Friday, February 08, 2008

Movie review - Ladd #31 - "Hell on Frisco Bay" (1955) ***1/2

A star vehicle for Alan Ladd, the second film for Ladd’s own production company, Jaguar, under its deal with Warner Brothers. Jaguar had bought the rights to William McGivern’s novel “The Darkest Hour”, about a cop who is released from San Quentin five years after being falsely convicted of manslaughter. (McGivern also wrote the novels on which the films The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954) were based. Scripts for both those films were written by Sydney Boehm, who co-wrote Hell on Frisco Bay.)

It's one of the better films Ladd made for Jaguar , helped considerably by the addition of some first rate support, notably Edward G Robinson, William Demarest, Paul Stewart and Joanna Dru, and a decent story. It’s very well tailored for Ladd’s image: he treats a woman with disdain (Dru, as his ex-wife), he has a loyal pal (Demarest), has a scene where he’s nice to a little kid, and gets to act tough against an imposing bad guy (Robinson) and his flunkies.

There's also an impressive array of support characters: not just gangster Robinson, but Robinson’s dopey nephew and religious wife; Robinson’s henchman who is in love with a former star (Fay Wray!); the tough guy who won’t turn stool pigeon because of his kid and the kid; a corrupt copper.

Australia’s own Rodney Taylor (as he was then billed) plays a henchman of Edward G Robinson who is chased down by Ladd – Ladd gets to beat him up (or rather his stunt double) and he also has a scene with Robinson. He’s good too – the American accent wasn’t completely there at this stage, but he’s a good looking, charismatic performer. Another added attraction if Dru singing (or miming) to two classic songs in the Warner Bros catalogue, ‘It Had to Be You’ and ‘The Very Thought of You’.

This is as good as some of the stuff Ladd made during his Paramount heyday – indeed, it’s a shame at times its in colour instead of black and white (although the colour photography is useful for some of the brief location footage). It holds up well, particularly on television. There’s a silly moment at the end when Robinson is pointing a gun at Dru and Ladd says “you don’t have the guts to pull the trigger” - way to go gambling with your wife’s life there, Ladd – but as compensation there’s a decent fight between Ladd and Robinson’s doubles on a boat across San Francisco harbour.

Ladd had an unusual appeal – a sort of expressionless angel face, with a wonderful deep speaking voice, tight frame, tough guy disdain. With women he was take-it-or-leave-it; with guys he was tough and warm or just tough. This film earned an estimated $2 million in rentals.

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