“Madonna of the Desert” (1948)
The slightness of “Madonna of the Desert” might not be evident to those who have never seen a motion picture of any kind. However, those with even minimal exposure to the medium may be prone to experience a continuous sensation of what be most accurately described as a form of humdrum dramatic reincarnation.
Though the film is ostensibly a crime drama, its screenplay is disproportionately indistinguishable from the manufactured patchwork of spritely though substantively vacuous banter (especially between the figurative femme fatale and her ‘mark’) typical of Golden Age Hollywood assembly line creativity, with exchanges tonally consistent in manner of charming insubstantiality which makes a conversation between two housewives over coffee as interchangeable as a murderous gangster outlining his latest scheme with his moll. The homogenized artificiality of these exchanges, more concerned with adhering to the moral formality advanced by the Production Code rather than more complex human exchanges led to the featuring of dialogue passing for a cleverly stylized form of communication, where every utterance is a droll bon mot or a polemic designed a pseudo-Freudian analysis of either introspection or a critical analysis of the narrative itself (predating the curious art form that was television soap opera writing, where every line of dialogue is a barely disguised plot synopsis).
Nor does the dreary verisimilitude of everyday routine intrude upon this typical Studio System example of heightened representations of the commonplace, where selective actions are sufficiently strung together to give the illusion of expeditious purposefulness. No one ever washes a dish without this simple act becoming a portent of often incongruous narrative development. Yet, rather than enhancing the storytelling experience, this brand of authorial artifice encourages a formulaic blandness; one in which the scenarios are preposterously ignorant of logic and populated by characters whose primary preoccupation is, inexplicably, in the avoidance of logical action.
And so it goes with “Madonna of the Desert”, whose plot is constructed around the most uncomplicated of premises: the attempt to steal a rare and valuable statue of a Madonna that has somehow become a family heirloom in the possession of a fruit farmer. It is a vaporous premise whose simplicity of conception might anticipate a brisk if unhurried melodramatic unfolding, but instead emerges as a brief though cluttered mélange of underworld shenanigans of such ridiculously unlikely convolution that in tying up all of its unharmonious elements, the film swerves to an uncharacteristic narrative road less traveled in the form of an abrupt cathartic intrusion of a spiritually transformative epiphany. Taken at face value, the narrative threads converge with a particularly awkward struggling of forced interjection of Production Code breast beating, resulting in an insoluble mixture of cornpone James M. Cain by way of Cardinal Spelling.
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