. We get the film’s original theatrical trailer, and trailers for two other Columbia releases — From Here to Eternity (a Sinatra film) and The Last Hurrah (a Tracy film).
Two Hollywood stars and a dependable veteran director don’t always combine to make a masterpiece, and that’s certainly the case with The Devil at 4 O’Clock. Stale characterizations and a script that drags out about 20 minutes too long are just too much to overcome, even with some nice special effects sequences. Columbia’s DVD is more than up to the task image-wise, although more effort on supplements would have been welcome.