If there are faults with The Naked Jungle, ones not the result of having to follow the Hays Code–which the film skirts thanks to Ben Maddow and Ranald MacDougall’s excellent dialogue, Eleanor Parker’s fantastic, intelligent performance and Charlton Heston’s brute force approach–they fall on director Haskin. The film is well-directed with Parker and Heston’s character drama, even with the special effects heavy expository shots, but Haskin refuses to get too far into any characters’ perspective, which cuts down on the thrills.
Oddly enough, I just realized the film opens on a shot from Parker’s perspective. One she even discusses with co-star William Conrad. But, even when it would serve a scene to go with the character’s perspective, Haskin does not. He’s lucky the script and actors can carry it.
But that odd directing misstep, which is most problematic in the third act, can’t overshadow Haskin’s excellent work in the rest of the picture. Parker’s a mail order bride, Heston’s her plantation owner–an extraordinarily good one, the film carefully reveals–husband. They don’t get along. Parker does some great work from her first scene (that one with Conrad); she establishes herself quickly. Heston’s more of the one with the internal character arc. Parker–and the viewer–are basically just waiting for him to grow up. And it’s a lot of fun watching him grow up. On one hand, there’s this refined (while still playful), thoughtful performance from Parker. Heston’s not refined or even playful. He’s really good at being a complete jackass. He runs with it. It works out.
It’s forty-five minutes into The Naked Jungle before the possibility of action thrills get revealed, but then the script puts it off even more. The character drama is the most important part of the film. Once it’s resolved, then Heston gets to be an action star. Somewhat late into the thrills even–by the time he comes to the rescue, The Naked Jungle has gone through many of its excellent special effects process shots. Some great matte paintings in the film.
What makes the film so peculiar is the script. Maddow and MacDougall are deliberate in how they make work Parker and Heston’s relationship. Until they’re a duo, the action barely ever plays to anything but furthering their personal conflict.
It’s rather neatly done. And beautifully acted. Heston clearly loves the role as white savior, Parker’s magnificent, Conrad’s fun as serious comic relief. Great photography from Ernest Laszlo and an effective Daniele Amfitheatrof score round it off.
Directed by Byron Haskin; screenplay by Ben Maddow and Ranald MacDougall, based on a story by Carl Stephenson; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Everett Douglas; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; produced by George Pal; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Eleanor Parker (Joanna), Charlton Heston (Leiningen), William Conrad (Commissioner), Abraham Sofaer (Incacha), Norma Calderón (Zala), Romo Vincent (Boat Captain) and John Dierkes (Gruber).