Monday, December 21, 2015

Movie review - "Wake of the Red Witch" (1948) ***

1948 was a big year for John Wayne - although technically an "A" star since Stagecoach in 1939, this that was the year he found himself ranked among the top ten most popular stars in North America for the first time. His best known credits for that year were Red River, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but this is a cheerful, unpretentious film which in its own way was influential - because Wayne's boat in the movie is called "Batjac", a name Wayne used for his own production company. It was made by Republic, the cheapie company that had Wayne under contract for many years, but they provided more money for his films around this time, especially this one, which was based on a best seller, and has boats and period costumes and stuff.

This is a south sea movie starring the Duke as a tough sea captain not unlike his role in Red River. There is a lot of plot - within the first ten minutes Wayne is scuttling a ship and going on trial and explaining all this back story. Indeed I feel there was too much plot in the film - it leapt around in time and had all these flashbacks and characters and got very complicated with trials and betrayals when the essential story was kind of simple: Wayne and Luther Adler hate each other because both love Gail Russell, who dies, and there are some valuable pearls at the bottom of the ocean defended by a nasty octopus.

There are two great things about this movie: the love story between Wayne and Russell which is well done; apparently the actors had an affair and I'm inclined to believe it because their chemistry is so good. Russell shone in these sort of tragic, poor-little-thing roles and Wayne commits emotionally.  (It's a genuinely good performance.)The second strong thing is the ending, when Wayne goes to retrieve the pearls - and dies. Full on!

Other good things - the production values are high, the support cast excellent including Gig Young and Henry Daniell.

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