‘Thunder on the Hill’ or — Nun Noir?
I was expecting Douglas Sirk’s ‘Thunder on the Hill’ (1951) to be a film noir and even though it can certainly be labelled as such it doesn’t initially seem to start out that way, appearing to be more a melodramatic mystery than anything else at first… but only at first.
Want to know what it’s about? Okay, it opens with a great deluge battering a small Norfolk village with the residents desperately taking shelter in the local convent/hospital perched on a hill as flood waters rapidly rise, soon cutting the place off from the outside world. Amongst those seeking refuge is a policeman escorting a convicted murderer, Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth), to Norwich to be executed for poisoning her brother and, needless to say, poor Valerie is distraught at the prospect of her imminent demise. So distraught that Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert), who still feels guilt over her own sister’s suicide, is so moved by Valerie’s plight and so convinced of her innocence that she decides to save the young woman by setting out to discover who the real murderer is before the flood waters subside…
…and that’s when the noir elements really kick in.
So what we have here is a race against time murder-mystery with a story as preposterous and unbelievable as its artificial Norfolk setting but where a combination of some seriously energetic directing, roiling atmosphere, exuberant acting and a script containing some insanely ridiculous dialogue (at one point a character, on hearing a tintinnabulation, literally yells out “The bells!”) means ‘Thunder on the Hill’ is a blast to watch.
A lot of this excitement comes, not surprisingly, from Sirk’s masterful direction and handling of the material and characters, both in terms of psychology and physical space. A excellent example is when Valerie is playing the piano (nicely mimed by Blyth, I must add) whilst the storm rages outside (I never said this movie was subtle) only for the wind to suddenly blow open the window leading to Sister Mary frantically closing it. Yet the way Sirk has placed Mary in relation to the window (glimpsed through it at first) means even when the window is closed the sensation is that of the nun being located outside in the maelstrom whilst simultaneously standing inside the room. Either that or Mary is now containing all the violent, churning emotions that were too overwhelming for Valerie herself to endure. It’s a really remarkable touch and the film is crammed with moments like this.
The performances are all suitably passionate, especially Blyth who gets to deliver some truly great lines such as the moment when her Valerie realises being stranded by the storm will simply extend the torturous hours she’ll have to endure before her execution which has now been “postponed because of rain… like a cricket match!” (breaks down sobbing). I shouldn’t have been laughing at the poor girl’s plight but it was impossible not to. Then, when she’s reunited with her lover, we’re treated to the delightful “There are so many things I want to tell you and ask you… but now I can’t remember a single one” (breaks down sobbing).
There’s also some sly commentary going here as well because even though the film might seem relatively innocuous on the surface there’s some bite to this little beast. There’s a fantastic scene where the Mother Superior excoriates Sister Mary for blindly following her dogmatic belief in her own unassailable rightness regarding Valerie’s innocence, yet all you have to do is take the Mother Superior’s words and place them in someone’s else mouth unchanged and they could just as easily, and convincingly, be an attack on the church and organised religion itself.
‘Thunder of the Hill’ might not be top-grade classic Sirk but fans of his style, framing and camera moves etc will find tonnes to gorge themselves on here (without the distraction of Technicolor it’s actually easier to see what he’s doing in terms of composition).
Although it does raise an interesting question — why the application of such style to this type of material? In order to flex artistic muscles for the sake of visual panache? To elevate middling narratives to a higher aesthetic level? Having seen three Sirk films in the last ten days I suspect the answer can be summed up in a single, glorious word — “subversion”.