Tracy & Sinatra Fail to Erupt
It is said that for a while "The Devil at 4 O'Clock" couldn't get a director because no one was that impressed with the story and whilst Columbia finally got themselves Mervyn LeRoy I can sort of see why no one wanted to touch it. It doesn't really have a strong enough central premise as the first half is all about a priest having lost his faith and the second is a disaster movie as we have a volcano threatening an island. In means that whilst the first half is semi interesting the second feels rather mundane and whilst there are some surprises doesn't have that dramatic adrenalin fuelled action of disaster movies which came a decade later. Don't get me wrong as "The Devil at 4 O'Clock" is entertaining and the differences to later disaster movies are good but when it's over it's not the sort of movie which will leave you with any lasting impression despite featuring the talents of Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra.
On their way to Tahiti a plane carrying 3 prisoners and a priest make an over night stop at an island where Father Joseph Perreau (Kerwin Mathews) is due to replace resident priest Father Matthew Doonan (Spencer Tracy - Desk Set) as it has come to the notice of the Cardinal that Doonan has lost his faith and found the bottle. But things become dangerous when the volcano on the island erupts and Father Doonan along with the 3 prisoners attempt to rescue the patients and staff from a hospital for children and leprosy high up on one side of the mountain.
So "The Devil at 4 O'Clock" is very clearly a movie of two halves with the first half focussing on what happened to Father Matthew Doonan for him to lose his faith, turn to drink and for a new priest to be sent to the island to replace him. It is interesting partly because Spencer Tracy does a decent job of playing a man of the cloth who has become angry and bitter with everyone he meets. But whilst we wonder why Father Doonan has lost his religion the answer is sort of served up on a plate when the replacement priest talks to the Doctor at the hospital which Doonan set up and learns all about what happened to him. It is still all very interesting and very believable but it is a case than rather learning a bit of a time we get the whole history in one lump.
Alongside this story of Doonan's loss of religion we have some entertainment from 3 prisoners who he forces to help out repair a roof at the hospital he built, a hospital for children with leprosy. It's not much of a story but basically introduces two important elements, the uneducated fear of leprosy and that Harry a prisoner meets Camille a beautiful blind woman who Father Doonan is protective off.
The second half of "The Devil at 4 O'Clock" is where it becomes a disaster movie and a bit of a contradiction. On one hand we have some stunning effects, the actual volcano erupting is stunning as are the shots of the lava flows, even the shot of a plane flying close to the erupting volcano is good although there is the irony of no fear of volcanic ash. Then comes the attempt of Father Doonan and the prisoners to lead the children and staff to safety down the mountain, navigating through the lava flows and dealing with various obstacles. But none of this is that exciting, there is no real sense of impending doom and it makes it feel very disconnected. Although what is nice is that whilst some people typically meet their maker there are some surprises as to who does die.
That sense of being disconnected unfortunately extends to the performances from stars Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy despite both delivering good characters. When you understand that at the time of making Tracy was ill and could only really work during the morning whilst Sinatra only worked in the afternoons it sort of makes sense of why the atmosphere between their characters never materialises. But despite that Tracy does deliver bitterness as Doonan whilst Sinatra delivers a character who goes on a personal journey of growth. And whilst there are these disconnects the rest of the cast which includes Barbara Luna as Camille, Bernie Hamilton as Charlie and Grégoire Aslan as Marcel all deliver enjoyable performances.
What this all boils down to is that "The Devil at 4 O'Clock" is an entertaining movie, a sort of forerunner to the disaster movies which would arrive a decade later. But it is also flawed mainly from being disconnected on various levels from being a movie of two halves to the lack of atmosphere between co-stars Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy.