Naked Dawn, The (1955)

“I’m worth more — I work for my living! I take from no one!”

Naked Dawn Poster

Synopsis:
A bandit (Arthur Kennedy) visits the home of an impressionable newlywed couple (Eugene Iglesias and Betta St. John) and unwittingly changes their lives forever.

Genres:

Review:
Edgar Ulmer — best known for directing the B-level 1945 thriller Detour — made a handful of cult films throughout his career, including this effective little western set in Mexico. Taking place on oddly isolated terrain (likely a function of its low budget), the story focuses directly on the effects an “outsider” (Kennedy) has on the humble, seemingly happy marriage of two hardworking peasants, Manuel (Iglesias) and Maria (St. John). Manuel was previously content to simply work his land and plan for a family with his beautiful wife — but once Santiago (Kennedy) unwittingly involves him in a bout of theft and violence against a fence (Roy Engel), Manuel finds himself lusting after the money Santiago seems to obtain so easily. Meanwhile, Maria — who, it turns out, was essentially purchased by Manuel, along with the land they live on — is smitten by the idea of freedom with Santiago, and longs to leave with him.

Santiago (wonderfully played by Kennedy) is a most fascinating central character: a violent but even-handed bandit, his motivations stem from cynicism over failed revolutionary promises to provide land to all who fought for freedom. He shows genuine compassion when ministering to his dying partner (Tony Martinez) during the movie’s opening scene, and never intends to disrupt Manuel and Maria’s lives the way he ultimately does; indeed, Santiago is more of a catalyst than anything — an “innocent” spark who taps into both Manuel’s baser, greedy instincts, and Maria’s deeply rooted unhappiness. His reactions to their sudden revelations are refreshingly uncliched, and help to turn this modest little western into a most enjoyable “menage a trois”.

P.S. Truffaut famously noted that this film was an inspiration for his Jules and Jim (1962), but don’t look for literal similarities.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Kennedy as Santiago
    Naked Dawn Kennedy
  • An intriguing storyline
    Naked Dawn Trio

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ulmer’s most enjoyable B-movies. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Naked Dawn, The (1955)”

  1. First viewing. Not a must.

    While I can appreciate – as nicely described in the review here – the film’s unique quality, I don’t find it so compelling that special note should be taken.

    It’s easy to see why Kennedy would take on something this low-budget (at a time when many A-level actors did not do so); not only did he have the challenge of playing a Mexican, but the role itself is a meaty one for an actor.

    Unfortunately he’s not helped much by either Iglesias or St. John. Neither one is much of an actor and – being bereft of nuance – both serve to sink what might otherwise have been a better film. Iglesias is particularly hammy as greed rises.

    What would a sequel be called – ‘The Dawn With Clothes On’?

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