Squandering its talent: Thunder Bay (Anthony Mann, 1953)


Thunder Bay reunites the director of Winchester ‘73 with three of its principal actors, James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Jay C. Flippen, but it’s definitely not a western. This film is about a pair of down on their luck entrepreneurs, Steve (Stewart) and Johnny (Duryea), who have a plan to build an offshore oil rig in the prime shrimping grounds of a small Louisiana town. Keen as I was to see Mann work with these particular actors again, I ignored the poor reviews – only to find that Thunder Bay is, indeed, a disappointing film.

Thunder Bay’s story is thin, with the occasional action scene that feels forced rather than necessary, and doesn’t serve any of its actors well. Stewart only has one moment in the entire film, a single reaction to good news, that requires him stretch himself at all. Johnny, meanwhile, is the devilish sort of role that Duryea should be able to charm and weasel his way through in his sleep (despite being more moral than how he’s usually cast) but the quality of dialogue just isn’t good enough to keep the character interesting. It doesn’t help that Stewart and Duryea are old enough that they shouldn’t be winning over women in their 20s with little more than a look, which puts a strain on the movie’s credibility.

Thunder Bay has some uncomfortable themes, when watched in today’s times. It’s all about oil, the necessity of it and the magnificence of it. Although the film clumsily says that oil and shrimping can coexist, this doesn’t lessen its insistence that oil take precedence over other industries and livelihoods. There’s also sexist attitudes, with the film’s most outspoken female getting slut shamed and treated like a shrill, unreasonable prude. The film’s dated, of course, but it doesn’t have enough good attributes for the bad ones to be tolerable.

Though Anthony Mann made significant contributions to the western and film noir genres, he had his share of lesser pictures, and Thunder Bay is one of them. I won’t hold it against him – here’s hoping Quickflix sends me Bend of the River sometime soon…


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